Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Diaspora power

Diaspora power
Published: Jan 27, 2014

David Reeve

Poster for a hugely popular 2012 film about Yusuf Habibie and his wife Hasri Ainun Besari

The main cry of the second Indonesian Diaspora Congress was ‘hidup diaspora!’ – long live the diaspora. It rang out in session after session in Jakarta from 18 to 20 August 2013. The emotions expressed were simple but deep – ‘We have come home!’ from the diaspora and ‘we love you, we accept you’ from those who remained. This was a new note in discussions about Indonesians overseas, which are dominated by victim stories and outrage about ill treatment of low-level Indonesian workers. Outrage was not absent: advocacy organisations for migrant workers (TKI) were represented. Nevertheless, the dominant tone was that of appreciating the diaspora as a national resource, of revelling in the success of Indonesians competing internationally.

The first congress was held in Los Angeles in June 2012. There the focus was on Indonesian citizens living, studying and working overseas, and on how they could be mobilised to help Indonesia. This second congress also included the ‘historical’ diaspora, citizens of other countries who are descended from Malay stock.

One sensation from the historical diaspora was a presentation in fluent Indonesian by a senior military figure from Madagascar. He claimed that 60 per cent of his country’s population are descended from Indonesians. He is also a candidate for the Madagascar presidency.

Another intense moment was a fiery presentation from the South African Cape Malay community, about Sheikh Jusuf. This learned nobleman was born in Makassar in 1626, lived in Banten, and was exiled by the Dutch to Cape Town, where he is said to have established Islam. Nelson Mandela has called him South Africa’s first freedom fighter. He is an official national hero in both Indonesia and South Africa.

There was a delegation from Suriname, where Javanese make up about 14 per cent of the population. In the current Suriname cabinet, six of 17 ministers are ethnic Javanese. The Suriname Home Affairs Minister Soewarto Moestadja made his mark with a speech that started in Indonesian, continued in English and finished in Javanese.

Respect and participation

This was a big congress. The organisers had been expecting around two thousand delegates, like at the Los Angeles congress. But over seven thousand people registered, including 1500 from overseas who mostly paid their own way. The largest delegations – around 200 each – were from Qatar and the United States.

Estimates of the size of the Indonesian diaspora ranged from six to eight million people, of whom 4.5 million are Indonesian citizens. The phrase ‘two Singapores’ was much repeated.

Members of the diaspora wanted some respect and appreciation, rather than the feeling that Indonesians who live overseas are somehow disloyal. They specifically wanted changes to immigration: visas and better treatment on arrival in Indonesia, particularly for their overseas-born children. The immigration department seemed to be listening. Jakarta airport had a special welcome desk, and immigration officers attended a large meeting at the congress itself. And the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs established the Indonesian Diaspora Desk, headed at ambassadorial level.

The single biggest concern that unites the diaspora is dual citizenship. Like the United States, Indonesia does not recognise dual nationality. But it was clear at the congress that the Indonesian government is prepared to consider it. The problem now is getting a workable proposal to the government before attention shifts to the 2014 elections.

What the home side wanted was some concrete participation by the diaspora in Indonesian economic development. In order to create links to make this work and to hammer out some realistic programs, the congress had eleven task forces. Some tackled the obvious issues: immigration, Indonesian migrant workers, education, business and investment. But other task forces thought about liveable cities, public health care, energy, innovation and technology, aerospace and the green economy. Another task force proposed the use of ‘culinary diplomacy’ to enhance Indonesia’s name recognition overseas, hoping for a profile similar to sushi and tom yam.

Success stories

Many stories of great challenges overcome were heard from the diaspora, in presentations, awards and the congress book Life Stories. Indonesians of humble origins who seize opportunities was a big theme. They worked their way up in a foreign country, a foreign culture and a foreign language. Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal started out washing plates. Tania Gunadi, a rising American TV star on Disney Channel, comes from Bandung. She found herself cleaning toilets and mopping floors in a Los Angeles Pizza Hut before she got a break in Hollywood.

Some started with little education, or in a neglected province. One had his education in Indonesia cut short when his Chinese-language high school was closed at the start of the New Order in 1966. Yet he eventually succeeded in Japan. This was the educator Ken Kawan Soetanto. After his school in Surabaya was closed he spent years working in a radio repair shop by day and studying by night. His savings, supplemented by his family, took him to Japan in 1977 for language study and then multiple university degrees. He wanted to become an academic, but found his career hopes frustrated by Japanese reluctance to take on foreigners. So he went on studying, eventually taking out four doctoral degrees, in electrical engineering, medicine, pharmacy and education. His inventions have led to 29 patents in Japan and two in America. He founded the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at Toin University of Yokahama. Finally in 2003, at the age of 52, he was delighted to be made a professor at Waseda University and dean of its International Liberal Studies division, the first foreigner in the Waseda executive in its 125 years.

Mahdi Musa, one of the Qatar group, told his story of rising from an undernourished background in a traditional fishing community in Aceh. He criss-crossed Aceh with labouring jobs, rising slowly through oil drilling, a sugar factory, and starting as a welder in construction but ending up an inspector. He studied at weekends, going by bus from Aceh to Medan, gaining an engineering degree in 1987 when he was 35. This led to a job with the gas industry in Qatar. Once there he could see business possibilities. He started his own small supermarket for Indonesians. He then expanded to a cleaning service, a restaurant, and an import-export business.

Another theme was of seizing the chances following study overseas. Iwan Sunito went from the jungles of Kalimantan to become the founder and CEO of one of Australia’s biggest property developers. In 1985 he started studying architecture at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). He founded his first business in 1994, together with Paul Sathio, from Bali, whom he met in Sydney. Paul Sathio had wanted to become a badminton champion but, after getting the chance to complete high school in Sydney, he went on to civil engineering degrees at the University of Technology Sydney and UNSW.

Another storyteller at the congress was Edward Wanandi, a successful entrepreneur in Chicago. Apparently the Indonesian diaspora community in the United States is bigger than the Vietnamese. In 2012 Indonesians there, on average, earned $10,000 more than the average American.

Alongside the success stories were others of overseas Indonesian communities split by rivalries – sometimes between indigenous and Chinese communities, sometimes along religious lines – and of attempts to bridge the differences.

Jon Soemarjono, a long-time lecturer at the University of Sydney, commented on ‘unsuccessful’ behaviours of Indonesians overseas. He listed them as: a reluctance to disagree, reluctance to endorse clearly, an appearance of indecision.

Compared to Indians, Pakistanis and Vietnamese, he said, Indonesians lack confidence in group discussions, are slow to participate, and lack the courage of their convictions. He urged Indonesians to learn to be straightforward and not to apologise extravagantly for small mistakes or no mistake at all. Where others push on, Indonesians tend to be content with what they have achieved. They rarely master the local language, and tend to mix within their own community, even when language courses are free. Too few parents in the Indonesian diaspora encourage their children to read and use the library.

Support and commitment

This congress had friends in high places. It was opened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and a phalanx of senior ministers took part. Former finance minister and now World Bank managing director, Sri Mulyani, came from Washington DC. Former vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, attended for the commemoration of Sheikh Jusuf. And former president Habibie (once a Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm engineer in Germany) received the biggest diaspora award in the closing ceremony.

Strangely enough, media coverage was polite but rather muted. The diaspora is not yet what Jakarta circles call ‘a sexy topic’. The press welcomed members of the diaspora home and expressed relief at the evidence that Indonesians could compete globally but said that it was now up to the diaspora to come up with some real outcomes.

The Indonesian Diaspora Network, IDN, was established after the last congress and has 56 branches in 26 countries. This is fast development in the first year of its existence and has raised some questions abroad. One Australian reaction to the formation of the IDN was: there are already so many Indonesian organisations, why yet another?

Moreover the IDN has competition from the ‘historical’ Malay diaspora. Malaysia has been way in front in efforts to recruit the diaspora with several Dunia Melayu (Malay World) conferences over the last fifteen years.

Allegations of political profiteering are also heard. The great promoter of the IDN is Indonesian ambassador to the United States, Dino Patti Djalal, who is in the running at the Partai Demokrat convention to succeed the current president. Some whisper that the IDN is a ruse to recruit diaspora votes for the party.

Still, the task forces seemed to be committed and working hard; the green energy and liveable cities groups were particularly active. And by the 2014 congress it should be clear whether the IDN is sustainable. Will real projects be emerging? Will the Indonesian government have begun to act on dual citizenship?

David Reeve (d.reeve@unsw.edu.au) is retired from the University of New South Wales, and helps ACICIS (www.acicis.murdoch.edu.au) bring Australian students to study at Indonesian universities. His book Golkar of Indonesia (1985) has just appeared in Indonesian translation.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}

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