Monday, January 31, 2011

Dateline Jakarta: Welcome to Indonesia — or Not? Xenophobia Rears Its Ugly Head

I didn’t stand in line last week to buy tickets to Justin Bieber’s upcoming concert in Jakarta. I would, however, consider lining up for a chance to slap him across the face. Call me mean, but I simply can’t stand the kid’s wind-swept hair and button nose.

But then again, I should be praising Bieber for wanting to perform here in front of his Indonesian fans. Hopefully it will serve as a catalyst for other big-name acts to play Jakarta, further enhancing the capital and Indonesia’s reputation internationally as a great place to visit.

Of course, the dark forces against such an open-door policy remain alive and well. So does the historic xenophobia that prompts politicians to occasionally blast foreigners and blame them for all of Indonesia’s problems, which helps explain the country’s dismal tourism figures.

The latest such tirade came from Patrialis Akbar, the minister of justice and human rights. Patrialis matter-of-factly declared last week that it was a foreigner’s fault that convicted tax cheat Gayus Tambunan was able to leave Indonesia at will last year on a fake passport while he was supposed to have been in jail awaiting trial for corruption.

Yes, of course, it’s not the fault of the police guards who accepted bribes, or the immigration officials who allowed Gayus to leave the country. No, it was some unknown American’s fault for allegedly helping to get him a fake passport. And this alleged scoundrel, John Jerome Grice, who also allegedly had a bogus foreign residency sponsor, has left the country.

The Indonesian government’s attempts to nab Grice by contacting Interpol and requesting a “red flag” be issued against him are laughable. As if this guy matters in the big picture, which in Gayus’s case is massive collusion and corruption among the National Police, state prosecutors, a court judge and tax-evading big business.

Perhaps if Patrialis focused his energies on getting back all those fugitive Indonesian business tycoons who robbed the country of billions during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and then fled to Singapore, the country’s child malnutrition and poverty rates would be lower. Of course, that would require senior government officials to take responsibility for the mind-boggling corruption, injustices and impunity that are occurring with increasing frequency in Indonesia as its democracy and anticorruption drives flounder.

Instead, Patrialis says he’s going to launch a crackdown on foreigners working in Indonesia — as if expats are the source of everything that ails the country. I’m looking forward to any new regulations, apparently with the minister personally reviewing every one of the tens of thousands of foreign work permits.

Actually, none of them are legitimate. That’s because every foreigner working in Indonesia has to pay "fees" to obtain a visa and work permit. This is one of the worst-kept secrets in Indonesia. Perhaps Patrialis would be better served by continuing to root out the graft within the Directorate General of Immigration than targeting foreigners, which of course will only create more opportunities for government officials to demand bribes.

And what do foreign residents get in return? Well, they get to live in a country where they are publicly blamed for its problems. They get to live in one of the most polluted capital cities in Asia. They get to endure having their wives and girlfriends sexually harassed on the streets and in taxis. They get to tell their children that they can’t play outside because they fear them either getting run over by a motorcycle or kidnapped. And they get to go to shopping malls, hotels and their embassies with a feeling in the back of their minds that they could be blown up by terrorists.

Patrialis also said he would examine all documents submitted by foreigners applying for Indonesian citizenship. Given the stringent requirements, I doubt that will take up much of the minister’s time, but he asserted that he will reject any applicant who doesn’t show a “love for the country.”

Fair enough, but I think that should also apply to people everywhere. So do the tens of thousands of Indonesians living in my country, the United States, love America? While they’re enjoying one of the highest living standards in the world, financed in part by my tax dollars, are they working to make America a better place?

Maybe Patrialis misspoke, or maybe he was misunderstood. Regardless, his comments were widely reported in the media. And while they won’t prompt foreign tourists to cancel their holidays to Indonesia, such targeting is not going to help the tourism industry, while the industry needs all the help it can get.

Indonesia’s neighbor Malaysia received more than 26 million visitors in 2010, while Indonesia received less than seven million. And the clear majority of foreign visitors who come to Indonesia on holiday go to Bali. It should be a source of national chagrin that the most popular tourist attraction in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation is a Hindu island.

So what to do? Indonesia still doesn’t realize the benefits of tourism and foreign labor talent, unlike another of its neighbors, Singapore, which had more than 11 million visitors in 2010. Singapore and Malaysia throw a lot of time, money and effort into promoting themselves internationally, while Indonesia leaves its reputation to the whims of foreign correspondents based here.

India has gotten in on the act with its “Amazing India” campaign. Can we have something, anything, here, like “Awesome Indonesia,” “Intrepid Indonesia” or even “Indonesia: Why Not?” Or does the country, deep down, not want too many tourists here, or does it not see their value beyond squeezing dollars out of them?

If this is the case, there needs to be a complete rethink, starting with the realization that the Ministry of Tourism isn’t doing the job and should be replaced by a tourism authority run by private-sector experts. The last thing Indonesia needs in its tourism industry is politics.

But finally, the country needs to shake its historic xenophobia, which hopefully will come with time as it consolidates its democratic system. And if the result is welcoming more performers like Justin Bieber to Jakarta — silly hair and all — there could be a lot worse things to endure.

By Joe Cochrane contributing editor for the Jakarta Globe.

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