Jakarta. The Foreign Affairs Ministry’s new focus on the protection of Indonesian migrant workers abroad, while welcomed as a positive change, has prompted questions as to whether the country is abandoning its international roles for the sake of President Joko Widodo’s “pro-people diplomacy.”
Over the past couple of months, since Joko began his presidency, local media reports have continued to highlight the ministry’s increased attention to migrant worker issues. Little, however, has been heard of Indonesia’s regional and international roles — considered to be among the flagship legacies of previous president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.
“There is a public perception that Indonesia is abandoning other aspects of its foreign policy. Now we don’t want that,” Bantarto Bandoro, an international relations expert with Indonesia Defense University, told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday.
“We must pay attention to the fate of Indonesian workers overseas. But it doesn’t mean that it should make up the largest portion of our foreign policy.”
For Bantarto, the “pro-people” diplomacy that Joko has touted since his bid for the presidency is not only about taking care of migrant workers.
“It’s also about how to develop good relations with other countries, for the sake of the Indonesian people,” he said.
The local media have reported how the president late last month held a teleconference with representatives of Indonesian migrant workers in several countries, listening to their complaints and input and promising to better protect them — including from corrupt local officers known to extort money from workers before they leave the country and on their return.
The Foreign Ministry, for its part, has refurbished its coordination with the Manpower Ministry, as well as with the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers, or BNP2TKI.
They have agreed that while the Manpower Ministry and the BNP2TKI are fully responsible for matters concerning Indonesian migrant workers before their overseas placements and upon their arrival back to the homeland, the Foreign Ministry takes over the whole job of protecting them while they are abroad.
Foreign Minister Retno L.P. Marsudi herself spared some of her time to talk directly with Indonesian migrant workers in Singapore during her visit to the city-state last month, and welcomed back in Jakarta, also last month, Indonesian workers who were repatriated from war-torn Syria.
On Monday she, along with the communications minister, Rudiantara, signed an agreement with four cellular operators in the country to allow Indonesians going overseas to receive a text message upon their arrival with the address and contact numbers of Indonesia’s representative office in the country they are in.
“We hope that through this partnership, all Indonesian citizens traveling abroad will feel safer and better protected,” Retno said of the agreement.
She also recently communicated with her South Korean counterpart to ensure the evacuation of Indonesian crew members from a fishing vessel that sank in the Bering Sea last week. Fourteen Indonesians are confirmed dead in the accident.
“Every day I’ve communicated directly with the South Korean foreign minister to know if the weather is good enough to allow for quicker evacuation, because families [of the victims] are waiting here,” Retno said in Jakarta on Monday.
Bantarto, though, insisted that there should be balance between providing good protection for Indonesian citizens and maintaining Indonesia’s roles in international forums.
“It is important to give attention to Indonesian migrant workers, but this is not the way it should be,” he said.
“There should be a balance between taking care of migrant workers’ problems and other aspects of Indonesia’s foreign policy, including our international roles,” he said.
Hikmahanto Juwana, a professor of international law and relations at the University of Indonesia, though, thinks the current inward focus of Indonesia’s foreign policy under Joko is a counteraction to that of the Yudhoyono administration.
“It’s true that Indonesia’s international roles during the Yudhoyono and Marty era were appreciated by the public, but which public? The local, or international one?” Hikmahanto said.
“The local public, Yudhoyono’s own constituents, wanted something concrete. And Indonesia’s regional and internal roles are not something concrete to them. Jokowi, on the other hand, wants to give something real to the people, thus the attention to Indonesian migrant workers and Indonesian crew members in South Korea, to show the Indonesian people that the cabinet is really working.”
Hikmahanto agreed, though, that Indonesia must not abandon its international roles, adding that it would be a challenge for Retno to safeguard Yudhoyono and Marty’s legacy while having to prioritize on the protection of Indonesian citizens overseas.
He also questioned the implementation of the economic diplomacy programs which Retno said, during her first days in office, would be among the Foreign Ministry’s top priorities.
“The heads of our representative offices overseas should not just invite investors to come to Indonesia. That’s been done often. Even without us inviting them, they will come,” Hikmahanto said.
“What needs to be done is helping our businesses, be they private or state-owned enterprises, to explore business opportunities abroad. Our diplomatic missions overseas must facilitate Indonesian businesses’ meetings and engagement with local partners.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene, though, refuted accusations that the Indonesian government under Joko was abandoning its international roles.
He cited how during the past couple of months, Joko had attended the APEC, G-20 and Asean forums, as well as a series of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of those events.
Michael also cited Retno’s bilateral meetings with her German and Singaporean counterparts, among others.
“It shows that Indonesia continues to play active roles in various regional and international forums, to fight for not only Indonesia’s interests, but also the [Southeast Asian] region’s interests,” he said.
Michael also dismissed criticism that Joko’s presentations on his economic policies and maritime doctrine during international forums had been too inward-looking, again seen as a signal of Indonesia’s abandonment of international roles.
“He was introducing his new government’s priorities. Other countries need to know that,” Michael said.
“Good foreign policy exercises transparent, accountable measures, with no surprises in actions.”
He added the Foreign Ministry continued to pay attention to talks over a code of conduct for the South China Sea, preparation for the Asean Economic Community, and other planned regional and international agreements that had begun during Yudhoyono’s era.
“Deliberations are ongoing. We’re not abandoning them,” Michael said.