The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, September 03, 2012



Stay or Return?                    

Getting jobs overseas can be tough for Indonesian professionals, but the rewards are sweet.  The downsides include your kids straying from their Indonesian roots.  Duncan Graham reports.

When Ridwan quit as a section head with Indonesia’s Supreme Audit Board (BEPEKA) in 2006, friends thought he’d lost his abacus.  Who’d toss in a prestigious government position with a guaranteed pension – it didn’t compute.

His bosses were also bewildered.  They accused the top public servant who’d won a presidential award of betraying his country.  For Ridwan was determined to fulfil a long-held secret dream – to work in the West.

“I still have the red and white (Indonesia’s national colors) in my heart but I also want to be loyal to my profession,” said the assurance manager in New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor General.

“I’m proud of being Indonesian, showing others that we are capable people. I’m helping maintain NZ’s place as the least corrupt country in the world.

“Being away from my country is difficult for my little family (he has a wife and son) and my mother in Jakarta, but not for me.  I’ve worked in the Philippines, South Africa, the US and Australia.”

Ridwan is part of the Indonesian Diaspora, a small but expanding group of Indonesian professionals with transferable skills and no-fear attitudes.  They’re comfortable sipping café latte in sidewalk bars, can flick off English idioms as though they’d been born in London, (UK, Ohio or Ontario) yet want to retain links with their motherland.

It’s not just colleagues’ derision that cripple the ambitions of Indonesians desiring clean air, big skies and space to expand salaries, mind and career.  Indonesia’s bar on dual citizenship also hurts. 

In early July the world’s first Congress on the Indonesian Diaspora was staged in Los Angeles.  In a message to the three-day event President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said his government was “taking concrete steps to develop a strong partnership with the Indonesian Diasporas,” and planning “special visas” for those who have renounced Indonesian citizenship.

Ridwan was on a panel of four speakers at a public forum in Wellington, NZ. The discussion – Stay or Return? The dilemma facing overseas students took up concerns raised at the US Congress organised by the Indonesian Embassy in Washington DC.

The Wellington event was initiated by the NZ-Indonesia Association.

Polytechnic lecturer Iwan Tjhin, a member of the audience, criticised speakers coming from “good financial backgrounds” and overlooking issues like corruption, inequality and discrimination that made people leave Indonesia.

“There’s a huge difference in the value of human life between NZ and Indonesia,” he said.  “Someone gets hit by a bus here and it’s page one news.  You get treated in hospital whoever you are – but not in Indonesia. If you don’t have the money you die.”

Iwan said he’d come from a poor family and had left to seek residency overseas when he was 17. 

His assertion was rejected by Sri Farley.  She’d grown up in a poor family of five children in Medan, North Sumatra.

“I went to a state school and a state university,” she said.  “My parents couldn’t pay. I studied hard and got an honors degree.  I went to Jakarta and became a commercial credit analyst at Bank Negara Indonesia.”

But when she moved to NZ in 1999 with her British husband Daniel she was faced with the rough reality: Like gentlemen and blondes, bosses prefer local graduates.

So she went back to university, struggled, persevered, got pregnant and graduated with distinction with a Masters degree in finance.

“Studying here is different,” she said.  “Staff are more supportive and there’s a collegial relationship with freedom of expression.”

Even then exercising new skills wasn’t easy.  After door knocking as an Indonesian and getting few opened she started using her married name – and found a carpet of welcome mats.

“Ridiculous?  Yes, but that’s the way it is,” she said.  “NZ employers aren’t comfortable using workers from developing countries. They’re OK with people from developed nations, especially if they’re Anglo-Saxon.”

Sri now works as a senior financial analyst with Inland Revenue, the NZ tax department. The hurdles achieving this position were high but she got the nod because her study grades were equally elevated.

“I love travelling so much,” she said. “I want our children to be able to speak Indonesian and appreciate Indonesian culture. If there’s an opportunity to work six months in Indonesia and six months in NZ I’ll go for it too.”

Winning a regular pay cheque was also a problem for Hendry Sutjiadi who got his doctorate in building science from Victoria University of Wellington this year.  Despite having ten years of concrete dust under his fingernails from building roads, bridges and high rises in East Java, NZ company heavyweights were initially unimpressed.

Originally from Surabaya he graduated cum laude with a Master’s degree from Petra University before becoming a project manager for a major construction company. He’s now working for NZ consulting engineers after months of resilience-testing rejections.

“Initially I didn’t want to go overseas, but was pushed by my wife Melissa,” Hendry said.  “We wanted somewhere better to live should we start a family. NZ was a cheaper place to study.”

Grace Pamungkas showed the forum derogatory newspaper cartoons of NZ prime minister John Key and commented that the right to criticise leaders, religion and social values could jolt the sensitivities of older Indonesians.

“My daughter can speak freely if I do anything wrong,” she said.  “This is a culture that respects the young.  I like that but it’s hard to adjust.  My colleagues work and relax differently.”

Grace is uncertain what she’ll do after graduating. Back in Jakarta she could pick up her past profession as an architect or take a university teaching post.  However these jobs probably wouldn’t pay enough to give her daughter an international-quality education.

Grace said her future depends on what Kintaka, 10, wants to do when she is older.  At this stage it looks as though Wellington is winning.

The primary school student has absorbed her new lifestyle so well she’s just won second place in a public speaking competition against local born kids.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 September 2012)

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