UNHCR’s Eminent Advocate for Refugees, Dato’s Sri Tahir – a proud Indonesian who gives back to his country and refugees in need worldwide

UNHCR’s Eminent Advocate for Refugees, Dato’ Sri Tahir was recently recognized by President of Indonesia Joko Widodo for his outstanding humanitarian contributions.  UNHCR colleagues in Indonesia recently chatted with Dato’ Tahir about his drive to help the less fortunate.

Dato' Tahir receiving the Bintang Mahaputera Nararya award from President Joko Widodo at the Presidential Palace, Jakarta on 15 August 2018

UNHCR’s Eminent Advocate for Refugees, Dato’ Sri Tahir recently received the highest honor awarded to civilians from the President of Indonesia Joko Widodo — the Bintang Mahaputera Nararya medal– for his outstanding contributions to the country and the people. UNHCR colleagues in Indonesia recently chatted with Dato’ Tahir about his achievement and how he sees his role as a successful entrepreneur and leading philanthropist in Indonesia and globally.  Below is an excerpt of the interview.

Q: Could you tell us about the work that you have done leading up to being recognized by President Widodo, and what it means to you personally?

Actually I don’t know the criteria for this appreciation given by the President of the country. As a Chinese businessman, I am the first to receive such recognition throughout Indonesia’s 73 years of independence. It’s a great honor for me and for my family. And it’s also joyful for us. I’d like to share with you what I’ve done. I’m not sure whether it’s related… [to the award]. Maybe somewhere, somehow it is.

During the old order, many businessmen found it’s important to be linked with the president and people with superpower. I personally don’t agree because we are businessmen, not politicians. I picked up two entries: one is education, and the other one is healthcare. At that time, only rich people can afford the best education. But the children of the farmers, they don’t stand a chance to go to for instance, Harvard. So the poor become poorer and the rich become richer because its only in the hands of the rich people. The second entry, health care, represents the quality of life of Indonesians. To change the health condition of the country, we need to go through education. Through education we can change, we can upgrade the people. So that’s why I selected the two entries and it works.

I was welcomed, and the role I play was accepted by the majority of people who are Muslim, although I am a minority, being Chinese and Christian.

Dato’ Tahir visited Syrian refugee children and families in Jordan in 2017. Since then, he has made follow-up visits to Jordan and Lebanon.

Secondly, I’m also lucky because I live in Indonesia. If I was born elsewhere, in Syria or Sudan, then my destiny and faith will be totally different. This is why I have to be thankful to this country. A lot of people say that there’s no free lunch. I fully agree and I have taken the lunch. It’s time for me to give back. The country has given to me a lot. If it weren’t because of Indonesia, there’s no Tahir here, today. We have a proverb in Chinese:  “born in one place, grow in one place and die in one place”. So if you ask me, what is your country, it’s Indonesia. This is not something that I can choose, but you can either choose to be good, or you can be bad. And I’ve chosen that I want to be good for my country. I want to give back to my country. Giving back is just a logical consequence, nothing to be proud of.

The third thing I wish to share is that, in my religion and up-bringing, I was always taught to understand that we don’t have ownership of wealth in life. But God gives you two choices: whether you decide to be a good manager of the wealth or to be a lousy manager. If you choose to be a good manager, you have to manage your wealth properly, and this is very important.

Lastly, I cannot feel comfortable and I cannot live a peaceful life if I see that my surrounding is poor. Every day, I pass through street, I see the surrounding area of my house and see people living poor. I cannot pretend that I don’t see anything. My conscience will blame me for that.

So with the four points I mentioned, I like to do social work. Whether I’m qualified to be called a philanthropist I really do not know, I think the title is too big for me. But I like to say maybe I do a small good work.

Q: What do you want to achieve in life and through your humanitarian work?

Once I was interviewed by Dessy Anwar, a very senior journalist, and she asked me how I want to be remembered. I told her that there’s nothing to remember about me. I have not done anything outstanding, I have not made any masterpiece, but I want to see three things. One, I want to see my act of worshiping matches with God’s will. I have to make sure, my behavior, my life, my testimony, matches with God’s pleasure. Secondly, I want to see Indonesian people live better because of me, maybe not all, but a small group. In my short video produced with a Taiwan University that we work with, we define success not based on how much wealth or how many medals you receive, success is how much you can change people’s lives. The third thing is I want to see my children become good.

Q: Some of your humanitarian work is through the foundation that bears your name. Could you tell us a bit about the Tahir Foundation’s work and how you have put into practice what you have told us about wanting to give back.

I’ve been serving the vulnerable and poor people for the last 20 years. But in the past, my activities were scattered, or not done systematically. Because I’m a Christian, I do a lot through the Church. Four years ago after I met Bill –Bill Gates– he inspired me.

I went to Seattle to look at the Bill Gates Foundation, how they work and so on, so I found out that philanthropy does not work like the 10% offering taught in Christianity, or zakat as taught in Islam. It’s not even like Corporate Social Responsibility. Philanthropy is a commitment you make to your own conscience, it involves sustainability and continuity. So it doesn’t depend on your mood, nor on whether your company makes profit. You cannot tell people, the recipients [of philanthropic contributions] to wait because today you’re busy, not in the mood or my company lost some money last year.

In my Foundation, on average we receive 10 letters daily from all over Indonesia asking for help. But some requests are urgent. I have one case of a boy in need of help that we saw from social media. He is located in a place a five hours drive from Makassar. I sent my representative in Makassar to take the five hour drive and help. We also help cases of autism through one foundation called Tri Asih.

Also, there was a boy, whose parents just left him in a cathedral, with a few old clothes in a bag. So the police took the boy to a Catholic foundation, I went there, and now the boy is under my care. I visit him as his Godfather from time to time now.

So really, philanthropy is really a commitment. The size does not matter, it could be big or smaller, but I plan to do it continuously, sustainably, for the rest of my life and I hope my children can follow my path.

Q: You’ve talked about how important it is to you to help others that are less fortunate. You have also done amazing work for refugees around the world as UNHCR’s Eminent Advocate for Refugees and we are very grateful for your support. Could tell us a bit why you feel the need to work with UNHCR and for refugees.

There’s no special reasons, I just want to share a little with people that are unlucky and become victims of war and political instability. I feel that it’s good to work together with UNHCR, because UNHCR is very systematic, you have all the data, you are focused and you have all the directions. We just participate and follow the direction. I’ve been there [Jordan] three times and have seen myself how UNHCR have done a lot of great work. I think UNHCR, UNRWA and all the organizations under the UN, they are doing perfectly good jobs.

UNHCR’s High Commissioner Filippo Grandi designated Dato’ Tahir as Eminent Advocate for Refugees in a ceremony in Abu Dhabi in 2016

Q: What would you like to do next in your humanitarian work?

When I met the President, I told him that I want to help 100 of the poorest villages in Java by providing the necessary hardware and software. For the hardware, I want to improve the people’s facilities, like the worshiping place, whether it’s a mosque, or churches. I also want to provide clean water and small generators so that there’s enough electricity. Meanwhile the software will depend on the characteristics of the area. If most of the people are farmers, I want to give the seeds. If they have dams of shrimps or fish, I would like to provide the seedlings for their living.

In Indonesia, many businessmen limit the scope of their social work only to people from their group, their territory or for their own interest. I want them to go out of the box. Like now in Lombok, where the majority of the people are Muslim, we are okay with that and I encourage businessmen to be involved. Whatever happens in this country should matter to us and involve us, I always believe that. Because I am Indonesian and I have to give back to Indonesians, that’s my responsibility.

Dato’ Tahir visited a shelter for unaccompanied refugee children in Jakarta in 2017