Tale of two populisms: Uncertainty among New York’s Indonesian student diaspora

guarantor for renting
Guarantors can be a good alternative if you need to rent in the US and do not meet the landlord’s requirements. Source: Shutterstock

At an event at the Indonesian Consulate in New York in June, visiting Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs of Indonesia General (rtd) Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan addressed the young Indonesian university students who were among the crowd.

His message to these potential future leaders and entrepreneurs of the world’s fourth most populous nation was clear – work overseas for a few years after graduation, obtain as much professional experience and knowledge, and then bring these assets back for the benefit of Indonesia.

This was not empty political rhetoric, but rather an implicit recognition of Indonesia’s ongoing skills shortage – Southeast Asia’s largest economy has been facing skills gaps in key sectors such as technology, tourism and engineering.

At the same time, the number of Indonesian students enrolled in educational institutions in the US has risen to almost 9,000, a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year, according to figures published by US-based International Educational Exchange. This strong growth carries the risk that some of Indonesia’s best and brightest will be tempted to remain overseas indefinitely. According to Indonesia Service Dialogue Council deputy executive director IBP Angga Antagia, this is a concern as “the transfer of knowledge (from overseas) is necessary for (Indonesia’s) competitiveness in the current era of globalisation.”

While skills shortages are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia, the current situation facing Indonesians studying in the US is. Indonesian students in US universities have felt caught between two ideologically-opposed populist movements in the US and in Indonesia respectively.

On the one hand, the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and the perceived anti-Muslim and anti-immigration undertones of his presidency have distressed many Indonesian students in the US, including in Trump’s hometown of New York.

Daud, a Muslim postgraduate student from Jakarta studying in New York said, “When Trump first attempted to introduce the travel ban, I was on holiday in Indonesia and so I became worried that I wouldn’t be allowed back into the US to finish my course.”

Muslim students have not been alone in their anxieties. Stephanie, also a postgraduate student from Jakarta but raised a Catholic, said Trump’s election initially made her question her pre-conceptions of the US as being a champion for human rights and women’s empowerment, and hence whether she had made the right decision to study there.

Ahok is now serving a two-year jail term for blasphemy. Source: Reuters/Beawiharta

At the same time, members of the Indonesian student diaspora in New York have watched with dismay the political events that have unfolded in Jakarta over the last 12 months, such as the sentencing of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama to two years in prison on blasphemy charges.

Students who sympathised with Ahok have perceived strong undercurrents of racial and religious intolerance in some of the demonstrations and vociferous public criticisms of him.

In particular, the prominence of hardline Islamist actors such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is viewed by some Indonesian students in New York as a potential threat to the national ideals of pancasila (Indonesia’s five founding principles) and bhinneka tunggal ika (unity in diversity).

A striking commonality of the Trump campaign and the anti-Ahok movement has been the frequent use of populist tactics. Both have been accused of scapegoating minorities, encouraging religious intolerance, and exploiting fears that the elite are indifferent to the concerns of the grassroots.

Despite concerns about populist politics in both countries, there is an important difference in the minds of Indonesian students residing in New York.

From their perspective, New York is a stronghold against pockets of xenophobic nationalism elsewhere in the US. Many Indonesian students, regardless of race and religion, currently perceive New York to be a safe environment in which they can freely express their political views and criticisms without fear of recrimination or being stereotyped.

A solidarity for Ahok protest was held in New York in May 2017. Source: Craig Oehlers.

In contrast, Indonesian students of various political allegiances have felt that certain political events in Jakarta, such as the gubernatorial election in April, had been dominated by issues of race and religion at the expense of free debate about policy.

For Agnes (not her real name), an Ahok supporter who has been active among Indonesian university student groups in New York, the public discourse has become too simplistic in certain aspects.

“It has seemed (among some segments in Jakarta) that if you did not support Ahok, then the assumption was you were prejudiced or religiously intolerant… which was not necessarily true.”

Fears of being stereotyped have occasionally suppressed online debate about government policies.

According to Daud, “Even educated people who I knew disagreed with some of Ahok’s urban development policies wouldn’t share their views online for fear (of being categorised as racist or religiously intolerant).”

Conversely, Shofi, a Muslim postgraduate student who has lived in Jakarta, has heard first-hand accounts of educated Muslim professionals in Jakarta having capitulated to pressure to vote against Ahok due to perceived religious loyalties.

These impediments to free speech, and tensions within Jakartan society, have the potential to be a disincentive for Indonesian students to return home, regardless of ethnic or religious background.

Amy, an Indonesian Chinese who grew up in Jakarta but has studied in New York for almost two years, said “my feelings on whether to remain in New York after graduation or return home have shifted back and forth over the last 12 months” in response to the ebb and flow of political turbulence in the US and Indonesia respectively. Overall, she has felt more comfortable in New York as she perceives “greater solidarity among New Yorkers.”

Shofi, despite being a member of the Indonesia’s Muslim majority, feels it will be difficult to adjust back to Jakartan society as she will face resistance to her more “liberal views” in the current political and religious climate. This issue, in addition to professional reasons, underpins her plans to remain longer in New York.

Some Indonesian students in New York, who are scholarship recipients, are obligated to temporarily return to Indonesia after graduation.

However, in the era of increasing global labour mobility, relying on scholarship commitments is not a long-term solution for governments seeking to retain high-skilled talent. Policy-makers and community leaders in Indonesia will need to address not only any economic disincentives, but also the domestic socio-political issues that concern many Indonesian students overseas.

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