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Indonesia reaches out to its diaspora

Publication Date : 15-05-2012


For decades, Indonesians who settled abroad were seen as having turned their backs on their homeland.

Now, the government wants to woo these talented citizens to get them to do their part for the country that they and their forefathers hail from, as Indonesia seeks to attract greater foreign investment and raise its image globally.

Over three days in July, Jakarta will hold the inaugural Congress of Indonesian Diaspora in Los Angeles to bring overseas Indonesians together, whet their interest in Southeast Asia's largest economy and get them to help market it.

"We used to see them as a brain drain, when in fact they can be a brain gain. All you need is to give them an opportunity to do so," said Dino Patti Djalal, Indonesia's ambassador in Washington DC and a key figure behind the effort.

"The Indonesian diaspora is a community full of ideas, expertise, capital and networks. It consists of migrant workers, entrepreneurs, students, professionals, artists, researchers, innovators and others. With Indonesia becoming more prominent globally, the diaspora is a huge strategic community," he added.

This new push, mooted at a closed-door meeting of Indonesia's envoys here in February, treads where countries like China and India have gone in seeking to boost inward investments and even entice descendants of earlier emigrants to return for work.

India, for instance, has a dedicated Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and organises an annual conference to engage its diaspora of some 30 million.

Singapore, too, set up an Overseas Singaporean Unit in 2006 to engage its citizens abroad, including through an annual Singapore Day held in major cities where Singaporeans live.

But Dino, who was in Jakarta for a visit last week, says the new outreach effort should be a ground-up one driven by individuals from the diaspora coming up with activities for their own.

"I don't have the answers. My job is to provide a forum where you find them," he said.

One question likely to surface is dual citizenship, which Jakarta does not allow. But some Indonesians have called for a review so emigrants can still feel they belong to their land of birth.

Some 150,000 Indonesians and Americans of Indonesian descent work and live in the United States, many of them skilled professionals.

But the Foreign Ministry hopes Indonesians living elsewhere can also travel to the event. There are some 5.8 million Indonesians overseas, out of a population of 240 million.

Dino told his countrymen in Washington earlier this month that in his meetings with Indonesians across the US, "they don't see themselves as part of a wider community".

"They don't network. But they have potential and we have yet to recognise and tap on (this)," he added.

US-based Indonesian Mohamad Al-Arief, one of the congress organisers, said that anyone with an interest in Indonesia was welcome to the event: "It does not matter if they are not or no longer Indonesians - so long as their heart is with Indonesia, they are part of the larger Indonesian community."

"Barack Obama can be considered a member of the Indonesian diaspora," he quipped. The US President lived in Jakarta for several years when he was a young boy, and his stepfather was Indonesian.

Speakers lined up for July's event include Minister for Tourism and Creative Economy Mari Pangestu, as well as global Indonesians such as World Bank managing director Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indorama Group chief Sri Prakash Lohia, and singer-songwriter Anggun.

Asked if it will be an annual affair, Dino said that would be for the participants to decide come July. The programme includes sessions on topics like creating jobs and starting a business in Indonesia, as well as a food fair and exhibitions on batik.

There is a website and the organisers have started to reach out to Indonesians overseas.

Among them is real estate company CEO Danny Sedjati, 32, based in Manhattan. He has lived in the US for 20 years and feels that the congress is long overdue.

"Many of us care only about our own needs, and how we can benefit from one another without spending a dime," he said. "I hope this congress can get more of us to think collectively and help our people to succeed."


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