EAST Timor’s Finance Minister, Emilia Pires, remembers well her first days at Moreland High School in the tough Coburg of the 1970s.
Neither European nor Asian but something of both, Pires and her six siblings, exiled from their invaded country, perplexed her fellow students. “We got called so many things,” she remembers. “They called us ‘wog’ – we didn’t know what that meant. We suddenly realised that we were black, which we didn’t know either.”
She laughs now but the experience was toughening, a trait she needs now in spades trying to help East Timor ”make it” as she fields corruption allegations from her political foes. And however hard it was on the streets of Coburg in 1975, it was infinitely harder at home in Dili.
Next week will mark a decade since many East Timorese voted to be independent. While May 20 is notionally Independence Day, when the pomp of sovereignty was formally conferred in 2002, to most August 30 is the true date the country came of age, marking the UN-sponsored 1999 independence referendum when East Timorese voted to break from Indonesia.
Ten years on, the country remains fragile and fraught, the economy on life support and struggling to make it. But maybe it is time for East Timor to move on, for a new generation of leaders and technocrats to break out of the independence martyr complex. The emerging civil service is now sprinkled with 30 and 40-somethings, often educated in Indonesia, who have returned to man the government.
The feisty Pires leads that new generation. She was 15 when her parents brought her to Melbourne. Hardly politicised, it was a sojourn to Australia she thought would last a few days, before returning to the ”paradise on earth” of her childhood in East Timor. It would last the entire period of Indonesian occupation.
Pires spent her first year in Melbourne in the now defunct Maribyrnong migrant hostel, then moved to Coburg. She got through Moreland High, and La Trobe University – graduating in statistics, Spanish and mathematics – and joined the Aboriginal Legal Service in Fitzroy. She spent a year there before joining the Victorian state government, helping low-income earners access government housing.
The career profile – Aboriginal welfare, East Timor struggle – suggests the pet causes of the left but Pires, who hails from a feudal land-owning family, shudders at the thought. “I am a capitalist, no question about it. I like competition.”
She married an Australian engineer and by the late 1990s had risen to senior management level in the Victorian public service. Today, Pires is one of the few in the Dili Government with actual experience of administration.
She says the first effective meeting of what would become the new nation’s civil service was at a five-day conference Melbourne in April 1999, attended by more than 100 Timorese professionals and technocrats working around the world, organised with Melbourne bishop Hilton Deakin.
“We came up with a plan for the future – we banned politicians. This was about the practicalities of governance, the vision for the future. We needed ideas and practicalities, not just talk. We became aware of each other, and what governance skills we brought.”
Now she’s Finance Minister, she wants East Timor to make it to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the world’s so-called ”Rich Countries’ Club” in her lifetime. “Why can’t we aspire to be in the OECD?” Pires asks. “Why not? We will become the next miracle in South-East Asia.”
That’s quite a reach, for a hand-to-mouth economy the World Bank ranks as the world’s eighth poorest country, and the most impoverished in Asia. About 90 per cent of East Timor’s 1.15 million people earn just $1.50 a day. Pires admits East Timor has a long way to go but she is convinced her countrymen have something special. If they can muster the same determination that achieved independence in 1999, she says, they can do it.
Oil and gas help. East Timor is only starting to learn how much it has. East Timor’s Petroleum Fund has accumulated about $5 billion in royalties, and expects at least $20 billion by the time the Bayu Undan gas field is drained, in around 2020. But Pires is wary of oil becoming a curse, fearing a boomtown mentality and lop-sided income distribution.
“We need to put infrastructure in place for normal development to occur as if we never had oil. We know what that oil cost us,” she says. “One-third of our population died for that oil. Now we have been given an opportunity to use it to move this country forward.”
Eric Ellis writes for Forbes magazine from South-East Asia.