Singaporean seeks to help Timor Leste fulfil its potential

Dr. Heyzer with Timorese women and girls in the remote mountain village of Mauxiga

By: Nirmal Ghosh Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok

ON A trip to Dili in Timor Leste last month, United Nations undersecretary-general Noeleen Heyzer spent an hour and a half in private talks with Mr Xanana Gusmao, the Prime Minister of a country of just over a million people that won its hard-fought independence from Indonesia 11 years ago.

The undersecretary came out with the reassuring conviction that Timor Leste's leadership "has a genuine desire to make things work and is really going all out", she said in an interview with The Straits Times.

"The Prime Minister told me, the country has paid a very high price for its freedom and I will do everything I can to make it work. The best thing is, I have some money to make it possible. But I don't have the people."

Money is not a problem because of Timor Leste's Petroleum Fund. Revenue from offshore oil in the Timor Sea is the backbone of the economy. But the challenge in one of the region's poorest nations is how to manage it for future generations, while ensuring that economic growth has a more diversified base and is socially equitable.

Newly appointed as an adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Timor Leste, Dr Heyzer, 65, is the most senior Singaporean in the UN, and brings with her a closet full of international awards for leadership. She sees her main task as ensuring that the promise of Timor Leste is not squandered, by getting the right talent to help rebuild the country ravaged by conflict.

Dr Heyzer, a mother of 35- year-old twin daughters, has been called ambitious, energetic and above all, effective. Her leadership of the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem) from 1994 to 2007 propelled it from relative obscurity to a prominent voice on issues concerning women and development, assisting more than 100 countries in formulating agendas and policies that promote women's rights and security.

Subsequently, when she moved to Bangkok as executive secretary of the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), she shook up that organisation too, injecting a vitality and proactiveness not seen before.

Her appointment as adviser on Timor Leste will give her another chance to shine, a former UN employee who worked with her in the past, told The Straits Times.

"This is the sort of role that seems designed for her," he said, requesting anonymity. "She has spent decades working on large issues. Now, she gets to work on a specific country and focus on a specific people. It's the kind of assignment she will excel at."

Timor Leste, formerly known as East Timor, was a Portuguese colony for generations before Lisbon withdrew in 1975, leaving a resource-rich but poverty-stricken land which was swiftly taken over by Indonesia.

At least 100,000 Timorese died during Indonesia's 25-year occupation, which ended in 1999. These included at least 250 people in the capital Dili on Nov 12, 1995, when Indonesian forces opened fire on a pro-independence procession at a memorial.

The post-independence period has seen more conflict, but the country has also built good relations with its neighbours, including Indonesia. Timor Leste now wants to be a part of Asean and sees itself as a bridge between Asia and the Pacific island states and Australia.

"This country has obviously survived a lot. Despite some of the setbacks that it has had, it has also progressed tremendously in terms of dealing with peace building and reconciliation, especially with Indonesia," said Dr Heyzer at her 15th-floor office in the UN building in Bangkok.

While the people are impoverished with a significant degree of child malnutrition, and the layer of enlightened political leadership and capable administrators is very thin, with no real middle class in a population that is 70 per cent rural, Timor Leste also has a number of unique assets apart from its oil.

It is a country in waiting. Timor Leste, where some 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30, remains relatively isolated, and the infrastructure and connectivity that is required for it to thrive in the digital era is lacking. It also has to pay a high import bill because it has no manufacturing to speak of. It has vast marine resources, but no infrastructure to adequately capitalise on them. It is a topographically beautiful country with vast tourism potential, but getting there is expensive.

"Some of (the leaders') frustration is that the issue is notmoney," said Dr Heyzer. "The issue is: We need capacity to turn the money into long-term foundations - the building blocks. I have never been to a least developed country, conflict affected, classified as fragile, where money is not a problem.
"What we need is the expertise, the knowledge, capacities and partnerships to help us use this money wisely, they say."

"There is a recognition of the problem. There are struggles, but what is very exciting is the issues are known to the leaders. And the leaders are extremely committed to making it work. They want a more inclusive society - politically, socially and economically. They are aware that they need to build institutions that can deliver development and handle democratic governance," she added.

"One of the things I need to do, is try to get the right type of people to accelerate... this inclusive and sustainable development."

 

BACKGROUND STORY

TAILOR-MADE FOR THE JOB

This is the sort of role that seems designed for her... She has spent decades working on large issues. Now, she gets to work on a specific country and focus on a specific people. It's the kind of assignment she will excel at.
- A former UN employee who worked with the UN undersecretary-general in the past

THE BIG CHALLENGE

The Prime Minister told me, the country has paid a very high price for its freedom and I will do everything I can to make it work. The best thing is, I have some money to make it possible. But I don't have the people.
- Dr Noeleen Heyzer