The story of professor Yohana Susana Yembise’s life provides the human context for understanding Indonesia’s predicted emergence as the world’s fourth largest economy by the year 2045 (right behind the People’s Republic of China, India, and the US).

Notably, Yembise was the first female Papuan national cabinet minister (Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection portfolio 2014-2019) as well as the first female professor from Papua (Cendrawasih University, Faculty of Education – syllabus design and material development).

But, more importantly, she has emerged as an exemplar of what makes Indonesia truly great: Human capital, that extraordinary balance of diversity and social cohesion that presents the real possibility of a solution to every problem.

Indonesia faces challenges: A “flawed” (but persistently robust) democracy, endemic corruption, stubbornly high levels of national income disparity and poverty, with many of Indonesia’s 70 million poor or near poor further disadvantaged by grossly inadequate per capita health outcomes. (According to the Lowy Institute, even Indonesia’s poorer neighbour East Timor ranks lower than Indonesia in maternal mortality.)

When combined with unsustainably low domestic tax revenues of less than 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) – the second lowest in Southeast Asia after strife-torn Myanmar, it appears that Indonesia simply does not have the fiscal means of reaching its economic potential. But what Indonesia does have is an extraordinary trove of human potential. And this greatest of all nation state advantages is epitomised by Yembise.

The 21st century is emerging as the era of decentralised “social enterprise”. (And this has been accelerated by the upheaval associated with the Covid-19 pandemic which is imposing adaptation and reinvention on human societies everywhere.) There are two parts to social enterprise: Human capital and community capital. Human capital is broadly related to education (in the sense of learning how to think.) This produces increased capacity, namely creative problem-solving abilities, and invention.

Community capital on the other hand is the product of connections between families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers – or broadly speaking, citizens. It is related to how things best work to enrich the human experience – in good times and bad. And both are illustrated in the life of Yembise.

Yembise was born in Manokwari in 1958, then part of Netherlands New Guinea. She is the second child in a family of 11 siblings. Her father was a civil servant working for Nabire regency. After completing high school in Jayapura and Nabire (including a student exchange to the picturesque Rocky Mountain community of Summerland, British Colombia, Canada), Yembise studied English education at Papua’s Cendrawasih University, later earning a post-graduate diploma from the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation—Regional English Language Center in Singapore. This was followed by a master’s degree in education from Canada’s Simon Fraser University and then a PhD from Australia’s University of Newcastle.

As a cabinet minister in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first term of government, Yembise established her credentials as someone who was willing to challenge the status quo. She coined her signature programme “Three Ends”– which included ending domestic violence and human trafficking in addition to ending inequality of economic access for women and girls – not only in her home province of Papua – but in the rest of Indonesia too.

As a researcher, her current project reveals deep thinking about what it means to be “an Indonesian”.

As Yembise says, “Most Indonesians can easily identify value sets such as ‘Javanese values’ and ‘Batik values’ and ‘Balinese values,’ but significantly not ‘Papuan values.’ Or alternately, they cannot readily explain what Papuan values have been adopted by non-Papuan Indonesians or its corollary, which national values have been adopted by Papuans. My hope is that this research will reveal to all Indonesians that Papuans also respect consensus, social harmony, and community cohesion. But, most importantly, I believe that better understanding these questions will help all of us appreciate the enormous human possibilities of ‘Unity in Diversity.’”

As a writer, Yembise’s current commission is to contribute a chapter to an important international publication on regional responses to the Covid-19 pandemic with special reference to the resilience of Indonesian communities. As Yembise says, “The Indonesian government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been characterised by a fundamental shift in state policy from deep denial to broad effective action.”

In her contribution, Yembise explains the challenging cultural, economic, and political contexts in which Indonesia’s transition in thinking and policy has occurred. As she adds, “This includes explaining the difficulties, limitations and restrictions that faced the Indonesian Government as our President moved rapidly towards a more centralised and coordinated science-based public health approach to the pandemic.”

The story of Yembise’s life clearly paints a personal portrait brightly colored by achievement, but also, it promises many, as yet, unrealised possibilities for Indonesia. According to the eminent Australian cultural consultant Peter O’Neill OAM, “Papua presents Indonesia with a new prospect – in fact, a fresh beginning – namely, ‘Opportunity in Diversity.’” According to O’Neill, the contribution of Papuans like professor Yembise is not so much about, “How can Indonesia build Papua anew”, but rather, “How can the human potential of the Papuan people build Indonesia anew?”

In her typically optimistic way, Yembise is fond of saying, “Every morning, here in this far corner of Eastern Indonesia, Papuans, just like me, are the first people in the nation to welcome the new day. This reminds me that there is always hope for a better future. For this reason, I like to think of Papua as ‘the sunrise Province.’”

Professor Yembise’s life clearly shows the qualities that distinguish countless successful women around the world: fair-mindedness, a disinclination to hostility, compassion, and sincere optimism. And this, according to many, is the measure of a true Papuan lady.

Rob Goodfellow is a researcher with the Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative (HADRI) Western Sydney University.