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Marsha Siagian campaigning for PSI in Jakarta alongside new party chairman Kaesang Pangarep, President Joko Widodo’s younger son. Photo: Handout

Indonesia election 2024: calls grow for government to relook dual citizenship ban amid ‘brain drain’

  • More politicians are calling for a change in the citizenship law to attract skilled former Indonesians who desire to return home
  • Jakarta should also look at improving domestic economic opportunities to avert a brain drain, analysts say
Ahead of next week’s general elections in Indonesia, Marsha Siagian stands out as one of the few legislative candidates pledging to represent Indonesians living overseas by pushing to restart the long-delayed legislative process to allow for dual citizenship.

Under Indonesian law, citizens automatically lose their nationality once they obtain foreign passports.

“I keep hearing grievances from Indonesians abroad over the lack of progress on the proposed revisions to the country’s 2006 citizenship law to allow them to hold dual citizenship in the country of their residence,” Marsha told This Week in Asia.

A candidate from the progressive Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), the 39-year-old mother of three is running in the February 14 election for a seat in the House of Representatives (DPR) representing Jakarta Electorate II, a constituency comprising those living in the central and south sections of the capital.

Among those who belong to the constituency are overseas Indonesians, who make up around 45 per cent of registered voters.

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Marsha said many highly skilled Indonesians had no choice but to work overseas because of limited employment opportunities in their respective fields back home. “Indonesia simply doesn’t have the industries to make full use of their talents.”

Damelina B. Tambunan, dean of the business school at Surabaya’s University of Ciputra, said her study of the Indonesian diaspora led her to conclude the country is suffering from a gradual “brain drain”.

“Even if these highly skilled people wanted to come back, they wouldn’t be employable here,” she said.

Marsha agreed, saying she knew of Indonesians who worked in sensitive tech industries and had to take up foreign citizenships to qualify for higher security clearances.

One Indonesian family reluctantly migrated to Germany more than 10 years ago for the sake of their children, she added.

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Marsha said it would be remiss for Indonesia to ignore the ban on dual citizenship, which she added is one of the reasons causing the brain drain.

“The trend will likely continue and Indonesia will soon find itself haemorrhaging talent left right and centre.”

Among the countries popular with Indonesian professionals seeking a new life abroad is Singapore.

In July last year, Silmy Karim, director general of Indonesia’s Immigration Office, said 3,912 mostly highly skilled Indonesian nationals gave up their Indonesian passports to become Singaporeans between 2019 and 2022. Most of the professionals cited better opportunities in Singapore for their decision, he added.

In response to the data, Minister of Investment Bahlil Lahadalia questioned the “patriotism” of the former Indonesians saying, “They shouldn’t just think of their own needs and cast off their birth country so easily!”


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But Damelina said Indonesians opting to give up their citizenship should not be stigmatised, least of all by the government.

“Instead of portraying them as unpatriotic, the government must ask what can be done to prevent them from thinking the grass is greener on the other side.”

She suggested Indonesia should strengthen efforts to develop its scientific research and development sectors so that highly skilled individuals can obtain meaningful employment in the country.

“I know Indonesian academics and researchers who work overseas and still care so much about Indonesia,” Damelina said.

During her overseas campaigns to meet voters from her constituency, Marsha said she encountered considerable goodwill towards the “old country” among the diaspora, including those who were no longer Indonesians.

Legislative candidate Marsha Siagian (front row wearing a pink top) among members of Percaindonesia, the association of Indonesians of mixed marriages. Photo: Handout

“I remember meeting this tall young man, originally from Kupang [capital of East Nusa Tenggara], who is now a Swiss citizen. He told me he always went back to his hometown every year with his Swiss girlfriend.”

Teguh Santosa, 42, an Indonesian who took up US citizenship in 2014, said he had held on to his Indonesian passport for as long as he could, but his work circumstances persuaded him to become a US citizen.

“I work for a hi-tech corporation and travel to different parts of the world, often at very short notice,” said Teguh, who was born in Surabaya.

He explained he had to constantly juggle between his visa applications and travel planning when he was using his Indonesian passport. “I missed quite a few important meetings overseas because my visa hadn’t been cleared by the time I had to be there, usually for European destinations.”

When the company he worked for offered to sponsor his US citizenship, Teguh decided to relinquish his Indonesian citizenship.

“I would’ve loved to retain it while also being a US citizen, but under current Indonesian law, that is illegal.”

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Zendy Wulan Ayu Widhi Prameswari, a lecturer of constitutional law at Surabaya’s University of Airlangga, said the Indonesian constitution does not explicitly forbid dual citizenship.

“In principle, it is doable as long as both the government and the House of Representatives can agree on a format for a revised bill.”

She said legislative work to redraft the law was tabled in 2014 but little progress has been made since, adding that it is a “non-priority” bill for the government.

Marsha said, however, that her party and a few others support the idea of dual citizenship and were determined to push the law through if elected.

“Under my proposal, Indonesians are allowed dual citizenship unless they choose to enter politics or become public officials, at which point they must have undivided loyalty to the nation.”

Zendy warned it would also not be easy to sway public opinion on the issue. “Sadly, it is ingrained among Indonesians that taking up a foreign citizenship is a disloyal act to the motherland, no matter what the circumstances are.”

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Several countries in Asia such as Thailand and the Philippines allow for dual citizenship. India bans dual nationalities but enacted a scheme in 2005 to enable former Indian nationals to work, invest and live in the country.

Damelina is optimistic about a change in official attitudes on this issue in Indonesia.

“While it would take time to develop Indonesia’s capability to absorb specific hi-tech jobs, the government should cultivate the existing goodwill of diaspora Indonesians to contribute to the nation in other ways.”

She said the foreign affairs ministry has taken the right steps by compiling data and issuing an Indonesian diaspora card for former citizens living overseas.

Similarly, the education ministry is working to attract former Indonesians among the global scientific community to return and contribute to Indonesia, she added. In November last year, the ministry organised the World Scientific Forum of Indonesia in Bali, attended by 300 Indonesian academics and researchers, including those who were based overseas.

Indonesian politicians should see it is in the country’s best interest to give citizenship options to former Indonesians, Damelina said.

“It shouldn’t be a question of whether a citizen chooses to ditch his or her country, but should the motherland abandon her children for petty reasons?”