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Otago hosts state visit with a difference

Monday, 6 March 2017 2:42pm

Timor-PM-and-VC-image
The Prime Minister of Timor-Leste Dr Rui Maria de Araújo and Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne. Photos: Sharron Bennett.

Otago has hosted many royal guests and prime ministers over the years, but last week marked a state visit with a special resonance: The visitor was the Prime Minister of the young nation of Timor-Leste, Dr Rui Maria de Araújo, who is also a distinguished graduate of Otago.

The Bulletin Board caught up with the Prime Minister during his visit to the Dental School on Thursday, following a formal reception and meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and Senior Staff in the Clocktower, and lunch at the Staff Club. He also met with Preventive and Social Medicine researchers Professor Sir David Skegg and Emeritus Professor Charlotte Paul, who he knew while he was at Otago completing his Postgraduate Diploma in Public Health (2000) and Master of Public Health (2001). His MA thesis, entitled “A Suitable Health System for East Timor from the Perspective of the East Timorese'', was supervised by Otago Business School Dean and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Division of Commerce Professor Robin Gauld.

"My purpose was to come and thank New Zealand and this country’s business people because in the past 20 years, New Zealand has helped to support the development of my country."

He said his visit “to both New Zealand and Otago” – at the request of New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English (also an Otago alumnus) – had been enormously enjoyable and successful. Otago had changed “a bit” since he had been a postgraduate student here, “but not too much.”

At the Dental School, he warmly engaged with staff and students, including international students who he especially wanted to meet. They discussed pathways of study from other countries into Dentistry at Otago.

He told the Bulletin Board afterwards:

“My purpose was to come and thank New Zealand and this country’s business people because in the past 20 years, New Zealand has helped to support the development of my country.

“I also wanted to explore options for further collaboration with Otago. We are looking to establish our own dental school in the future and hence the visit to Otago’s Dental School. And hence it was important to discuss the future and possible collaborations with the Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne. Timor-Leste is currently embarking on economic expansion and we wish to use evidence-based policy-making as part of this. This is because academic scholarship plays a very important role in our development.

“At Otago, I learned that qualitative and quantitative research could be used to identify the best health systems, and this applied to the Timorese, and also I had come to understand this as the Minister of Health between 2001 and 2007 in Timor-Leste. So I have visited here in recognition of the fact that academic institutions such as Otago can play an important role in the development of nations, particularly in the early stages, as the health system in my country is being conceptually developed.”

"At Otago, I learned that qualitative and quantitative research could be used to identify the best health systems, and this applied to the Timorese."

His Excellency’s medical training began in 1986 at the Sultan Agung Islamic University Faculty of Medicine in Indonesia. He later completed otolaryngology studies at the Medical Faculty of Udayana University, and graduated as a General Practitioner and Medical Doctor in 1994. On his return to Timor-Leste he spent four years working as a General Practitioner and House Surgeon at the Provincial Hospital in Dili and managing a tuberculosis programme funded by Caritas Norway that was implemented in all Catholic clinics across Timor-Leste.

The Timor-Leste government website links this experience to His Excellency’s desire to study public health initiatives at Otago.

He became Timor-Leste’s health minister in the first post-independence government from 2002 to 2007. He then held various senior ministerial and advisory positions until being appointed Prime Minister in February 2015.

East Timor became the 21st century’s first new sovereign state on 20 May 2002.