After decades of neglect, Indonesia’s diaspora demands more rights
During President Joko Widodo’s cabinet reshuffle in July 2016, one particular appointment stood out: Archandra Tahar, the new Energy and Mineral Resources Minister. Tahar had lived more than twenty years in Texas as a successful petrochemical engineer. At the time, President Jokowi was complimented for his decision to invite this successful ‘anak bangsa’ (son of the nation) to take on the ministership in his homeland. In the following weeks, however, public perception on Archandra shifted. It was rumoured that Archandra held double citizenship. The accusation was that, because of his foreign passport, Archandra would not be fully loyal to Indonesia. News about Archandra’s dual citizenship became a hot topic in national media outlets. Public pressure forced President Jokowi to dismiss Archandra after he was in office for just 17 days.
Archandra’s case illustrates the curiously ambiguous attitude within Indonesia towards its citizens living overseas – that is, towards its diaspora. While other countries maintain close connections with their diaspora – and receive large remittances from them – Indonesia has been far less successful in maintaining its foreign connection. However, this could be changing.
The Indonesian lack of enthusiasm towards people in the diaspora can be attributed to two things. First, members of the diaspora are often considered overprivileged. For many Indonesians, going to live abroad is associated with a higher socioeconomic status. Not many people can afford such transnational mobility. Second, some Indonesians are afraid that those who left their homeland for another country might no longer be loyal to their country of origin.
Former minister Archandra Tahar was deposed after his dual citizenship came to light. (Antara)
In recent years, diaspora Indonesians have actively tried to counter such perceptions. They have become more politically active. Their new-found activism is partly aimed at addressing the problem that Archandra faced: dual citizenship. The Indonesian law that regulates citizenship (Law No. 12/2006) allows dual citizenship only for citizens under 18 years old who are born out of an Indonesian and non-Indonesian mixed marriage. Any Indonesian who has (or is given) foreign nationality will automatically lose Indonesian citizenship. This issue spurred diaspora Indonesians to organise better in order to lobby for a new citizenship law. Their main argument is that the current rule prevents diaspora Indonesians from contributing to their home country.
Indonesian Diaspora Network
The Indonesian Diaspora Network (IDN) is currently one of the biggest formal associations of diaspora Indonesians, consisting of 56 local chapters in 26 countries. It was formed during the first Congress of Indonesian Diaspora (CID) in Los Angeles, California in 2012. The IDN held its fourth congress in Jakarta in July 2017, where at least 9,000 participants from 55 countries registered to attend and Barack Obama was an invited speaker. As an association, the IDN highlights the positive contributions Indonesia’s diaspora make to the country and sponsors various development projects.
The IDN also initiated a taskforce to lobby for a new dual citizenship law. Herman Syah and Dita Nasroel Chas, two taskforce members, told me that one primary objective for their advocacy is to achieve dual citizenship rights for the Indonesian diaspora. Among the problems with the current citizenship law, they said, is its automatic revocation of Indonesian citizenship once a dual-citizen Indonesian child turns 18. Thus, before that date, new adults have to choose between Indonesia and their country of residence. Many give up their Indonesian citizenship, preferring to become an American or European citizen. An American or European passport would offer them significant educational and employment benefits. Faced with such a difficult choice, diaspora Indonesians often feel forced to choose against Indonesian citizenship.
Such concerns motivated the IDN to lobby for a new Indonesian citizenship law that permits permanent dual citizenship. The bill they proposed also includes the possibility of allowing former Indonesian citizens in the diaspora to reclaim their home country’s nationality. Mohamad Al-Arief, the Global IDN President in 2013–2015, explained to me that the core idea of their dual-citizenship bill is to ‘to preserve the Indonesian-ness of Indonesians’. He took care to emphasise that the bill does not allow foreigners who have no relationship with Indonesia – either by blood or marriage – to become an Indonesian.
IDN Global in Sydney. IDN highlights the positive contributions Indonesia's diaspora makes. (IDN Global)
The bill includes eligibility criteria. Applicants should have no criminal record, and should reside in a country that acknowledges the dual citizenship principle. The IDN’s long process of political lobbying has included personal approaches and a stream of academic seminars and presentations. IDN members have tried to convince policymakers of the opportunities and benefits that dual citizenship could bring to Indonesia. Their lobbying has been met with some success: the bill has been scheduled for the Parliament’s national legislation program for the period of 2015–2019. But deliberation will begin only when Jokowi’s administration takes a clear stance on the issue.
A long and winding road
There are signs that Jokowi’s government is leaning towards supporting the bill. In one meeting with the Indonesian diaspora at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, DC in May 2015, Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly agreed to support it. President Jokowi subsequently adopted a positive tone when he met with the diaspora in several countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also started to provide a ‘diaspora card’ that can be used as a special visa for members of the Indonesia diaspora to visit their home country.
Despite these gestures, other government institutions remain hesitant. The Indonesian National Police and the National Intelligence Agency have raised concerns about possible negative consequences for national security. They are afraid that transnational terrorist organisations could utilise the dual citizenship law to enter the country and recruit more members from Indonesia. At the same time, politicians remain reluctant to take up an issue that touches only a relatively well-off and privileged segment of Indonesia’s population.
As a result the political will to adopt the bill is limited. IDN still feels it needs to showcase its political power to convince politicians. Following this line of thought, Al-Arief argued it is important to hold regular Congresses of Indonesian Diaspora in Indonesia. ‘Sometimes, Indonesian politicians only want to see the numbers. Therefore in July 2017 we brought home thousands of diaspora from around the world, to show those politicians in Jakarta that we do have the numbers,’ he explained.
Meutya Hafid is a member of parliament who was invited to the fourth diaspora congress in Jakarta. She offered me her analysis. Giving dual citizenship to Indonesia’s diaspora might be beyond the capacity of the current government, she explained. President Jokowi’s administration was struggling just to secure the most basic rights of all Indonesian citizens, such as providing the electronic national ID card (e-KTP). Indonesians might have to wait a little longer before the dual citizenship proposed by the Indonesian diaspora is incorporated into national law.
Yearry Panji Setianto (firstname.lastname@example.org) works for the Department of Communication Studies, Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa University. His current work includes the Indonesian diaspora, transnational political participation, as well as media and religion.