Welcome to another special edition of #Neue9to5.
Earlier this month, the Neue team had the pleasure of meeting Her Excellency Nicola Rosenblum, the High Commissioner of Australia to Brunei Darussalam.
This week, we’ll find out What’s Neue with His Excellency Mehmet Suat Akgun, Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Brunei Darussalam.
First 9 Questions:
1. You have been Turkey’s Ambassador to Brunei since November 12, 2016. What do you think about Brunei today that may be different than what you first expected when you arrived here?
Honestly, throughout my career of almost 28 years I have never been involved in Southeast Asian affairs.
So it was all very new for me.
I only expected a hot climate.
I had no really professional knowledge about the region or specifically about Brunei.
So I came here with an open mind.
Everything that I’ve seen here thus far surprises me.
It’s one of the golden opportunities of my job. Wherever you are posted, it’s going to be a difference culture. And although there are similarities between Brunei and Turkey -- such as social commonalities stemming from our common religion or strong family ties -- it’s a different country … with different people, different mindset, different taste, etc.
So I believe a diplomat’s life is something very enriching -- to an extent that I am able to grasp something from Bruneian culture. I will feel richer on my way back home to Turkey compared to the very first day I stepped foot in Brunei.
2. How does one become an ambassador?
In Turkey, there are 2 systems. In certain foreign services, you are always a career diplomat -- you’ll start from zero and you’ll become an ambassador in a certain time, depending on the size of the foreign service. Some countries are faster, some are slower. Well, in our (Turkey’s) case, normally it’ll take some 25 years to be an ambassador.
In some countries, ambassadors are politically assigned people.
So if there is a change in administration, all these people will change.
In Turkey, we used to stick to the first model until recently.
Then the current government took a decision to also appoint ambassadors from outside the foreign service world.
So we have a combination of the two -- we have career diplomats (I’m one of them) and there are those who are politically assigned.
3. What is the role of ambassador in this modern world?
I would say there has been a big change because compared to old times, some of the traditional functions of diplomats or ambassadors still continue but there are new ones too.
Those we carry on from the old days is, of course, representation of your country.
In Brunei, for example, there are not many people who know about Turkey.
Those who have much knowledge, they’d know Istanbul of course.
Now through the hot-air balloons, many people here may hear about Cappadocia. But they may not know too much about it in depth.So one of my tasks is to promote Turkey -- not just about its economic life, dynamic economy and business opportunities, but also its culture and touristic attractions, etc.
On the other hand, I feel that I have another job, which is never written anywhere. And that is promote Brunei Darussalam to my country.
Because of the distance between our two countries (more than 8,000 kilometers) and not that many people-to-people contact because of distance possibly … not many people in Turkey know about Brunei Darussalam.
Through our social media activities, I make it a point promote Brunei now and then so that the people of Turkey will get more familiarised with Brunei be it business opportunities, touristic/cultural aspects, etc .
It is hoped that through this efforts, the people of Brunei and Turkey. will get to know each other much better and thus, strengthen the relationship between our two countries.
4. You’ve been the Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Brunei Darussalam for almost 4 years now. Can you share with our Neue readers what has been your most fond memory thus far?
I’d like to point out that this is my first assignment as an ambassador. So I would say presenting my credentials to His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam was definitely one very important moment in my life.
Other than this, maybe today after spending almost three and a half years in Brunei, I take things more granted. But I remember very well when I first came to Brunei during the first one or two years, I was taken a lot of photos of clouds, green and everything was so wonderful.
I still continue to take photos. Maybe a little less because I’m used to it now.
And this is something unavoidable. It’s human nature … when you start seeing the same thing over again (say more than 15 times), it’s naturally for things to become less interesting.
But I must admit I still enjoy Brunei’s beautiful sunsets and clouds. And last but not least, Brunei’s monkeys! I try not to miss them.
In fact, earlier this month, we have a neighbouring land that is undeveloped. It’s just wild jungle. Would you believe if I told you that I saw a pangolin there?
Brunei is certainly full of surprises! It was only thanks to my dogs who alerted me saying that “something” was there. At times, it would be a snake, other times it would be a monitor lizard. This time though (2.30 in the morning) I woke up and went down to see what was going on … and I was “awarded” so to speak to see a pangolin face-to-face.
Unfortunately, it was too dark so I could not take a clear photo. It’s certainly not National Geographic quality.
5. There’ve been a number of developments between Brunei and Turkey. Retrospectively speaking, what positive developments have you found most satisfying or rewarding for you thus far?
This is both a difficult and easy question.
We had some high-level visits mutually.
For instance, His Majesty visited Turkey three times, while our President visited Brunei in 2012 when he was Prime Minister. And most recently, the Foreign Minister of Turkey visited Brunei in November 2018.
Next year, Brunei will assume the role of chair in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the Sultanate will be hosting a lot of ASEAN meetings. The Turkish Foreign Minister will be returning to Brunei I assume to attend these meetings. This will also give us the chance to hold bilateral talks.
As an ambassador, I’m never satisfied. I always want to have more. I would always want to see more relationship, more cooperation. And when the day comes that I say I am satisfied, I shall return back home to Turkey.
I have a lot of motivation right now.
There is a lot to do between our two countries.
6. To love a country is to know that country, thus promoting tourism would probably be the best way to strengthen cultural and people-to-people relations. What would you like to see accomplished that will further facilitate or promote visits between our two countries?Turkey is one of the most popular tourism destinations worldwide. That said, I think promote Turkey is not an issue.
But on the other hand as I said the people of Turkey may not know too much about Brunei.
Look, Brunei is a small country. It’s no secret.
People need serious reasons to come all the way here to have their let’s say summer holiday. People normally go on holiday once a year and if they come to this region, I’m sure they would want to have a full-fledged vacation (let’s say 10-15 days).
In Brunei, we can accommodate Turkish tourists for maybe 3 to 4 days. But the rest is a little free and easy.
What I tried to do before was to combine a few things like Singapore, Brunei, and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak depending on the interest of the people. Let’s say if they are more curious in terms of intellectual or cultural things, traditional way of life, etc, they could go to Kuching. Otherwise if they want to see the sea, beach and sun, diving, they could consider travelling to Kota Kinabalu.
Unfortunately, this has not worked yet. But this is not something that I’ve totally given up.
I’ll still work on this possibility to prepare a Singapore + Borneo package.
We have forest in Turkey, but we do not have rainforests.
In Turkey, you cannot see crocodiles. You don’t see proboscis monkeys. We don’t have them.
Or if people are lucky (like me) they’d be able to catch a glimpse of a pangolin at 2 or 3 in the morning.
So we must try to promote all these things but it will require more efforts than an embassy.
I think that airlines should be involved. The same goes with travel agencies.
Of course, Brunei’s local authorities should also be involved. The same goes for Singapore and Malaysia.
So if we can put all these willingness in the same direction together, I think there will be synergy.
7. You raised a very good point. All these responsibilities should just fall on the shoulders of an embassy. At the end of the day, It’s a collective effort. We here at Neue are quite hopeful for the future. After all we have our national carrier RB (Royal Brunei Airlines) with its RB links connecting various parts of Borneo. Do you have anything to add to this?
Now that Indonesia is planning to move its capital to Borneo, I think it will unavoidably bring a lot more dynamism and activism in the island. That said, we are optimistic.
8. Last year, the Embassy of Turkey and Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) held a Turkish Week, which featured a photo exhibition as well as opportunity to share culinary experiences. Are there any other events that our Neue readers could look forward to this year?
It’s a little difficult for us to bring Turkish cultural artifacts from Turkey to Brunei for exhibitions. So far, in the last 3 years, we have invited musicians -- a classical music group and a jazz group -- who performed wonderfully for the public.
This was another unforgettable moment for me here in Brunei. I was so proud to see that the people of Brunei enjoying it very much.
But other than cultural promotion, we attach more importance to public diplomacy events.
This is why I open my embassy to Bruneian artists as well.
We have had 2 exhibitions -- one was with the Creative Space Gallery ‘Emerging Bruneian Artist’.
We have a holding room and a reception hall where we exhibited their paintings.
Last year, we exhibited 40 or more paintings of Haji Dayang, a veteran artist of Brunei. That was a great event.
Now we are planning 3 more events for the year 2020. One that is fast approaching is an event that will run from February 1 to 8, we will be organising an event where on the one hand, we will be exhibiting underwater photos taken by Ms Cecelia Lee.
But at the same time, we want to make this exhibition part of a bigger picture -- we want to use this opportunity to make people think once again that these beautiful sceneries are endangered.
And the reason is because of humankind. We unfortunately do not appreciate nature and do not know how to protect it.
Plastics and trash are scattered all over nature.
Outside the exhibition, we will set up some installations to make people feel as if they are underwater and living with all these trash.
We do not want it to be a static exhibition. We will use the venue for interaction between different NGOs to get together with their audiences -- say potential volunteers they would like to mobilise or schoolchildren they would like to increase their awareness about the environmental issues.
Ms Cecelia will also address people who are into diving, outdoor sports, etc.
We want to use this platform as another chance to make people aware of such problems.
I think we should not stop talking about this.
This is the only way to keep ourselves alerted and informed about such issues.
In 2020, there will also be 2 separate painting exhibitions by 2 very prominent and veteran artists.
All these cooperations is a matter of honour for me to be able to cooperate with them and provide them the Turkish Embassy as a platform for them to display their work.
9. The start of 2020. Thoughts?
First off, I’d like to wish a happy, healthy, wealthy and peaceful New Year to everyone -- both on the occasion of the New Year 2020 and Chinese New Year.
However, the year did not start well, especially in Turkey’s neighbourhood where tension is prevailing. But I also expect that common sense will prevail because such wars or tensions do not profit anyone.
I think there are more urgent global issues that we need to address in harmony among the entire human … if I may say so community.
This will require common efforts by everyone. So I think humankind should find the best way to put their differences aside or find peaceful ways to solve these problems and create a synergy to rather address global issues that if we do not tackle today, it will be much more difficult for our children and grandchildren to address such problems.
And I think that we should feel the responsibility today -- even if we cannot fix, we should start things off the right way -- like saying no to plastics, etc. There are things that we can do and there is no time to waste any longer.
Last 5 Questions:
1. Are you a cat person or a dog person?
I do not like this question. Because the question suggests that I have to make a choice which I cannot.
I was raised a dog person. Growing up, my family had a German Shepherd. We literally grew up together. We lived together for 11 years. And I lost her because of breast cancer. After that we did not have another dog.
When I married my wife, she came with 2 cats. Prior to that, I had never lived with cats. But I always liked cats.
If you like animals, you cannot say “I like dogs but not cats” or “I like one dog but not the other”.
It should be a general feeling so I love ALL animals … except reptiles with all due respect.
So when my wife came with 2 cats, I quickly became a cat person as well.
To answer your question, I am both a cat and dog person 🙂
2. How many cats you have in Brunei?
In Brunei, I have 3 Bruneian cats. All of them I kind of rescued -- one came with a car-hit problem at the embassy so I had to keep her for treatment and then after sleeping together on the same bed for about a month, I could not let her go after she was fully healed. So to answer your question, I have 3 cats at home.
But at the Turkish Embassy here in Brunei, we have one indoor cat named Miko who has serious cataract problem so she cannot survive outside. And since all my colleagues at the embassy are all cat lovers, we decided to keep this particular cat indoors.
All the other cats here at the embassy carry the embassy emblem with anti-flea collars.
We are one big family here.
3. What kind of sports are you into?
I started doing sports like all Turkish children -- football in the street.
And at secondary school, I started playing table tennis and basketball.
When I went to university, I started playing handball and I was also rowing in a professional club.
Well then of courses I should say I started like almost all children, bicycling.
Bicycling was something I turned to when I was posted to Brunei.
When I have free time here in Brunei, I ride my bicycle.
Admittedly, I do not practise much sports in Brunei.
4. Any sports you picked up while in Brunei?
I picked up archery in Brunei after trying it out 3 years ago during Brunei’s first December Festival.
With one of my embassy friends here, I signed up for an archery class. I’m proud to say we got our certificates and I’m now a first-level archer in Ar-Rafi Archery Brunei.
On a side note, I’d like to point out that we are now sending 3 Bruneian archers for a Turkish archery training, which is being sponsored by Turkish authorities, Yunus Emre Institute. And the training will be given by Turkish Archers’ Foundation in Istanbul. This is one of the elements linking our two countries.
5. What would you like to say to our Neue readers?
As I assume most of Neue’s readers are Bruneians, I’d like to point out that I have been in posted in Brunei for almost 3 years and 3 months, I want to say ‘Thank You’ to everyone for their very warm hospitality. I met lots of friendly people. I can’t say that I met everyone. When I found there were 420,000 in Brunei, I assumed I could meet almost everyone one during my time here.
But I’m proud to say that I’ve met lots of nice people, very interesting people and dynamic people.
I’ve also had the pleasure of collaborating with them.
I feel honoured whenever I have the opportunity to do so.
When the time comes for me to go back to my country, I will leave Brunei with very fond memories. The beautiful scenery will always be in my mind.
I can do that after 28 years experience in this job.
When I close my eyes, I will have flashbacks of my previous postings in Athens, Tehran, Belgium, etc.
Brunei being the last one, I believe the memories will be very fresh in my mind.
And who knows, I may come back to visit Brunei.
Big capital letters -- THANK YOU -- to you everyone for this very warm hospitality!
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