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Indonesia’s rise in prominence on the global stage has unfortunately not been accompanied by its ability to tell its own stories. The Indonesian story abroad is still largely told by non-Indonesians. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it is devoid of the perspectives and the aspirations of the Indonesians, the people who are experiencing and making the dramatic changes that are taking place in the fourth most populous nation in the world.
Now with Indonesia’s international profile rising, there is a growing international demand for the Indonesian story, or stories, to be told preferably by Indonesians. The government’s decision to recognize the role and potential contribution from the growing ranks of the Indonesian diaspora abroad last year could not have come earlier. These Indonesians, whether they retain their Indonesian citizenship or have taken up new nationalities in their new homes, make the best tellers of the Indonesian story.
I had the fortune to live and work in the United States as a senior fellow at the East-West Center office in Washington DC for almost one year in 2011. My specific assignment there was to help the center explain Asia, most particularly of course Indonesia, to the US crowd, particularly but not exclusively the policy establishment.
The East-West Center, with headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii, runs a small office in the US capital to help explain the importance of the Asia Pacific region to the US national interests. I was privileged to help with that function, with a room in its office a few blocks from the White House and Congress Building.
The time I spent there qualified me to be a member of the Indonesian diaspora. This is not the first time that I have spent a considerably long time abroad, including my time as the son of a diplomat in my childhood and later on as a college student and participant of various fellowship programs. But I can definitely vouch that global interest about Indonesia, and about the Indonesian story, has never been as high as it is today.
Not without a reason, too.
In the past decade or so, thanks to the democratization process and the accompanying economic development, Indonesia has earned a positive labeling in international media and literature: the third largest democracy in the world, the largest democracy among Muslim-majority countries, the largest and most important Southeast Asian economy. In compliance with the constitutional mandate, Indonesia is playing a bigger role in promoting global peace and prosperity. Its economy is now in the ranks of the 20 largest in the world, and at the present rate of growth all predictions say that Indonesia will be in the top 10 by 2025 and even the top five by 2040.
China, and to a lesser extent India, have obviously taken most of the spotlight when discussing the rise of Asia, but many in the policy establishment in Washington are also looking at other rising players in Asia, most notably Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. But while there are enough Chinese and Indians to tell their own stories, there aren’t enough Indonesians who are telling the Indonesian story to the world.
Now that Indonesia is becoming an important global player, the world wants to know a lot more about the country, about its people, its cultures and traditions, its political and economic systems and the aspirations of the people. For now, the Indonesian story is still largely being told by non-Indonesians. The major American media, for example, still focus too much on old familiar issues such as terrorism, radical Islam, natural disasters and military impunity, when reporting about Indonesia.
While these stories are important, there are other stories about Indonesia that need to be told: The struggle of an emerging democracy, the people’s aspirations for all types of freedom, the challenges of peoples with diverse racial, ethnical, cultural and religious backgrounds trying to live together as one nation. There are stories about Islam in Indonesia (and Southeast Asia) that defy negative stereotypes people in the West have about Muslims.
In the absence of enough literature about Indonesia written in English or any other foreign language (this merits a separate discussion), the story of Indonesia for now will have to be narrated by its own people wherever they are. All the Indonesian missions abroad are doing their part and I know the Indonesian Embassy in Washington DC is working very hard to tell the Indonesian story. But Indonesia needs a lot more than that.
The best contribution that the Indonesian diaspora abroad can give to their home country is to help tell the Indonesian story to people wherever they have set up their home today. I know some of them are already doing this in their own way and among their circle of friends, often serving them Indonesian food.
But we need a lot more from them. And we need them to tell the story as it is, good or bad.
This article is prepared for the seminar on “The Rising Impact of Diaspora on Indonesia” organized by the Indonesia Diaspora Business Council to be held in Jakarta on Feb. 26.