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Ten Years After (1998-2008)

22 April, 2008

Celebrating Cap Go Meh in Tangerang

It is universally accepted that one of the most important features of a healthy democracy is that it treats its minorities well. Applied to the Chinese minority in post-Suharto Indonesia, Indonesia has done quite well.

Let's take several positive examples. Two laws were recently adopted in parliament, the Law on Citizenship in June 2006 and the Law on Citizens Administration  in December 2006. Both laws were adopted Unanimously, recognising the fact that Chinese Indonesians are now legally recognised as 'Indonesia asli', native-born Indonesians.

The changes are breathtaking, especially if one recalls the history of racist policies against the Chinese in the last 250 years. Celebrating Imlek in present-day Indonesia has become a huge public event; in my childhood Imlek was a family celebration.

During the Dutch colonial period, the Chinese minority was classified as 'vreemde oosterling' (foreign oriental) a blatant racist term. Colonial administrations are by definition racist but Dutch colonialism had very distinct racist features, still felt in places like Suriname as well as Indonesia.

Already in the fifties, it was apparent that there were complications regarding Indonesian citizenship for the Chinese.  During the Sukarno era in the 50s and 60s, Indonesian Chinese had to renounce their Chinese citizenship so as to be able to adopt Indonesian nationality. I remember as a child, having to go and sign this document renouncing my Chinese citizenship even though my ancestors had left China six generations ago, almost two hundred years ago.

But in the Suharto days racism against the Chinese became structural, Chinese calligraphy was banned, including books and newspapers, Chinese schools were closed, cultural manifestations were also suppressed so much so that Taoist and Confucian followers could hardly practice their traditions. The regulation which required the Chinese to replace their Chinese names with Indonesian-sounding names caused quite an upheaval among the Chinese. The many Pecinans, Chinatowns in towns all over Indonesia became the only Chinatowns in the world without Chinese signboards.

More than thirty laws and regulations were introduced, all of them anti-Chinese. One regulation in March 1978 which was very particularly distressing was the requirement that Chinese must possess a document called SBKRI as proof of their Indonesian citizenship. Fortunately, the present government finally abrogated this regulation.

All the post-Suharto administrations have contributed to eradicating racist policies towards the Chinese. BJ Habibie scrapped more than a dozen racist regulations, a trend which was continued by subsequent administrations. Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) went even further, helping to revive Chinese festivities such as Imlek, the Chinese New Year, Cap Go Meh and Ceng Beng.

However, repealing policies is one thing but showing genuine sympathy for the Chinese is something quite different. At one point Gus Dur said casually that one of his ancestors, Tan Ka Lok, was Chinese, a significant gesture in siding with a minority. Megawati Sukarnoputri made Imlek an official holiday and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), who took office in 2004 has made it a habit to attend the official Confucian celebration of Imlek in the midst of the Chinese community. It is amazing how old traditions, despite oppression formore than a generation can be revived so easily.

The Cap Go Meh tradition in Tangerang, complete with decorated boats in the canal, traditional food like kue keranjang and barongsay/dragon dances, as well as carrying the Toa Pek Kong to the temple have quickly become tourist attractions in Indonesia.

Several aspects of the position of the Chinese in Indonesia today are worth describing:

The political dimension
Statistics about the Chinese in Indonesia are notoriously inaccurate so let us use the figure of 10 to 12 million ethnic Chinese, used by most Chinese organizations. Name changes and the many inter-marriages have made it far more difficult to know the size of Chinese community in Indonesia. In the big cities, in particular in the capital Jakarta, the Chinese presence is enormous, possibly anything between 500,000 and 750,000. New Chinatowns have also mushroomed in suburban Jakarta.

Chinese Indonesians are the third largest ethnic group after the Javanese and Sundanese. Another universal paradigm, that groups which occupy a strong economic position are bound to exert significant political weight, is definitely valid for present-day Chinese Indonesians. This has gradually emerged in post-Suharto Indonesia. There are now cabinet ministers of Chinese descent, senior civil servants, members of parliament, as well as elected district chiefs, mayors and even a vice-governor, in places with a sizeable Chinese community.

Indeed, this is an expression of post-Suharto politics. But a generation earlier, in the early days of the New Order, the Chinese community was usually seen as politically suspect. In the mid-sixties, at the height of the Cold War, Indonesia was also an important arena of the ‘communist-anticommunist divide’. Some Chinese were regarded as a fifth column for the People's Republic of China; it was even alleged that China had distributed weapons to Communist youths to seize power in Indonesia.

The Suharto regime created an atmosphere of fear, using military as well as intelligence operations against millions of 'suspects'. The military intelligence agency, BAKIN, set up the BKMC, Badan Koordinasi Masalah Cina (Coordinating Body for the Chinese Problem), which Goebbels or Himmler might well have been proud of. Then there was Bakom PKB, Badan Komunikasi Pembinaan Kesatuan Bangsa (Communications Body to Guide National Unity), the grotesque birth child of military groups and right-wing Chinese.

‘Guidance’ was what was needed to deal with people who deviated from the political guidelines of the New Order. It was also applicable to so-called separatists, religious sects and minorities like the Chinese. Bakom PKB was the successor  of LPKB, an institute with the same name which advocated the assimilation of the Chinese into Indonesian society. This damaging concept was backed by a small minority of Chinese. Another much larger  group was organized in Baperki, which favoured the emancipation of the Chinese while preserving their own cultural identity. This was known as integrasi secara wajar or organic integration. Under Suharto, the integration concept was buried and the Chinese Indonesians suffered a kind of cultural genocide called assimilation (asimilasi).

The end of the Suharto dictatorship brought an end to asimilasi which violated the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is more than logical that asimilasi ended up in the dustbin of history. However, some of these assimilationists are still active in public life. They include Harry Tjan Silalahi, the Wanandi brothers (Yusuf and Sofyan) and Hadi Susastro, all senior researchers at CSIS which is arguably still the most important think-tank in Indonesia. In the spirit of reconciliation, they should be asked to explain why they propagated such an inhumane political concept.

The consequences of asimilasi were extremely negative. Chinese organisations withered away, Baperki and others like Perhimi were banned and their leaders incarcerated, while still others became defunct. By the end of the New Order, all that remained were burial organizations, while former Chinese school alumni organizations managed to survive, albeit underground.

Soon after the fall of Suharto, there was a period of letting “a hundred flowers bloom”. Instead of Chinese political parties, a range of social and cultural organisations emerged, along with business associations. Marga (clan) organisations also came into being as well as competing Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian organizations.

While the asimilasi concept has been well and truly buried, the integrasi concept is undergoing erosion and needs to be re-assessed. In an increasingly globalised world, more and more people have lived in at least two countries, within a multiethnic community. This includes tens of millions of migrants who have found better lives in their second homeland. In today’s globalised world, more and more people have multiple identities. Many younger generation Chinese having had the opportunity of studying and working abroad, have become typical examples of people with multiple identities.

Many children of assimilationists, having studied abroad, start asking their parents why they denounced their Chinese identity. A  peranakan Chinese writer like Oei Hong Kian describes himself in his autobiography as the product of three civilisations and is proud of it. In the literature, a distinction is made between peranakan Chinese (those who can hardly master Chinese) and totok Chinese who still speak mandarin or another dialect. While the integrasi concept has become one path towards Indonesian nation-building, the present generation of Indonesian Chinese have other views about  integrasi. They feel quite comfortable being both Indonesian and Chinese along with having other identities. The recently published book: ‘Cokin, so what gitu loh’ expresses this new assertiveness: “I'm Chinese, so what”.

The economic dimension
Economic data on the position of Indonesian Chinese is outdated and inaccurate but an estimate from 1995 is often used in the literature, according to which 73 percent of private capital in the Indonesian economy is in the hands of Chinese entrepreneurs (Michael Backman, 1995) The figure excludes state monopolies and state-owned companies. Although this may be an exaggeration, it shows that the Chinese middle class has a substantial grip on the economy.

Chinese-owned firms are dominant in most sectors of the economy. A casual glimpse of the wholesale and retail trade, shopping malls, high streets and markets show that Chinese entrepreneurs still handle the trade in traditional Indonesian commodities like kretek cigarettes, the jamu industry and batiks.

Some analysts tend to downplay the economic successes of the Indonesian Chinese and focus on the woeful conditions of poor Chinese communities in places like Tangerang, the Riau islands or West Kalimantan. While this is also true, these communities do not represent the accumulation of wealth that has occurred among Chinese entrepreneurs all over Southeast Asia.

Around 80  percent of overseas Chinese live in Southeast Asia and it is undeniable that the Chinese play a dominant role in the economy. The economic boom of the 70s and 80s created a small layer of super-rich Chinese businessmen which was unprecedented.

The business acumen of Southeast Asia’s Chinese entrepreneurs can be compared with the successes of minorities in other parts of the world: Jews in the US or Indians in East Africa and parts of the Pacific. This also explains why, in periods of turmoil and during power vacuums, social upheavals more often than not provoke racial outbursts against these successful minorities.

But there is one feature which makes the Indonesian Chinese even more vulnerable. In the Dutch period, a small group of Chinese were given a number of privileges, such as ownership of toll roads, pawn shops and the opium retail trade. The downside was that this provoked animosity from the majority population. The Dutch used to say: “Elk regent zijn eigen Chinees” (Each district chief has his own Chinese). Things changed following Indonesian independence and after 1965, under Suharto, these privileges assumed their ultimate form.

General Suharto had his own token Chinese, notably Liem Sioe Liong (now living in Singapore), sometimes known by his Indonesian name Soedono, Salim and Bob Hasan aka Thee Kian Seng, who after serving a term in prison, is now living in Jakarta. They enjoyed many economic privileges alongside the Suharto sons and daughters. But in the economic boom of the seventies and eighties a new layer of major Chinese businesses, known as the conglomerates, emerged.

At the height of his power, all Suharto needed do was to summon thirty or so bosses of the conglomerates to the palace or to his Tapos ranch and order them to cough up several billion rupiahs, a form of additional taxation to be contributed to the many private business enterprises of the Suharto dynasty or for other purposes. They became known as Konglomerat TAPOS, one of the most striking economic features of the Suharto period. Indonesians saw the Konglomerat TAPOS as a negative stereotype of the Chinese. Under Suharto, there were a number of anti-Chinese outbursts in Pekalongan, Situbondo, Temanggung, Rengasdengklok and Banyuwangi in Java and several places outside Java. The downfall of Suharto coincided with the May Tragedy when Indonesian Chinese in Jakarta and elsewhere were the targets of looting, arson and rapes.

Swift changes since then have in general had a positive impact but it will take time before these changes can really lead to more structural improvements for the Chinese. The participation of Chinese in all kinds of political, social and cultural activities is already happening and will certainly advance the emancipation of Chinese Indonesians in grassroots communities.

The redistribution of wealth and improvement of the social safety net are crucial for a country like Indonesia where a huge gap exists between rich and poor. This is not only a matter of government policy. In other countries, a wide range of activities has been developed, involving professionals such as doctors and nurses doing voluntary work in deprived areas, or others professionals who help create micro credit schemes.

A new breed of rich and super-rich businessmen has emerged with new philanthropic ideas. Serious efforts are being made to use their capital to eradicate poverty, to improve the standards of education and improve health conditions in poorer parts of the world or build better housing and infrastructure.

The Chinese middle class can play a substantial role in this, becoming a pro-active group outside government. Such activities should strengthen civil society while weakening the strong patron-client relationships which are still such a major factor within Indonesian society.
Liem Soei Liong, Jakarta, April 2008


Ed. Ivan Wibowo, Cokin, so what gitu loh ! Feb. 2008

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