Commentary by Wayne Forrest

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home

-Bob Dylan

Immigration anxiety is now an issue shared by the US and Indonesia. Both countries have political leaders (elected or unelected) who talk about a “flood” of illegal immigrants even though statistics prove otherwise. For Indonesia it’s the Chinese laborer who may or may not have entered legally to work on an energy or infrastructure project taking a badly needed job from a local. The narrative in the US is related to criminality, tangentially about jobs. In both countries strong hints of racism or ethnocentrism rear their ugly heads, especially in the social media echo chamber.

Fear of the immigrant is easily tied to nationalism and the idea that a foreign company operating in a country is unnatural or worse yet, “evil”. How unfortunate that almost 70 years after Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonial rule foreign firms are still being characterized by popular politicians as “stealing Indonesia’s wealth”. Even with a low employment rate some in the US blame refugees at US borders from taking advantage of a “weak America” to get a low wage job and accusations are flung at foreign countries for pirating US jobs, technology and wealth through illegal trade barriers and discriminatory practices. Interdependent trade and investment is at best imperfect but we have generally been able to work on mitigating its dislocations by sticking together, improving international institutions, and not acting alone. However, a “me first” illiberalism is today’s currency whose value is rising.

In the past America’s global leadership could be expected to push back against xenophobic tendencies by pointing to its own example, but not currently. That task is now left to civil society: business groups and NGO’s. Expat workers are immigrants, even if most are temporary. We must insure their protection. America is a huge recipient of foreign investment and exports count for millions of job. Similarly, Indonesia cannot grow its economy without a strong element of foreign investment and expertise. Most Americans and Indonesians welcome their neighbors from other countries; the multicultural basis of both countries breeds tolerance. We can get past this period of intemperance but it will take stronger leadership.

This week we were reminded by The NY Times Jakarta correspondent, Joe Cochrane, that President Jokowi’s March decree on foreign work permits contained a provision mandating employers provide Indonesian language instruction. Due to go into effect July 1, the decree also responded to the requests of many foreign chambers of commerce to simplify the issuance and renewal of work permits. The language requirement has come up and died down several times over the years so perhaps had Mr. Cochrane not resurfaced the issue the government may have just done nothing, given how hard it would be to implement. Now, clarifications will have to be made, meanwhile a false perception has already been generated that Indonesia does not welcome foreign investment and workers. (That may be true for laborers but not for management and technical personnel.) The President may be serving notice to his critics that he understands that regardless of the facts, foreign workers are an issue. Lets hope he is not cornered by his opponents to implement the language mandate in a way that inhibits business. Although most expats gain some knowledge of bahasa, their co-workers often have a high degree of English fluency. A policy based on creating incentives and vehicles for language instruction would have been a much better approach.

Unfortunately, I expect the issue of “foreignness” to be an issue in the 2019 Presidential election. In a 37 minute video address he made recently via Facebook, Gerindra Chair Prabowo Subianto pledged to make alarm about foreigners the focal point of his 2019 campaign. He railed against foreign debt and foreign investment, and called for state control over the economy, lest Indonesians become “slaves”. I am doubtful strategy this will ultimately be effective, but then again, few predicted the outcome of our 2016 election, or the Brexit vote.

(The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce or its members)