Indonesian diaspora welcomes dual citizenship plan, but details needed to make it a reality

Indonesian Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan speaking at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, on Nov 22, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

JAKARTA –  A plan by the Indonesian government to offer dual citizenship to former citizens, to entice those with skills to return, has been given a big thumbs-up by the diaspora. But far more details are needed to make this a reality, analysts and officials say.

The proposal – announced in April without details by a senior minister – comes at a time when countries are competing to attract talent, with Indonesia itself keen to move up from an upper-middle-income economy to a high-income country.

President-elect Prabowo Subianto told an investment forum in March that he is aiming for annual growth of 8 per cent in the five years of his term. This compares with annual economic expansion of just over 5 per cent in the last two years.

Indonesia’s law does not recognise dual citizenship for adults, and a child holding two passports must choose one and renounce the other when they turn 18.

The country has suffered from a brain drain as skilled locals shifted their citizenship to the countries where they work and live, often driven by better career opportunities and much higher pay. Nearly 4,000 young Indonesians, for example, obtained Singapore passports from 2019 to 2022, according to Indonesia’s Immigration Office.

In total, there are around six million people in the Indonesian diaspora, based on government data. They include skilled and unskilled workers, along with their families, with some having renounced their citizenship and others remaining Indonesian.

Indonesian Diaspora Network Global president Sulistyawan Wibisono called the government’s plan a “strategic step”, saying it would give the nation a boost should former Indonesian citizens return. 

“If the Indonesian diaspora can enter Indonesia without many hurdles, they – with their expertise – will bring positive impact to the businesses,” said Mr Sulistyawan, a 47-year-old Melbourne-based trademark attorney.

The professionals now working overseas could fill jobs in various fields in the homeland such as information technology (IT), financial services, mining and healthcare, he told The Straits Times. 

Like other foreigners, former Indonesian citizens must have the necessary employment permits in order to work in the country.

Melbourne-based IT specialist Jeffry Merril Liando, 51, said that beyond skills, those offered dual citizenship may bring a new work culture into their Indonesian workplaces. “They may break the (existing) culture of bureaucracy. As they have nothing to lose, they might be more brave and outspoken,” he told ST. “This may affect Indonesian work culture, and change the attitude of its people.”

Mr Liando renounced his Indonesian citizenship in 2015 and became a New Zealander. His daughter, Kezia Liando, 19, followed his step in 2017. His wife, Ms Krisna Liando, 50, remains Indonesian and his son, Isaiah Liando, 15, holds dual citizenship. They also live in Melbourne.

Melbourne-based IT specialist Jeffry Merril Liando (right), who renounced his Indonesian citizenship in 2015 to become a New Zealander, is willing to return to and work in Indonesia. CREDIT: COURTESY OF JEFFRY MERRIL LIANDO

He hopes to return to Indonesia to work in the near future to contribute to the development of his birth country, and would like the same opportunity for his two children.

Indonesian Restu Satriotomo, who has worked in Belgium for 13 years, is keen to apply for Belgian citizenship, which will give him more flexibility to work across Europe, among other advantages.  But the 41-year-old bank executive will do so only if Indonesia allows dual citizenship.

For now, he is holding on to his Indonesian citizenship because he wants to retain his family’s assets in Indonesia and retire there some day.

Indonesian national Restu Satriotomo, 41, who has worked for 13 years in Belgium, is hoping to apply for Belgian citizenship, which he said would offer more flexibility to work across Europe. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RESTU SATRIOTOMO

Still, Indonesia’s dual citizenship plan excites him.

“If, let’s say, one day I can get a good (job) offer in Indonesia and be appreciated as an international expert, I can use my expertise, knowledge of the Indonesian language and culture to bring added value to Indonesian companies, allowing them to gain a higher competitive edge,” he said. 

The dual citizenship plan was made public on April 30 by Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan, ahead of a meeting between President Joko Widodo and Mr Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, which has pledged a US$1.7 billion (S$2.3 billion) investment in the country.

Mr Luhut said that the government may soon give dual citizenship to former Indonesian citizens living overseas, which he thinks “will bring very skilful Indonesians back to Indonesia”.  

But he did not offer details such as what the government is doing to make this plan come true, and how it could convince lawmakers to approve the plan, which is controversial in the country.

Moreover, Mr Prabowo, who will be inaugurated as Indonesia’s next president in October, has not given his views on the issue.

In the nearly 10 years of Mr Widodo’s administration, the plan to accommodate dual citizenship has emerged several times.

In 2016, he revealed the government’s intention to amend the Citizenship Law, which would include the dual citizenship provision. But Parliament blocked him, saying the move would compromise national security.

Concerns were raised then that giving citizenship to foreign nationals could result in a rise in crimes such as terrorism and illegal drug trading.

Observers and officials acknowledged the complexity of the process to make the scheme a reality.

Indonesian director-general for immigration Silmy Karim told ST: “Changing the laws is not easy, and the deliberation of its amendments until the new laws are passed takes time.”   

Dr Siwage Dharma Negara, a senior fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, said that he does not see any urgency in recognising dual citizenship now, and questioned if it was the only option to bring back Indonesians.

“Can’t they be lured by other means? Why not start a pilot project by fulfilling what is needed by the desired workers?” he said. 

“The political process to realise the dual citizenship policy is long,” he added, referring to the amendment of laws in Parliament. 

Centre for Economic and Law Studies executive director Bhima Yudhistira said that dual citizenship alone will not effectively entice the Indonesian diaspora to work in Indonesia due to a significant salary gap between local and overseas companies. 

“Jobs in the services sector that offer high salaries, especially IT, do not need dual citizenship and permanent stay (in Indonesia),” he said, adding that such hires may work on projects in Indonesia while based overseas.

The dual citizenship scheme will likely attract the older Indonesian diaspora who want to spend more time holidaying or retiring in the country, Mr Bhima said. 

“What we seek is a diaspora of productive age. So there can be an adverse selection,” he said.

Still, for some of the skilled workers abroad, the lower cost of living in Indonesia could tempt them to return should they continue to earn high salaries.

“Given the high cost of living in America and other Western countries as well, I think it will entice more of the Indonesian diaspora to live and work in Indonesia with the appeal of a very high quality of life,” said 25-year-old Imam Widodo, a machine learning engineer at Apple in Silicon Valley who gave up his Indonesian citizenship at 18 to become an American.  

This article has been edited for accuracy.

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