From Trader to Moderator: Olivier Rula

If you’ve ever searched online for advice about Indonesia, chances are you have already encountered Olivier Rula, better known as ‘Atlantis’, the administrator of the popular Expat Indo Forum. Meet the French businessman from North Sulawesi, the man behind the distinctive gecko tattoo avatar.

Tell us about yourself.

I am 47 years old, married to a lovely Minahasan woman and we have three kids. I landed in Manado 17 years ago, after travelling from China to Indonesia. I was born in France but have spent most of my life abroad, with Manado being the place where I’ve lived the longest.

Your background is in trading. What do you trade?

Goods, services, just about anything. If it can be bought and sold, if it can be created and valued, I am interested.

I got my first trading experience at a young age and it paved the way to becoming what I am now. When I was seven or eight, my school was organizing its annual end-of-year party with various ridiculous prizes to be won in a bingo-lottery. Every student had to sell ten bingo cards, each for one franc, and we were rewarded with ten centimes per card sold. I sold all mine and then bought those of my classmates who weren’t interested in making the effort to sell them individually. I rang every doorbell in my village to peddle my stuff, then in neighbouring villages, walking kilometres to sell my cards. My young age undoubtedly helped me to win over customers. I ended up selling 39 books of cards, which inspired me to undertake further business. I’ve never stopped trading since.

How did you gain your expertise in Indonesian law?

I studied Business and, concurrently, Law at a French university. Got a Master’s in each, perhaps the only things I’ve owned that I didn’t try to sell back for a profit.

When I first arrived in Indonesia, I quickly realized that without a fair knowledge of my rights, settling here would be a daily headache. Seventeen years ago, Manado was so remote; information for anything pertaining to residency status, business licenses or any paperwork was simply unavailable. I had to learn quickly. As I learned, I became aware that it would be interesting to share this knowledge with the community.

What was your first enterprise? And what is your business in Indonesia?

I created my first company, a tourism business, when I was a student. Next, I created two companies in the import/export field. I have never tried to work for someone; my personality wouldn’t fit well under the authority of a boss.

My wife and I manage a small company which does many different activities. We have invested in passenger and merchandise transportation, participated in public tenders, traded in various commodities and we supply the local hospitality industry its various food and beverage needs. It keeps me doing what I love and gives me some time for my family and hobbies.

How did you start moderating expat forums? And why did you start Expatindo.org?

By 2008, I’d lived eight years in Indonesia. I had arranged KITAS and naturalization documents for my children, and had registered two businesses. I gladly volunteered to share what I had learned. Through moderating, I gained perspective on expat concerns and how digital communities interact.

Meanwhile, the expat forum I moderated started to feel out of touch, and didn’t have the tools to serve the community. So, we decided that the best course of action would be to launch Expat Indo. We first started by setting up forum.expatindo.org last year, using a modern forum software.

The second phase was the launch of www.expatindo.org, to provide accurate information for expats in Indonesia on topics such as law and immigration, lifestyle and everyday practical information. We also expanded into social media by launching our Facebook page, and very recently also on Twitter.

Our endeavour has seen success so far with a 15,000 unique monthly visitors, 1,700 followers on Facebook and close to 150 followers on Twitter. Our users have so far posted over 40,000 messages on the board across over 2,700 topics. And we are still growing!

What are the biggest challenges in operating a forum?

Attracting and aggregating quality contributors by maintaining the quality of the forum content.

With forum.expatindo.org we are thankful to already have a strong base of quality contributors who migrated with us, but we consistently look for solutions to attract more knowledgeable expats able to help the community and to keep the forum lively.

A forum is a place to learn but also a place to socialize and have fun.

The past year and a half have shown us that we are on the right track, but we are ambitious to go even farther. We have incredible momentum so far, with an astonishing 2,500 posts submitted per month on average. And despite a general shift away from forums towards Facebook groups, and a decreasing number of expats in Indonesia, Expat Indo is still growing.

Indonesia’s legal system is also moving fast. On current available resources online, we witness how fast information can be outdated, which is sometimes very confusing for users. A few of us in the Moderation Team of forum.expatindo.org are well versed with the legal system here, which means we can quickly publish the latest most accurate information. This is undoubtedly a tough challenge, but one that we intend to meet. The much higher level of flexibility and control we have in the new forum is one of the reasons we created it.

What are the most frequently asked questions about Indonesia?

Many questions are recurrent but I would say that it often revolves around legal red tape. There are also obviously many basic questions by new expats trying to settle in and seeking everything from hard-to-find groceries to furniture stores or ways to meet new friends.

What is most satisfying about running a forum?

Being able to help fellow expats. Honestly, settling here has not always been rosy. I am very happy if I can help any of our users to avoid some of the hassles I had to deal with.

Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transactions Law makes it a crime to insult people online. Does this worry you?

No, not for myself at least. I have always thought that when something or someone had to be called out for a wrong action, we had a duty to do it. However, if anyone would post anything which might put them at risk, I would inform them. When you are informed, you make your own decision and you accept the consequences.

What has changed most in Indonesia since you arrived in 2000?

People are getting more aware of their rights and I think that changes every aspect of life in Indonesia.

Do you think you will always remain a foreigner? Or are you contemplating Indonesian citizenship?

I will be an Indonesian citizen at some point in my life. Certainly soon. I don’t go back to my native country and the next obvious step to me seems to be Indonesian citizenship.

Thank you, and we’ll be seeing you online at forum.expatindo.org and www.expatindo.org!

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.