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Ask what the government can do for the Indonesian Diaspora

Publication Date : 29-06-2012


A friend of mine, let’s just call her Yenni, went to the United States to work in the 1990s, fell in love with an American, and is now happily married and raising two boys. For practical purposes, she gave up her Indonesian nationality and became a naturalized American.

For the present, the Indonesian government treats her as an alien. When she and her family want to visit her folks in Indonesia, they have to wait in line like other foreigners at the airport for their visas on arrival. Irrespective of her emotional links and historical ties to this country, she is as much an alien as the next person in the visa line.

But Yenni is just as much an Indonesian as many others like her who decided to change their nationality for various reasons. Although she raises her family the American way, she has retained many of her Indonesian values, principles and characteristics. She and her children introduce Indonesia to their growing circle of friends, through the food she cooks (I can personally vouch she makes the best rendang, a Indonesian beef dish from, in Washington DC) and through literature, and by encouraging them to visit Indonesia, as tourists or even for business.

Yet, about the only recognition she gets from the government is that she’s on the Indonesian Embassy’s invitation list.

Some embassy officials in Washington and elsewhere, reflecting the official attitude, are even known to be unfriendly toward those who gave up their Indonesian citizenship.

This official attitude will, with any luck, change soon. The government is considering a new policy toward Indonesians who live and work abroad. It already has a name for them: the Indonesian Diaspora.

We’ll know more about what the government has in mind after the first Congress of Indonesian Diaspora in Los Angeles on July 6-8. The gathering has the seal of approval from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He will send a personal video message and a number of Cabinet ministers are to address the congress.

But instead of asking what the Indonesian Diaspora can do for their country, a more pertinent question for the congress to answer is what the country, or in this case the government, can do for the Diaspora.

Congress host, Indonesian Ambassador to the US Dino Patti Djalal, defines the Indonesian Diaspora as Indonesian citizens who live and work abroad as well as those who were born Indonesian but have taken other nationalities. (Indonesian law does not permit dual nationality.) Also included are their spouses and children. For good measure, he includes “Friends of Indonesia” meaning non-Indonesians who have cultural connections with the country.

Just precisely how large the Indonesian Diaspora is remains unclear at this stage.

If we go with Dino’s estimate that it is “double the Singaporean population”, then we are talking about 8 to 9 million across the globe. This seems plausible if we include the hordes of mostly unskilled Indonesians who do menial work in neighbouring Malaysia, other Asian countries and in the Middle East. The number could be even larger if we knew how many undocumented Indonesians work abroad.

But the real target of any policy on overseas Indonesians would have to be those who are not only interested in furthering the interests of Indonesia, but also those who have the ability to do so. This means the policy should primarily target professionals who live and work abroad, irrespective of their current citizenship status.

Their potential contribution cannot be overstated. We have seen how other Asian countries — India and the Philippines in particular — are reaping dividends by engaging with their own diasporas.

India has created the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and distinguishes between Non-Resident Indians (NRI) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIO). The second group includes descendants of Indians who have become citizens in foreign lands, including Indonesia.

Both NRIs and PIOs play active roles in promoting India’s economic development. They help generate direct foreign investment, promote diasporic philanthropy, turn brain drain into brain gain, and many are active in advocacy. The Indian lobby in Washington actively promotes better relations between the two countries. These groups have become an indispensable tool in India’s foreign policy.

In return, the Indian government has come up with initiatives to foster their sense of belonging. The NRIs now have voting rights in national elections, and PIO cards entitle the holder to various privileges, including visas. Overseas Citizen of India status, a step up from the PIO card, gives holders a lifelong visa and additional rights not accorded to other foreigners.

There are many ways that the Indonesian Diaspora could contribute to their home country, and we suspect, like my friend Yenni and her family, most are already doing it in their own ways without being prompted by the government.

The onus is on the government to change the official attitude toward the different diasporia groups, through recognition of the value of contributions they can make to Indonesia’s development, and by listening to their aspirations. Only after this, can the government come up with a policy that treats them as a real part of the Indonesian constituency.

The LA congress seems like a step in the right direction.


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