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Obama Extols Pluralism at Forum for Overseas Indonesians

Former U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he delivers his speech during the 4th Congress of the Indonesian Diaspora Network in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, July 1, 2017.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama has returned to Jakarta, the Indonesian city that he called home for part of his childhood, to deliver the keynote speech at the fourth Congress of Indonesian Diaspora.

Obama drew parallels between the two “diverse, multiethnic nations” of the United States and Indonesia, and called on young people to fight for democracy.

He spoke at length on the values of pluralism, tolerance, and religious diversity. His remarks are likely to resonate in Jakarta, a city that has been shaken over the past year by a contentious gubernatorial election.

The conference he spoke at was staged Saturday to unite people of Indonesian heritage from all over the world. There were Indonesian diaspora from 55 countries, according to organizers.

Call for tolerance

After reminiscing about his childhood years in Jakarta’s Menteng Dalam neighborhood, and sharing his favorite local foods that he tasted on his family vacation, Obama spoke on the value of diversity in both the United States and Indonesia. Without mentioning the Jakarta election or the last American presidential election, Obama denounced sectarian politics.

Former United States President Barack Obama (2nd L), his wife Michelle (3rd L) along with his daughters Sasha (C) and Malia (2nd R) go rafting while on holiday in Bongkasa Village, Badung Regency, Bali, Indonesia June 26, 2017.
Former United States President Barack Obama (2nd L), his wife Michelle (3rd L) along with his daughters Sasha (C) and Malia (2nd R) go rafting while on holiday in Bongkasa Village, Badung Regency, Bali, Indonesia June 26, 2017.

“We start seeing a rise in sectarian politics, we start seeing a rise in an aggressive kind of nationalism, we start seeing both in developed and developing countries, an increased resentment about minority groups, and the bad treatment of people who don’t look like us or practice the same faith as us.”

Obama praised the religious diversity he had seen on his Indonesia vacation, where he visited Hindu and Buddhist temples that were “protected and cherished” in the world’s largest Muslim country. That tolerance, he told the crowd of more than 3,000, is special, and worth fighting for.

“I believe, by the way, that if you are strong in your own faith, that you should not be worried about someone else’s faith,” he said, to loud applause.

He also affirmed his support for a “market-based liberal economy” in both America and Indonesia, and he said that globalization likely would be a positive force in developing Asian countries. But he acknowledged that there are losers to globalization, and it will be important to keep in mind how governments can serve such citizens, as well.

“We can’t put technology back in the box… what we can do is create social arrangements to guarantee that everyone gets a good education. We can make sure that workers get decent wages,” said Obama.

Diaspora Investment

The forum was organized by former Indonesian ambassador to the United States Dino Patti Djalal, who hopes to forge a diaspora identity for overseas Indonesians similar to that of overseas Chinese and Indians, whose assets played large roles in the latter countries’ economic booms of the last two decades.

Indonesians who work abroad sent home $10.5 billion in remittances in 2015 — the 14th largest amount in the world. The world’s largest remittance destination was India, which received $72.2 billion that same year.

Don’t think of diaspora as brain drain, said Djalal, but rather as a global network. He gave the example of one Indonesian-American engineer in attendance, Sehat Sutardja, who has registered more patents under his name than exist in all of Indonesia.

It remains to be seen whether the effort will have an impact on federal policy towards overseas Indonesians. Indonesia still does not allow dual citizenship with any country, which is the topic of a panel at the Diaspora Forum.

“The government could probably do a better job listening to the concerns of diaspora,” said Wayne Forrest, president of the American-Indonesian Chamber of Commerce. Some countries like, India and Kenya, have created savings bonds specifically for their diaspora. But Forrest didn’t think that was in the cards for Indonesia. “I can’t see the Indonesian government carving out a pathway with different rules” for overseas Indonesians to invest in their country, he said.

Advice for Indonesia

Obama also spoke about climate change and health care, two areas where the United States has struggled to find a policy consensus, and he advised Indonesia to try and learn from its mistakes.

He expressed regret that the United States has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord since he left office, but said he hoped it was “an agreement that even with the temporary absence of American leadership, will still give our children a fighting chance.”

The former president also counseled Indonesia to invest in public infrastructure and health care while it is still developing. America, he told the audience, was one of the few developed countries that did create universal healthcare in the mid-20th century, and it is proving difficult to do so now.

“When the economy grows, [public goods like healthcare] grow with it,” he said.

Finally, he gave some personal advice from his eight-year presidency for anyone pursuing a long-term goal.

“I wasn't worried about what was in the newspapers today," Obama said, when asked about his reputation for remaining calm under pressure. "What I was worried about was, ‘What are they going to write about me 20 years from now when I look back?’"