On Returning to Indonesia: A Reflection

Earlier this year, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo called out a talented data science expert from NU, Ainun Najib to return to Indonesia. This shoutout by the president sparked some conversations regarding whether or not diaspora should return and build back.

Although most people recognize this move as a gimmick, which is quite common for the current government. We need to also recognize that there are some efforts in the Indonesian research / innovation agency to provide livelihood and space to research for these returning individuals. Grants for research is now more transparent and competitive, but after a rough overhaul, the new BRIN agency is expected to have “growing pains” for a while.

However, when we’re talking about combined efforts between government, university, and industry working hand-in-hand for an innovation pipeline, it goes without saying that the innovation framework in Indonesia are not so desirable. There are still plenty of work to be established with common understanding between these stakeholders.

This lead me to ponder and reflect on my position as an Indonesian student abroad. Although currently I don’t have any bargaining chip, but one must stop and think about the future and the trends. I had the privilege to go through tertiary education and now to study micro systems and nanotechnology for Master’s.

My program trains me to be familiar with micro-systems, more commonly known as MEMS, starting from the material sciences fundaments, fabrication process and measurements + characterization, packaging, and system level design. In a way, we’re studying the whole value chain of a MEMS based sensor.

Higher precision inertial sensors for automotive safety features, self-driving cars, or even body movement in VR may be the driving force for the sensing industry. After one year of study, I would say that what I would probably do after graduation is to work somewhere within these value chain. In my case, I am quite leaning towards the design and fabrication of such MEMS sensors.

Now this brings me back to my earlier point, what should be my ideal steps for the future if I’m committing to this career path. For most people, staying in Europe would probably the obvious choice. However, there are many reasons to return to Indonesia: family, food, and comfort among other reasons.

Staying in Europe has its challenges, being in a foreign environment would always put us some steps behind locals with better networks and know-hows. Going back to Indonesia would mean to “wear many hats” e.g., doing research, lobbying our leaders for support, making industrial partners, and finding the right human resources. Although the first three are nothing to scoff at, sometimes in Indonesia, we find it hard to find great people that would work well with us.

For my case, there is also an ethics dilemma. My education is paid by the EU and I am not obliged to return. However, with a working experience background in BPPT (Indonesian research agency, now merged to BRIN), seeing some intricacies for R&D landscape for some strategic projects in Indonesia, this was my main driving force to pursue my masters. Hoping to find a way to better help these sustainable and strategic projects should I return, is mentioned in my motivation letter. This would speak volume about myself, if I choose to abandon without proper reflection.

Therefore, I’m writing this to help articulate my thoughts on how I ponder the changing landscape, before and after I begin my studies. While I was applying, me and many others in my cohort were hoping to learn more in the latter end of the value chain. That is more towards system level designs and hardware/software engineering. We had to learn more MEMS related courses than we initially thought. It was quite perfect for me, since my head of lab (dec.) taught MEMS in University of Indonesia, I could build on top of these existing concepts.

From the study itself, now I’m facing a paradigm shift, from being an “Application Engineer” to “Component Design Engineer”. This obviously requires different skillsets and strengths, which we are addressing step-by-step in the first year. This also corresponds well with the commonly head belief in the European education system, that what we learn here should open more doors and opportunity than closing them. An optimistic side of me is strongly dissident with the commonly held Asian view of being a super-specialist at what you do.

Being a MEMS Design Engineer would mean to incorporate different disciplines, like many other designers in different fields. The goal is to make a well-functional and useful product, and use whatever tools in your arsenal to make it happen. There’s an art to this, even when you’re essentially doing computational extensive workloads, people would develop an intuition as they become more experienced. This is also true for designers in other field!

At this point, I’ve established that there’s a change in my way of thinking through my education and hopefully will also be matched by my skillsets. Surely, a career change should not matter if I were to return and build values back home. An “Application Engineer” may perform better if they are able to observe the problem directly and provide better solution. Although such case would probably be true for a Design Engineer, there’s something more important, the iterative process.

There’s a reason why electronics are blooming in Shenzhen, because that’s a good place to develop and design the actual electronics. Faster turnaround time between iteration saves costs for the industry. Same argument would probably be valid for the semiconductor industry. For high volume products, it would probably make sense to do it the same way, developing in a R&D fab with steps to scale up the production runs.

MEMS industry in a way was built on top of the semiconductor industry. At this point, after kicking out Fairchild Semiconductor during the Soeharto’s regime, having a new semiconductor industry back in Indonesia would probably be a pipe dream. Knowing how the Indonesian government hopes to align with the EV trends by providing the minerals, pretty much seals the deal for any semiconductor opportunities, at least for now.

I’m hopeful that there would probably a time where MEMS fab would be more feasible for smaller players, but as of now, I would probably think it’s better to start building network of “design engineers” than to return to Indonesia with limited research capabilities. Returning is not the only way to bring back value, sharing some experiences from the industry would also help motivate the next generations of students to undertake the same education.

This is how I would justify my perspective change on returning to Indonesia and how my studies and current understanding of global trends affected my judgement. I also recognize that I am writing this reflection with my limited understanding of the industry as a whole and also the political / innovation landscape of both BRIN and the government.

21 April 2022
Borre, Norway

Published by josefmtd

Electronics Engineer

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