My Jakarta: Sonita Lontoh, Green Technology Expert
The diaspora from Indonesia is not as well known as that from China or India, even though there are approximately 10 million of them spread around the world. Many are students and professionals; some left Indonesia with foreigners for love — or just to get a green card and a perceived chance at a better life.
But Sonita Lontoh distinguishes herself from other members of the Indonesian diaspora. Holding a master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she talks, writes and lives green technology. Sonita has built a successful career as a green technology executive despite it being a male-dominated sector.
Many people hear a lot about green technology, but remain uncertain of the details. Can you explain what green technology actually is?
In the simplest terms, it’s a service or product that enables humankind to be more energy efficient and at the same time do things that reduce their environmental and carbon footprint, and minimize pollution.
What’s the easiest way to apply green technology in Jakarta?
You don’t need to create your own technology really — just purchase and use appliances such as computers, TVs and other home appliances that are more energy efficient. How simple is that? For those with the financial capability to own or use tall buildings in Jakarta, they can at least avoid using light bulbs that consume a lot of energy and that have dangerous elements like mercury in them.
You received an excellent education, and your expertise is widely sought — will you ever return to Jakarta?
I never planned on spending much time here in the United States. The plan was to come here for school, maybe work a few years, go back to graduate school, work for a few years again, and then go back to Indonesia.
But I eventually got married to an American. Right now, I return to Jakarta a couple of times a year to visit my parents here. I’ve been in technology for about 15 years, and green technology for eight years.
When I got into green technology, I always knew I wanted to stay in the field of technology and I wanted to be in area in which you’re contributing something to society instead of just selling products. So I’m looking forward of coming back home soon.
Right now, Indonesia doesn’t really have the convergence of technology, economy and policy that would make it an ideal place for green technology to develop successfully. I would love to stay in a country with that game plan. But one thing for sure is that I know from the Diaspora Congress in Los Angeles I just visited [earlier in July] that our government is interested in reducing carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020.
As an expert, how optimistic are you that those plans will materialize?
The good news about a country like Indonesia, where a lot of infrastructure is yet to be developed, is that instead of developing traditional infrastructure, the country can leapfrog to the latest technology, and in this case it’s green technology. This is similar to China, but quite unlike developed areas like the United States and Europe. So with this, I’m actually quite hopeful.
What can we learn from the United States?
We really need a strategic focus. If you want to succeed in this area you need government involvement, just like in the US. Our government needs to support many part of the industry, from research and development to manufacturing to employment, and also from the human capital perspective in training, in education.
You are also an advocate for advancing women’s careers in green technology. What is the progress on this issue?
I think it’s important to bring in more women leaders in technology in general because there are very few women, and usually up the ladder there are fewer and fewer women in leadership roles. Green technology is one area that’s good for women because that’s an area where women can affect change.
You recently earned an Indonesian Diaspora award for entrepreneurship and corporate excellence. Do you think it’s more important to recognize the achievements of Indonesians living abroad than those who show the same excellence back in Indonesia?
It is important for Indonesia to recognize all excellence in all Indonesians; back home or abroad, it doesn’t matter. In terms of the diaspora itself, instead of focusing on the award we should focus on encouraging the government and Indonesian people to at least recognize the potential of the diaspora.
If you look at other diaspora, the Chinese diaspora or the Indian diaspora, they have been pretty instrumental in helping China become a world leader in manufacturing and also in helping India to be a leader in information and technology.
Traditionally, the Indonesia government ignores the diaspora and sometimes questions the nationalism of some of the diaspora who might have taken up citizenship in another country. Now the sentiment has turned around.
Sonita Lontoh was talking to Uly Siregar.