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A diaspora is “the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established or ancestral homeland” or “people dispersed by whatever cause to more than one location” or “people settled far from their ancestral homelands”. Discourse on diaspora is an ancient story, particularly for the Jewish people, but also populations from Ireland, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, as well as from Africa, China and the subcontinent. For Indonesia, it is a seemingly new and an exciting issue, but people from this archipelago have dispersed to every corner of the globe since the first century.
Why do we suddenly need to discuss the Indonesian diaspora today? A diaspora is an unavoidable phenomenon of a global economy with people free to go, live and work anywhere they choose without being restricted by identity in terms of race, native origin, language, religious affiliation, etc. Diaspora is liberation from geopolitical confinement.
Unquestionably, for a country like Indonesia, one of the consequences of diaspora is the brain drain. If the discussion on diaspora does not address this issue seriously, it will be a waste of time. Diaspora follows the law of the nature that better places attract better people. The definition of “better” could be economic, cultural, environmental, familial or any other matter of personal choice.
Who actually cares about Indonesian émigrés? Why do they care? These questions lead us to ponder relationships between people in terms of nationality, language, culture, heritage and society which combine to form the concept of identity. Probably the diaspora is only for the braver people of Indonesia: risk takers, not because they do not love their country, but through their desire for better opportunities, and a willingness to push the boundaries of their comfort zone.
People who care about the diaspora are those who value qualities like the courage to explore and the desire to risk everything for a better life. However, “care” does not mean empty rhetoric at meetings and gatherings. What is required is a system of concrete politics for the diaspora that works to open new horizons of collaboration and cooperation.
Let’s consider three main points that matter for Indonesia.
First, it is Indonesians residing abroad who represent our nation, language and culture in the international community. Syncretism has been an underlying cultural power of Indonesia since the era of the Sriwijaya, Singasari and Majapahit kingdoms, which adopted and accepted foreign economic and cultural bounty while resolving differences peacefully and ingeniously. Today, Indonesia is well known as a potential world power of syncretism and is expected to build a multicultural society based on spiritual faith, humanity, social justice, democracy and cultural identity: Pancasila.
Second, the diaspora represents a breakthrough from cultural isolation because of the limits of the Indonesian language. Indonesia is socioculturally isolated from the rest of the world because English is not widely used as a second language in bureaucracy, commerce, journalism and academic activities.
While the Indonesian language may be culturally retardant at home, abroad it is a sociocultural reinforcement. People of the diaspora provide access to what Indonesia is all about and in foreign lands, our languages enrich and enhance the diversity of the global community.
Finally, the diaspora is a resource for growth and development that could drag Indonesia forward to become an integrated part of the global community. By its very nature, the diaspora is composed of skillful individuals, able to communicate, interact, work and innovate in the global world. They are an asset of production and services. Embracing and acknowledging them as an integrated part of Indonesian human resources is a step toward their inevitable contribution to the country’s economic, scientific, technological and cultural development.
Mainstream, reclusive forces with vested interests in the status quo will not always welcome international veterans of the diaspora. Envy and resentment from home-based introverts against the extraverts of the diaspora will be unavoidable.
However, to be a great country, we need great leaders to resolve these differences and challenges through the wisdom of synergy. We have established a vision of a nation-state that respects and upholds universal humanism and social justice as inscribed in the 1945 Constitution. We need tough leaders who are able to synthesize the people of diaspora into the country’s development as an integrated part of the global community.
The upcoming Congress of Indonesian Diaspora in Los Angeles will be worthless if it is only a platform of political rhetoric, nostalgia and romanticism. We need to grow up and overcome our national chauvinism, religious fundamentalism, sexism and other social aberrations. We have to work together on the basis of shared cultural identity and mutual respect.
To make this happen the government needs to ask what it can do for the people of diaspora. The formulation, transformation and reformation of the politics of diaspora are necessary and unavoidable. It is more than just about organization and bureaucratization; it is about the collaboration of generations for the future of Indonesia.
The writer is an associate professor at the faculty of built environment, University of Technology Johor, Malaysia.
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