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Homecoming for Indonesian diaspora

Publication Date : 21-08-2013

 

Over the weekend, Dr Soewarto Moestadja, 63, retraced the steps his great-grandparents took when they left Central Java a century ago to work as contract labourers in Suriname.

Dr Sehat Sutardja, 52, returned to his hometown Jakarta, which he left over 30 years ago to study in California.

Moestadja is Home Affairs Minister of the former Dutch colony, while Sutardja is the co-founder and chief executive of semiconductor giant Marvell, and both were in Jakarta for a three-day gathering of the Indonesian diaspora, where they shared their success stories with others.

Over 6,000 people of Indonesian descent, former Indonesians, and Indonesians living abroad from over 20 countries met to discuss how they can share their know-how with and contribute to South-east Asia's largest economy at a time when officials are actively wooing the Indonesian diaspora.

"So long as in your head, heart and blood there is Indonesia, you will always be a part of Indonesia's extended family," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told them at the opening of the Second Congress of Indonesian Diaspora on Monday.

"The Indonesian nation and state genuinely view the diaspora as friends and assets of Indonesia," he said. "Indonesia is not just a country. It is also a heritage."

This week's congress is the first to be held in Indonesia, after last year's first such meeting in Los Angeles.

The diaspora meetings are the brainchild of Indonesia's outgoing ambassador to the United States, Dr Dino Patti Djalal, who felt that Indonesia's brain drain - a dilemma shared by many of its South-east Asian neighbours - could be reversed into a "brain gain".

Since last year, 55 diaspora chapters have been formed in 26 countries, including Singapore, to exchange ideas on business, citizenship and migrant worker issues.

There is also an online database of contacts called the Diaspora Network Brain Bank.

Djalal has also been touted as a possible contender at the Democrat Party's presidential convention, but he made clear that the diaspora effort was a national one - and politicians from all major parties attended.

Close to five million Indonesian nationals are registered with the foreign ministry as living abroad, and officials put a conservative figure of eight million for the Indonesian diaspora. "The Indonesian diaspora is full of figures who can become sources of inspiration for us all," said Yudhoyono.

These include the 2.5 million maids who work hard and constantly remit money to help their relatives back home, with collective contributions totalling some US$7.1 billion last year.

The Indonesian government has also made it easier for Indonesians who have given up their citizenship to get permanent residency. And it plans to beef up its diaspora section at the foreign ministry.

Chicago-based Edward Wanandi, president of the Indonesia Diaspora Business Council, however, notes that not many may want to be permanent residents, but would prefer multiple-entry visas.

Despite the red tape, groups of Indonesians abroad have started projects to help others back home. Members of the Indonesia Diaspora Foundation have started a programme called Computers for Schools to get members to invest in a computer for schools in underprivileged areas. There's also a programme to get them to donate to and mentor students in poor families.

A group of young Indonesian professionals in Singapore also started the Global Indonesian Voices portal in June to report news and activities across the diaspora, and it now gets some 2,000 hits a week.

"There are lots of good stories about Indonesians overseas, but not a lot of information out there on what they are up to," the site's co-founder, Maulana Bachtiar, 25 and a postgraduate student, told The Straits Times. "Hopefully this will strengthen the links between those at home and abroad."

 

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