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by Jennie S. Bev

Last August, Dino Patti Djalal, the Indonesian ambassador to the United States, sent an email to Indonesians living there containing an open letter and a photograph of him and his family with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. The email is part of an interesting new initiative to enable Indonesians who live abroad, in this case the US, to have dual citizenship. Currently, Indonesians are not allowed to hold two passports, and children from mixed marriages must decide by the time they are 18 whether to be Indonesian or take the citizenship of their non-Indonesian parent.

Instead of ruminating about the negative concept of “brain drain,” Djalal’s initiative would illuminate the Indonesian diaspora as an important source of skills and knowledge capital for their motherland, or “soft power” as Joseph Nye, the famed Harvard professor, might say.

It is a great idea, as this seed of discourse may eventually be considered seriously among Indonesian lawmakers and politicians and passed into law. Separately, a petition proposing dual citizenship is also currently circulating among Indonesians living abroad. The first few bricks needed to build this bridge have been laid.

In addition to proposing dual citizenship, Djalal also suggested creating a “brain bank” in which information about Indonesian scholars and professionals living abroad is put into a database, such as their resume and skills set. The goal here is cultivating stronger ties between Indonesians in the US and Indonesians back in Southeast Asia through cultural and intellectual collaboration. “Indonesian” means anyone who identifies themselves by any of the following: ethnicity, citizenship, nationality or culture.

Djalal also said it is necessary for Indonesia, as a “rising power,” to distinguish between “nationalism” and “citizenship.” One’s citizenship is often a matter of legal convenience rather than romantic or philosophical consideration. In this argument, one’s chosen citizenship may not lessen their sense of nationalism toward their country of origin. The opposite may even occur, as the easier the transfer of tangible and intangible elements between two countries becomes, the better the chance for their peoples to collaborate on common goals.

Citizens of Mexico, Canada, Australia and the Philippines, for example, enjoy dual citizenship. While the ambassador also mentioned India, the country actually does not allow dual citizenship. India has a unique citizenship law that may fall into “pseudo” dual citizenship, and is similar to the concept of permanent residency in other countries. It is called Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI).

India has made bilateral agreements with 16 countries under its OCI scheme: Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the US. The concept of OCI is similar to having two citizenships, except the individual has no voting rights in India and is ineligible to get an Indian passport, and cannot hold public office, apply for a civil servant position or acquire land in India.

This arrangement has proven to have many benefits for India, one of which is noticeable in Silicon Valley, California, where one-third of the engineers are Indians. Even though most of the Indian expatriates work with a H1B work visa, the option of OCI provides them with a sense of belongingness, knowing that they have the final say on whether or not they want to reside long-term in the US. In the peak of Web 1.0 in 1998, Silicon Valley boasted 11,443 tech firms but only 774 Indian CEOs. From 1995 to 2005, however, approximately 15 percent of Silicon Valley startups were established by Indians, who were the largest immigrant group followed by Chinese.

We can safely assume that India’s economic rise is partly due to the strong “invisible bridge” between overseas Indians and Indians back home. It is common knowledge that Indian IT mavens have been enjoying the receiving end of the “outsourced” economy. So given Indonesia’s own rising stature, it is time to use this momentum to reform the obsolete notion of Indonesian “nationalism based on citizenship” and create more opportunities and foster better relationships abroad.

Undoubtedly, citizenship is a sensitive subject, as one’s loyalty and patriotism can be questioned. Many Indonesians are more accustomed to the notion that one’s nationalism is determined by one’s choice of citizenship. However, this concept is both archaic and parochial and could foster ultranationalism in Indonesia. An extreme devotion to nationalism not only endangers good relationships with other countries, it also closes doors to progress. British political theorist Roger Griffin developed the “palingenetic ultranationalism” theory, in which an element of fascism exists. On an extreme level, such nationalism enables a severe ideology, or fascism, to grow within its exclusivity.

Contrary to “ultranationalism,” the underlying fundamentals of dual citizenship are inclusiveness, equality and respect for fellow nations and peoples. Dual citizenship favors communication and openness, and assumes equality and friendship among individuals, groups and nations. The parochial mindset would be challenged to better address the demands of today’s highly interconnected world, where the diaspora are regarded as an asset, not a liability.

For instance, individuals who can speak two or more languages and are adaptable to various cultures may find themselves more marketable internationally and at home. And those with international educations are likely to excel regardless of any geographic restrictions.

Human migration dates back more than one million years with  homo erectus, and thus is not something to be frowned upon. The Human Genome Project has shown via recorded genetic data that homo sapiens were migrating more than 150,000 years ago and had spread to Australia, Asia and Europe by 40,000 BC.

Today, approximately 40 million people move from one place to another, including between regions and countries, in the quest of a better life for but not limited to humanitarian, environmental and economic reasons. They bring with them knowledge, skills and previously fostered relationships.

The US has been losing a large number of skilled immigrants due to unfavorable immigration policies, while some of its politicians have been placing giving much emphasis on curbing the number of illegal immigrants. As of 2011, approximately one million skilled workers were waiting for US green cards, which would allow them to legally work. And such a bottleneck is caused by immigration policies that have not been changed in more than 15 years. The US is experiencing tremendous economic, social and political losses as a result of this, all the more concerning given current economic conditions. Meanwhile, immigrants who cannot get their documentation are deciding to return home.

Indonesia can expect similar losses when Indonesian immigrants choose to reside in the US instead of returning home, possibly because they can’t the proper documents in Indonesia. Another possible reason Indonesians choose US citizenship instead of their original one is because their children born in the US are automatically American citizens. It’s preferable that their parents also have US citizenship so they cannot be separated for any legal or immigration-related reason, including but not limited to being deported.

Migration and citizenship are intertwined with issues of national cohesiveness, allegiance and taxation. By legally acknowledging dual citizenship, both countries must equip themselves with appropriate instruments to deal with new and ongoing concerns. However, like Djalal believes, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages because Indonesia and the US have many things to offer each other. A stronger relationship between peoples and cultures is the key to economic prosperity and mutual understanding, which is crucial in today’s integrated and increasingly borderless world.

In the book Theorizing Diaspora, authors Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur said: “While diaspora may be regarded as concomitant with transnationalism, or even in some cases consequent of transnationalist forces, it may not be reduced to such macroeconomic and technological flows. It remains, above all, a human phenomenon — lived and experienced.”

Dual citizenship is a necessity, not a luxury. Developing the legal and political structures to support this noble intention is a small price to pay for a bright future.[]

Strategic Review, February 28, 2012

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