Teh Botol is my favorite beverage. This wonderful, bottled Jasmine tea is sold for 50 cents on the streets of Jakarta. When consumed in my beloved but crowded, hot and polluted home city, Teh Botol refreshes the body and the spirit like nothing else in the world. I have been drinking Teh Botol since I was a child. When I came to study in the United States in my early teens, however, I could not find it at even the most “authentic” Asian grocery stores. Years later, while browsing through the aisles of a major supermarket chain, I was stopped in my tracks when I discovered my beloved Teh Botol had finally arrived. It was like seeing my oldest friend appear before me. One drink, however, convinced me that it was no mirage and made me feel complete. The appearance of this longed-for treasure mirrors my own life and that of many among the Indonesian diaspora. Indeed, Teh Botol and I have journeyed far to where we are today. Our trips are a testament to the world we live in — a global village where borders disappear and one country’s daughter can purchase her national beverage a half-world away. Because of this connection, it is of utmost importance that the Indonesian diaspora has a truly global perspective while being able to embrace its diversity.
As an Indonesian citizen who has been living in the United States for more than two decades now, I am honored to have been invited to speak at the upcoming Congress of Indonesian Diaspora 2012, held in Los Angeles from July 6-8. The congress aims to inspire the diverse Indonesian communities abroad to unite and create a formidable force to help improve our beloved homeland. The CID will be a first-of-its-kind gathering, conducted specifically for the Indonesian diaspora. The event, and the paradigm shift in thinking to proactively harness the power of the Indonesian diaspora, are long overdue. It is estimated that there are 6 million Indonesians abroad. Their professions, education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds are quite diverse. They range from students, professionals and entrepreneurs to artists, domestic workers and others. Although they may come from diverse backgrounds, one common thread unites them — their common identity, rooted in the motherland. Historically, the media has not focused much on Indonesian diaspora communities. When it does, it usually focuses on unfortunate incidents of domestic abuse or illegal immigration, painting a not-so-impressive picture of the conditions of Indonesians residing abroad. It is time for the Indonesian diaspora to tell its story — the challenges and triumphs — and the potential they offer for Indonesia. History has shown that other diaspora communities have had major economic, social and political impacts. In his book “Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India Are Reshaping Their Futures — and Yours,” Harvard Business School professor Tarun Khanna focuses on how overseas Chinese and Indians have contributed to the rise of their respective homelands as economic powers.
China’s “bamboo networks” have been attributed to helping it attract significant foreign direct investment. With the help of its diaspora, China has won the race to become the world’s pre-eminent manufacturing power. The Chinese government is attracting overseas Chinese in a wide range of sectors, not just for manufacturing opportunities but for their knowledge, technology and culture sensibilities. The Indian diaspora has historically distinguished itself in the information technology sector, nowhere more apparent than in my own backyard here in Silicon Valley, the world’s mecca for cutting-edge technology. Indians have been very influential. The Indian government is now luring many Indian scientists, engineers, professionals and entrepreneurs back home to help India become the world’s technology hub. Equivalent engagement of the Indonesian diaspora is needed for Indonesia’s development. Many Indonesian communities abroad have gathered to socialize. Depending on the type of group — students, professionals, and others — most of the gatherings focus on social events such as makan-makan, religious or national celebrations. Seldom do these gatherings develop into something more substantial. There are many Indonesians abroad who have achieved greatness in their professional and personal lives. There are icons such as Sehat Sutardja from Marvell Technology, Sri Mulyani from the World Bank and all of the accomplished Indonesians involved with the CID. If we could all get together to create a compelling vision for our positive engagements with Indonesia and marshal the resources necessary to achieve that vision, I am confident we will be able to inspire ourselves and others to help build an even better Indonesia for everyone. The CID is a first step, not an end in itself. I am hopeful that it will continue its momentum for many years to come. Moreover, we cannot effect change without proactive engagement with the Indonesian government and the governments of the adopted countries where we reside. It is imperative that the CID be a place where a multitude of stakeholders gather and create a strong ecosystem of dialogue and partnerships. As Teh Botol refreshes thirst in hot and humid Jakarta — and even in foggy San Francisco — I hope the CID can provide a refreshing catalyst in fostering a more complete understanding of the diverse Indonesian diaspora and a more genuine embrace of our diversity, thus enabling us to work together to help create a better Indonesia for all. Clean technology expert Sonita Lontoh, an Indonesian national, is an executive at Trilliant, a venture-backed company in Silicon Valley. Follow Sonita on Twitter @slontoh.
The Jakarta Globe