What makes one Indonesian?

Why Indonesia? That’s a question thrown at me over and over again ever since I moved to this country.

In most instances, I say the easiest answer so people would let me off the hook: Because it’s a wonderful country. Because your people are warm. Your culture is far better than what we have back home.

These are sweet answers that I know most of you would like to hear from someone who comes from a country that’s not far different from yours. We, too, have millions of people living under the poverty line. Corrupt politicians. Ridiculous infrastructure. Dismal quality of public education. Whenever I’m asked to show pictures of my country, I often get reactions like, oh, Indonesia is a lot better. I would then acquiesce.

You see, I don’t have much time to pull a debate over these matters. I also do not want to dedicate huge portions of my life hurting my friends’ national pride. Once, a friend asked how much is a Philippine peso when converted to the Indonesian rupiah. Today a peso hovers around 300 IDRs. He swiftly said, well, then, our money’s worth is bigger than yours. I simply smiled. Of course, it’s the other way around.

One of the main reasons I seal my lips whenever I’m cornered to answer questions like this is that I fear I’d end up earning more enemies than friends by blurting out my thoughts aloud.

Also, the question would reveal how personal my migration to Indonesia is.

It starts, after all, with a personal story three years ago on the southern part of the Philippines, near the maritime border that both our countries share.

Meet the Sangirs

The story is about your people who migrated to the Philippines in the 1950s. They call themselves the Sangir people, the tribe from small groups of islands on North Sulawesi.

There are thousands of them living on the islands of Balut and Sarangani. Sometimes, they call themselves Indonesians. At other times, they consider themselves Filipinos, especially the new generation of Sangirs who have never seen Indonesia.

SAFETY FIRST? These passengers slept on the deck of the ship traversing the Sarangani Straight. Photo by Mick Basa

Just a few days before Christmas in 2012, I sailed into Mabias, the port of Sarangani province in the Philippines to which both islands politically belong.

The trip takes 8 hours from General Santos City on board a medium-sized ferry that carries sacks of rice, chickens, fighting cocks, goats, crates of bottled soda, and people coming home from the main island of Mindanao in southern Philippines.

Just before we were about to board the ship, we were told that it’s no longer accepting passengers. It’s reached its maximum passenger capacity, so the next trip would carry passengers in January the following year. I bargained if it would be possible to board as I was rushing to gather facts of a story that’s due very soon. Finally, after speaking to one of the coast guards, we were able to hop in.


On Pakiluaso, a small coastline village of around 30 families on Balut Island, I met Nerlyn Sasamu Dagcutan. A dark-skinned and big-boned woman, Dagcutan is a pamong, an Indonesian term for guardian. As a guardian, her main task is to train the young Sangirs to speak Bahasa Indonesia, your country’s national language.

Unlike in many public universities where lecturers get to present their materials using multimedia projectors, Dagcutan is left with nothing but a piece of chalk and a dusty blackboard inside a 20-square-metre concrete school that they “borrow” on Saturdays. The school happens to be owned by the Philippine government, where on weekdays students there get a piece of education, the Filipino way.

Dagcutan has another noble duty on Saturdays. Apart from teaching Bahasa Indonesia, she teaches the kids to sing songs like “Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke.”

In English, as you know, the song goes: “from Sabang to Merauke, islands pile up, they are connected, to become Indonesia.”

The kids memorize the song by heart, without any idea where these islands are, or a sense of what the song truly means. Yet for Dagcutan, she says it is important that the children learn about their homeland.

I tell you their story because many of you who are in no doubt citizens and residents of your country sometimes get into trivial fights.

In April, one of the world’s respected artists, Anggun Cipta Sasmi, and one of your country’s pride, wrote an open letter to President Jokowi, pleading him to grant clemency to those set for execution that month.

But reading the online comments, I saw that some of you told her she had no business meddling in Indonesia’s problems. By moving to France, you said, she’s lost her moral ascendancy to bring the issue into light. She is no longer an Indonesian, you said.

These views bring me back to people like Dagcutan and the over 6,000 people of Indonesian descent who are living in Mindanao.

If this happened to the famous Anggun, I fear your people in the Philippines could suffer the same fate. What if they start asking Jokowi to look into their plight as de facto stateless people, would you also question their identity, too, since they no longer live in Indonesia?

It is not far-fetched to imagine that these people have long been wanting to tell Indonesia’s central government about their plight.

Things like this happen in my country, too.

Veronica Pedrosa, an international journalist whose parents were forced to live in exile in London during the regime of the late dictator and former president Ferdinand Marcos, once confessed how her nationality would be questioned “when I speak in the Philippines.”

Today, as your country marks its 70th independence from The Netherlands, I ask: What makes one Indonesian?

Is being a KTP holder and being a natural-born citizen who is able to speak the national language enough to make one pass as an Indonesian?

Globalization has made walls crash, with new identities forming and some fading. People cross borders in search of a better life.

As it happens, the new generation hopes it could ride the wave by embracing English as medium of instruction in schools. Yet some things are quite sensitive at this point. Language, I was told by some of my lecturers, is one of the pillars of national identity. Others would even say that embracing English tarnishes one’s Indonesian identity.

Common destiny and future

A scholar of modern-day Indonesia, Benedict Anderson would agree that part of the nationalism project is a shared language. But he also did say that “nationalism arises when, in a certain physical territory, the inhabitants begin to feel that they share a common destiny, a common future.”

What common future could be shared if Indonesia’s growing economy only brings good news for the middle and upper classes, and not for the 40% of the population’s poor who live below $2 per day.

What common future could be shared if the rule of law is out of sight?

Shouldn’t nationalism be more than just the language we speak?

It is interesting to explore Dagcutan’s national identity: apart from being a penghubung, she is also a village leader at Pakiluaso. Philippine laws ideally don’t permit aliens to run for public office. Like Indonesia, implementing laws in the Philippines is another story, and that somehow works to Dagcutan’s advantage.

In fact, Indonesian ballots reach as far as their island; and their votes are counted for every legislative and presidential elections. Though at times, things like this only add to their identity crisis: Are we Indonesians or Filipinos?

As Indonesians, they make it a point to visit their homeland once a month, another Indonesian residing on Balut island, Alfrede Lahabir, once told me three years ago.

A fisherman, Lahabir does that to meet relatives on special occasions. I remember that once, he invited me to come with him to Matutuang, part of the Sangihe group of islands. By boat, he told me that we could reach the area from Balut between 3 and 6 hours.

The Indonesian identity question is something I would rather leave for you to answer. Ultimately as a journalist, I throw the questions, not the other way around.

The Sangirs’ stories have in a way shaped my life as a “legal” holder of Philippine citizenship. Many of us do not see this as an issue. We do not go to bed having to think about who we really are. My birth certificate and passport tell me I’m Filipino. You’re Indonesian because your KTP says so.

But for people like Dagcutan and Lahabir, they are considered aliens in the land where they live. As non-Filipino citizens, they often find themselves in trouble with land ownership, and access to state-sponsored insurance. Again, these are problems we don’t have to go through, because our government recognizes us as their citizens

I came to Indonesia to hopefully bring their questions here.

On the day that I was preparing to leave Balut island three years ago, one of Lahabir’s kids asked me, “When are you coming back?”

“I do not know, po (Sangirese for adik),” I replied. I simply do not know.

I sat in front of the boat so they could not catch me shed tears that were swallowed by the sea.

Two years later, I joined Rappler as a business reporter.

But the Sangirs’ stories are so complex that often in my sleep, their voices continued to haunt me. When are you coming back? You must tell more of our stories.

Today I am here in the country they imagine as their home. – First published on Rappler.com

Should the Philippines legalise prostitution?

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Gently brushing her cheek against her newborn like a breeze in the warmest hours of the afternoon, 20-year-old Adelyn has a lot to thank for since she became a mother.

A young single parent, Adelyn said the birth of her daughter helped her break the cycle of being a prostituted woman, an event in her life she never expected to happen.

Running away from home to escape her father’s cruelty, she moved to Cebu 3 years ago, carrying with her an ambition to live a life she wanted – free from violence and poverty.

Promised a job to become a hostess in a bar where she was instructed to go “outing” with patrons, Adelyn took the offer, thinking that “outing” would only mean going out with them for a drink.

“I experienced all the things a woman would never want to happen,” she said in Visayan.

Adelyn was only 17 years old then when she was promised a “high-paying” job. Concerned groups said she is just one of hundreds of women here who have been trafficked. Recruiters offered jobs but compelled the women to engage in sexual activities in exchange for payment.


Lory Pabunag, 36, a mother of 3, said she had a horrible experience that dates all the way back to 1994.

“Someone told me that there was a restaurant looking for a waitress whose pay is good. But when I started working for them, I got surprised because we were forced to wear skimpy dress. There was no food in the restaurant – only beer and finger foods,” Lory said in Visayan.

Lory realized her employer had already “sold” her when a customer asked her for an “outing.”

“First, I thought outing was just to have fun and drinking until I realised the taxi we rode was heading to a motel,” she said.

There have been 1,099 registered prostituted women in Davao City since 2011, Carina Sajonia, Talikala advocacy officer said.

Talikala, a non-government organisation that looks after the welfare of prostituted women, said 2,198 are unregistered while an estimated 4,000 women and children are also engaged in prostitution. About 20% are believed to be minors whose ages range from 12 to 17 years old.

“Don’t judge us because you don’t even know our story,” according to Lory, who said prostitution is not even a job that many people think they wanted.


She recalled having been abused countless times by her customers. One time, she said, a police officer shoved a gun inside her genitals and started beating her, taking all of her money. Days later she had to see the doctor since her vagina got infected.

“How bitter this life is. My only hope is to raise my 3 children, buy their milk and clothes. Why do our customers treat us like we are rubbish?” she said in Visayan.

She flirted with death once, when her customer, a judo instructor, turned angry when she refused to do anal sex.

“He immersed me in a bath tub filled with warm water while I was naked. He insulted me, saying I’m no longer a virgin. Of course, I already had children. My head was already bleeding. He began striking me with his fist and foot. I thought I was going to die,” she said.

Prostitution in the Philippines remains an illegal activity and has specifically victimized women. This means that those who arrange for clients and control those prostituted are not regarded as violators of the law.

But local government units tolerate these activities by providing business permits to establishments known to house prostituted women. Prostituted women, on the other hand, are given “pink” cards, said Sajonia.

Legalise prostitution?

The United Nations, in its October 2012 report, said criminalisation “increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination” and suggested that Asian countries, including the Philippines, legalise prostitution.

The report said there is a “greater chance” of safer sex practices when prostitution is decriminalised by providing health and safety standards in the said industry.

“There is no evidence that decriminalisation has increased sex work,” it said. But women’s rights organisations in the country have opposed the UN’s proposal.

“Legalisation of prostitution will only legalise the abuses and exploitation within the system of prostitution,” said Jeannette Ampog, executive director of Talikala.

“Legalisation of prostitution will benefit the sex industry, and the people behind it will become legitimate businessmen,” she added.

For the sons and daughters of women who used to be in prostitution, legalising it will only mean that the government has turned its back from women looking for a way out of the illegitimate industry.


“My mother (succumbed to prostitution because of poverty. She has not finished school. She did it for us. And there are others (who engage in prostitution) who did it simply because they were deceitfully recruited,” said 16-year-old Anna Mae.

Prostitution, according to 16-year-old Edward (not his real name), is a product of poverty. His friend Anna Mae and Louie agreed. All their mothers once engaged in prostitution.

Aspiring to become a politician someday, he said he is determined to make “better” laws that will advocate for women’s rights. He wants to do it to honor his mother.

“Our law says prostitution is a crime. And it has identified only women as the perpetrators of what it calls an illegal activity,” he said.

For the ones trapped in a job no woman would ever have dreamed of being in when they were young, Lory – who now works as a volunteer of a group of prostituted women – said the pain from their dark past is eased by the hope their children represent.

“Slowly, I’m finding a new meaning of life through my children and by loving myself,” Lory said. – First published on Rappler.com