Building a Platform for Immigrant News

Transnational Media Matchmaker Tony Thamsir

2018 / December

Camille Kuo /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

In Taiwan there are nearly 850,000 Southeast-Asian immigrants, but language difficulties can make it hard for them to keep up to date with domestic and international news. Tony Tham­sir, a Chinese-­Indonesian who works currently as an Indonesian-­language broadcaster on Taiwan’s Public Television Service, saw how alarmed Southeast Asians in Taiwan became during the global outbreak of SARS in 2003. The lack of access to information even caused some of them to contract SARS and die. Immediately, it became Tan’s ambition to work in news media.



Turning tragedy into a helping force

Before Tony Thamsir came to Taiwan at age 18, he had taken the TOEFL in preparation for studying in the United States or Australia. But his parents believed that the descendants of an ethnic Chinese family ought to have at least one child with a Chinese education, so they twisted his arm to get him to study in Taiwan. The decision would change his life.

With some regret, Tony acceded to his parents' wishes and came to Taiwan to study Chinese. But he had never learned the language at all before, and despite having been a star student in high school, in his first year at National Taiwan Normal University, studying in the Division of Preparatory Programs for Overseas Chinese Students, he performed so abysmally that he returned to Indonesia, where he reconsidered his future. Ultimately, however, he thought to himself: “This isn’t right. I can’t just quit. I’ve got to go back to Taiwan. I won’t give up!” After hitting the books hard the next year, his grades greatly improved, and he became the program’s first student to pass the entrance exam for National Cheng­chi University.

While he was at university, his family confronted a life-altering convulsion back home. In May of 1998 they were victims of anti-Chinese rioting, and his father’s factory, which he had built up from scratch, burned down. Overnight, they were bankrupt. From that point on, Tony had to support himself in Taiwan.

Although the rioting had touched him personally, it didn’t lead him to harbor prejudice against Indonesians. “I want to build bridges,” he says. “I want to make up for Chinese people’s historical shortcomings.” As a member of the media in Taiwan, Tony has maintained long-term interactions with Indonesian immigrants and foreign laborers here, working to help them get news in a timely manner as well as to heal ethnic divisions and improve relations.

A chance to work in media

According to the Ministry of the Interior, in Taiwan there are 150,000 long-term immigrants from Indo­nesia (many of them women married to Taiwanese men) as well as 700,000 Indonesian laborers on foreign worker visas. When you add in the children of immigrants, that brings the total to some 1.1 million. As Su Ling-yao, a Southeast-­Asian news producer at Public Television Service (PTS), says “We have a duty to speak to them in their own languages, so that they can understand what’s going on in Taiwan and abroad.”

The station’s Southeast-Asian-language news broadcasts, which kicked off in April of 2018, represent a break­through. Media outlets such as Radio Taiwan International (RTI) and 4-Way Voice (a monthly magazine with a website) had long been providing radio broadcasts and printed news in Southeast-Asian languages, but audio­visual news broadcasts were almost entirely lacking.

This dearth of accessible news made a particularly deep impression on Tony during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. He was working at the Tai­pei City Government at the time, and at the first possible moment he printed information about SARS in six languages—Chinese, English, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian—on 3000 sheets of A4 paper, which he widely distributed. Although he did everything he could to spread the word, news came from the Tai­pei City Hospital He­ping Branch that three Indonesian caregivers had contracted SARS and died there on the third day after the hospital was sealed off and placed under quarantine.

The news of the workers’ deaths hit Tony hard. When Taiwanese were wearing face masks, checking their own temperatures, and taking preventive measures, foreign workers had not even heard about the SARS outbreak. “Whether on television or radio or in print media, the news was practically all in Chinese!” Likewise, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck the following year, Indo­nesians in Taiwan found it difficult to get news about how the disaster had affected their homeland.

Consequently, Tony went on to work at various media outlets, from hosting Indonesian-language shows on RTI, to founding INTAI, Taiwan’s first Indonesian-­language magazine, to serving currently as an Indonesian news anchor at PTS. Step by step, he has been broadening the reach of Indonesian-language news in Taiwan.

Building bridges

Not only has Tony set down firm roots in Taiwan, he has also been building bridges of cooperation between Taiwan and Indonesia.

He had the chance to get to know Sai­ful Hadi ­Chalid, then deputy editor-in-chief of Indonesia’s Antara News Agency, when Saiful visited Taiwan. Extremely sociable, Tony enthusiastically showed Saiful around, and their time spent together left a good impression on both.

In 2009 RTI held a gathering for its listeners in Jakarta, where Tony introduced top executives of RTI and the Central News Agency to those of Antara. In December of that year, Antara signed memorandums of understanding with RTI and the CNA, giving the Taiwanese outlets condensed versions of Indonesian news and opening new opportunities for news from Taiwan to be disseminated in Indonesia.

Leveraging the media, various countries have been able to grasp opportunities to overcome foreign relations difficulties. Conversely, a simple event that is covered repeatedly in the media can fan the flames of sensationalism. There was one instance when Taiwanese media hyped allegations about “employers forcing foreign Muslim laborers to eat pork.” Tony worried that the incident would aggravate anti-Chinese sentiments among Indonesians. He made an in-depth investigation of the situation which showed that the reports were mistaken, but the apocryphal stories had come to have a life of their own among migrant workers in Taiwan.

To mitigate the impact of yellow journalism, Tony Thamsir interviewed an imam as well as leaders of influential Indonesian organizations in Taiwan, reporting in depth on the state of the Islamic community in Taiwan. He also invited two foreign workers to describe their own experiences, which cleared the reputations of most Taiwanese employers. The report was picked up by Antara and published in major Indonesian news­papers. “At least we could inform Indonesian media not to continue to print spurious reports,” says Tony.

Building a new future

Tony broke new ground by being appointed as a foreign adviser to the mayor of Tai­pei before he had even graduated from university, and he remains quite famous among Southeast-Asian media personnel in ­Taiwan.

At the end of our interview, Tony mentions earnestly a matter that has recently been a focus of his attention: The possibility of brokering a deal between TV news broadcasters in Taiwan and Indonesia along the lines of the agreements between Antara, RTI and the CNA. He hopes to bring the two nations still closer ­together.

“Living in Taiwan for 24 years, I’ve given half my life to this country.” Tony Tham­sir is committed to continuing to fulfill his promise to build broad bridges between Taiwanese and Indonesian media.

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