The Jakarta Post | Fri, 03/28/2008 2:50 PM |
Through the various crises that have rocked the archipelago over the last 15 years, Jakarta’s expatriate community has changed and evolved, morphing according to political, religious and financial unrest. But Jakarta is back on the map for a new wave of expatriates, including more Asian professionals and a lot more women. Sarah Porter and Bruce Emond hit the library, quizzed strangers, talked to friends and made some new ones to write this story about the changing face of the expatriate community.
It is 8 a.m. on a weekday morning, and an orderly line of mostly young men and a couple of women carrying briefcases leaves a South Jakarta apartment complex headed for their offices a short walk away.
They are Asian but not Indonesian; Indians who have come to live and work here, filling new IT positions or those left vacant during the late 1990s economic crisis, when local firms could no longer afford the hefty pay and benefit packages of expats from Europe and North America.
Their residence – a sprawling congregation of relatively low-cost apartment towers – is itself Jakarta’s very own United Nations, a microcosm of the changing face of the expatriate in Indonesia.
A grocery store selling spices and delicacies from Asia and the Middle East has opened in a small shopping center nearby to cater to their tastes. The maids and nannies who while away the late afternoon in the complex’s common area have learned a polyglot of languages from their employers.
Living alongside the growing number of single young Indonesians and families, they are from near and far: the Philippines, Singapore, mainland China, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America.
“It’s very different from the way it used to be,” says Kafil, a 40-something Indonesian who has worked in multinationals and international aid organizations. “It’s not unusual anymore to see an Asian manager in, say, a German company, or Asian-Americans instead of the stereotyped Caucasian expatriate.
“It’s only to be expected with globalization.”
Wherever they come from in the world, they share common ground: they make up the face of the expat in Indonesia today.
Some broad sweeping statements
They are employed as teachers, aid workers, embassy staff, public policy specialists, journalists, lawyers, advertising executives and telecommunication professionals.
They are in the oil and gas industry, in banking and finance, and hospitality, and employed by multinational firms. Many hold double degrees and are at least bilingual.
Some come with families, including trailing partners and children. They are sent here by their employers or posted by their country’s government.
Others chose to come here alone, seeking work as they go, wanting desperately to fit in here more than they do at home.
Many are here to complete an internship or advance their career – they’ll work hard, make a difference, make money and move on. A few fall in love and stay here forever, growing families and new lives.
They can fill the city’s nightspots and disgrace themselves without any sense of shame -- flaunting their money, buying into the sex scene and lapping up all that living in a big poor Asian city can provide the desperate and dateless, the sad and lonely.
The will live in housing compounds, complete with barbed wire gates, and will employ more staff than anyone requires, telling themselves they are creating jobs, knowing it won’t be the same once they return home. They choose never to engage with the Indonesian world outside their expatriate bubble, and rarely mingle beyond a tight circle of friends.
But many also do the best they can to find some kind of equilibrium in a city that is so different from their norm – they learn the language and become friends with locals, their staff and their colleagues. They know their stay is short term, and they want to make the best of it.
It is an enormous cross-section of people that make up Jakarta’s expatriate community – and of course it includes the ones who don’t fit in anywhere, because they just don’t want to.
Labels are easy, and broad sweeping statements abound, but what seems clear is Jakarta’s expats are a little different to those in Hong Kong and Singapore. It’s tougher here, say many, there’s more to accept, more to learn and a lot of adjusting must take place.
But longtime expatriate Daniel Ziv says Jakarta is no longer perceived as the “hardship” outpost of the past.
The Canadian first came here in 1998, and remembers how expats would shuttle in and out of the Indonesian capital as though it was a “dangerous war-zone … which of course it never was …”
“I think perceptions of living and working here have changed for the better … it has normalized to a degree,” says Ziv, the founder of groundbreaking Djakarta! magazine in the late 1990s and author of the Jakarta Inside Out guide.
Dispelling the myths
Popular opinion has for many years pointed at male bule living in over-sized South Jakartan mansions as the most obvious example of the expatriate here, but for more than 15 years at least, popular opinion couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Asian expatriate contingent is strong, and figures suggest it’s getting stronger.
And despite hard facts being thin on the ground, many also agree more single women are coming to Jakarta to work in aid, development, public policy, journalism, tourism and teaching.
In 1995, The Jakarta Post reported more than 57,000 non-Indonesian citizens were living and working in Jakarta – a massive community compared to 1984 when there were just 18,000.
During its peak growth period, in the mid 1990s, some 20 percent of Jakarta’s foreign community was made up of Koreans, with a working population of 11,668.
A very close second was the Japanese expatriate population with 9,442, Taiwanese were third with 5,694, Indians with 4,121, Americans with 3, 537 and Australians with 3,049.
Then the 1997 financial crisis struck, followed by the 1998 riots and the end of the New Order regime, and many expatriates sought safer shores, either in their homelands or a new land.
Today, most embassies can provide only guesstimates of expatriates employed and living in Jakarta, and despite the enormous shakeout that occurred between 1998 and 2005 -- it seems Koreans, Japanese, Americans and Indians continue to make up the majority of a population of approximately 39,000 in Jakarta alone.
The South Korean Embassy told the Weekender it knows there to be some 30,000 expatriate Koreans working in Indonesia, 70 percent of whom live in Jakarta.
The American Embassy said it has 7,700 U.S. citizens registered in Jakarta and figures for non-ethnic Indians are guessed to be sitting somewhere around the same.
Official Japanese Embassy figures put its expatriate community today at 11,200 in Indonesia, 6,470 of whom live and work in Jakarta. This is followed by Taiwan, with some 7,000 in Indonesia, including 1,000 residing in Jakarta.
The Australian Embassy said they have 1,000 expatriates registered as employed in Jakarta, but one official said it is probably more likely 3,000. And they don’t all live in Kemang.
So who comes here and why?
The Asianization of the expatriate community here started in the 1970s with pro-trade Japanese and Korean firms investing heavily in agriculture, machinery and later electronics.
Investment into Indonesia led to rapid industrialization and the arrival of more foreign investors.
But economic and political stability is not something Indonesia has offered its investors or its foreign community, and between 1998 and 2005, the financial crisis, terrorist bombings and natural disasters saw thousands of expatriates leave, never to return.
Today, despite an extraordinarily tumultuous past, public opinion suggests the international community is making a comeback, little by little, along with the city’s growth and development.
Asian expatriates stayed on during the various crises, and others, particularly from mainland China, India and the Philippines, today fill middle management positions.
Kemang and Kebayoran Baru in South Jakarta and Menteng in Central Jakarta remain popular residential hubs for expats but new areas – Blok S in South Jakarta, Kelapa Gading in North Jakarta, among others – also with sizable and growing expat communities.
In a sign of the changing times, Kemchicks, a shopping institution for expats living in Kemang, relocated last year to Pacific Place mall in Central Jakarta (a luxury apartment building is being built on its former site, which will reportedly include a Kemchicks).
Young and single career-minded men and women are making their way here for opportunities that are simply not available on their home turf. This developing country can help build careers, but at the same time it is a treasure trove of culture, travel, music and people – and it is to the archipelago’s capital city the next wave of adventurous expatriates are moving.
“Life in Jakarta is exciting and challenging,” says Verena Streitferdt, a 28-year-old German who has experienced expat life in South Africa and England. “Every day you have to adapt to a different situation and you never know if your day will go as you have planned.”
The harsh contrasts found in a teeming urban area can be difficult to handle, she adds.
“There are people living more comfortably than they ever could in Europe, but there are kids begging on the streets. The natural catastrophes like earthquakes or floods challenge your perspective on life and what you are doing with it every day.”
But like their fellow Jakartans, expats learn to live with the traffic jams, social inequities and frustratingly poor attention to the city’s infrastructure.
“Expats are aware that in recent years the country has stabilized significantly in terms of economics, security and even living standards,” says Daniel Ziv, adding half-jokingly that “many don’t want to admit it because of jinxing that cushy ‘hardship’ pay”.
“And many of them realize that in terms of professional experience and even personal interest, Indonesia still offers far greater opportunities than many of its more 'sophisticated' Asian neighbors.”
Jakarta is no expat-friendly Singapore or Hong Kong in terms of convenience and comfort, but that is part of the attraction for some. As Ziv points out, the dining and shopping scenes are excellent, international schools are improving, the nightlife is “legendary” and there is a “buzz” among the expats who come here and grow to love it.
“In a sense, I think Jakarta has changed from being a city that expatriates love to hate, to the one that they hate to love,” he says.