Indonesia Expat

What We Bring to the Table

My family and I are moving house – no small feat in the world’s largest archipelago. Our imminent upheaval to Bandung is a timely opportunity, too, as after years of helping in-laws with matters of health, employment and accommodation, not to mention striving to educate gormless, pampered kids for a salary even the cats outside my house mock, it appears I’m no longer wanted in Makassar. With the new rules having people like me in their sights, I run the risk of not getting another visa. Indeed, the number of expats here seems to be going down faster than a Balinese masseuse, and the particulars are interesting.

The visa regulation changes came about after the arrest of two Canadian teachers at an international school in Jakarta. The evidence was scant and spurious and they’ve since been found guilty in a purported sham trial. Consequently, visa stipulations have been tightened in accordance with a xenophobic knee-jerk to the man-glands of good sense. For example, English language teaching now requires a degree in English despite this having no connection to the job of ELT. Furthermore, five years experience is being demanded up front.

The draw of Indonesia for aspiring teachers has never been its salaries, employers’ integrity or timekeeping. Its appeal has been in playing intriguing host to people wishing to gain skills and cultural insight. Now, what educators will have the trinity of no outstanding student loans, an English degree and be tempted by volunteer-level salaries?

Adding to this, visas for those in trade, service and consulting jobs have been restricted to six months while plans for KITAS holders needing to pass an Indonesian proficiency test have thankfully been postponed; there being near no Indonesian language schools, developed curricula or testing bodies in the known universe, and Indonesian has no clout as a second language outside Indonesia (sometimes in it, when off the beaten track).

But why?

Online articles and barroom banter speculate that amid fuel hikes, the falling Rupiah, ASEAN coming together and disgruntled graduates competing with migrant workers, the political party incumbent has elected to blame the paltry gaggle of 64,000 KITAS holders for being dead weight and stealing jobs from hundreds of millions of Indonesians. And there I was thinking it was cronyism and nepotism stopping people gaining employment on merit. Meanwhile, the government has also sought to make permits and visas easier for foreign investors and tourists bringing in quick bucks for infrastructure development (on paper). All this might be self-defeating.

What Indonesians bring which could be lost

These changes supporting protectionism, fuelled by stirrings of nationalist sentiment, have me intrigued. I’m always curious how it’s never specified what Indonesians should be proud of. For example: could it be in renowned export brands, homegrown innovators, Nobel Prize winners, prolific arts and cinema, ranking in the corruption index, sporting prowess and so on?

Admittedly it’s hard to find much of the above in any country, yet Indonesia remains fascinating for all it offers beyond the usual. By the end of my first year here, I was enamoured by this country for being the antithesis of the UK (a politically-correct nanny state watched over by cameras and ruled by health and safety). I was also charmed by how the common folk innovate like MacGyver on speed – they have to. My in-laws built a house in the jungle that would defecate on anything the Swiss family Robinson could construct (though now surrounded by hundreds of hectares of bare earth for Chinese companies revelling in illegal mining).

And then there’re the skills inherent in culture: boat building, architecture and the mechanics that never let my motorbike go into the light; and the old-timers with tales only of interest to inquisitive foreigners. And don’t get me started on hospitality, the vanishing crafts, costumes, dances, music and breath-taking disappearing land and marine environments! And then my wife recently drove into a pothole in a road built by unscrupulous numpties. We got her to the hospital and the family immediately rallied, responding with emotion and devotion you don’t often see! These are the qualities, I feel, which offer a foundation and future of which anybody could be proud, should, God forbid, new generations here ever be empowered with an education beyond basic literacy.

What expats bring which could be lost

In a time when neighbouring countries are seeking positive solutions to real issues by opening doors, isn’t Indonesia seeking negative solutions to imagined issues by closing them? English is the present lingua franca. That’s significant. Yet good teachers are being turned away in the belief that local graduates can do the same job – usually not quite. Similar stories abound online about the need for foreign project managers, engineers, mining consultants and so on due to Indonesia still trailing behind its neighbours in tertiary education and being unable to supply enough effective workers in specialised fields.

But beyond the dry bones of the issue, don’t all countries benefit from outside help? Though a different beast, the U.K.’s economy is certainly stronger for foreign workers. Similarly, variegated expats in Indonesia continue to give all to contracts while integrating and contributing with respect to local culture, helping to preserve and enjoy qualities that rightly flatter the country. Sulawesi’s been tops for this.

Despite economic growth from haphazardly exploited human and natural resources, I fear the new rules will leave Indonesia further behind its neighbours for the lack of global mixing and input.

A closing ironic observation

My family and I have had a close call. Our move to Bandung came as a stroke of luck/Providence. It’s been heavy. Sadly I sense others haven’t fared so well. While the way opens for those who want to invest money with no socio-environmental safeguards, it seems the more laws that are passed, the more everyday decent people risk waking up outside the law.

(Admittedly an optimistic account of expats – there are some real fruitcakes, too.)

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