People

Arief Budiman: Defying
the Chinese stereotype

A pertinent stereotypical image of the ethnic Chinese throughout Southeast Asia is that they are bent on making money and interested in little else.

In reality, there have been many whose interests lie in anything but making money, apart from that necessary for living, naturally.

One example is Arief Budiman; the intellectual, academic, social and political analyst and once political activist, who in 1997 was appointed Chair Professor of the Indonesian Program at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Though currently living in Melbourne with his wife Leila, the Harvard graduate is still very Indonesian at heart. Whenever he is in Indonesia, he feels well and truly "fleshed out".

"I enjoy life here. I follow Australian politics and find it interesting, in a cerebral sense. Political crises in Australia for instance, somehow do not touch me too deeply. On the other hand, I live Indonesian politics. I'm there in a primordial sense. The ups and downs of Indonesian politics affect me emotionally," he said.

Arief, whose Chinese name is Soe Hok Djin, began to pave a remarkable path for himself from his days as a secondary school student in the 1950s at the prestigious Kanisius Catholic school in Jakarta.

He was always top of his class. His immediate circle of friends included Jakarta's young elite, from both indigenous and Chinese families.

In those days, he said, there was mutual acceptance on everybody's part. They did rubbish each other on their ethnicity from time to time, but he did not feel specifically singled out, because nobody was excluded: be they Javanese, Sundanese, Batak, Menadonese, or Chinese.

Even after he had moved on from school life, Arief did not feel particularly ethnic Chinese, except when he had contact with the state bureaucracy. When applying for a passport, for example, he was asked to pay more, merely for being ethnic Chinese.

On the other hand, when he became increasingly known as an activist, those who knew him would not hesitate to give him preferential treatment.

He said he was once at the airport on his way to a conference out of town and joined the queue to check in. Suddenly, a uniformed man approached him and asked: "Are you Arief Budiman?"

When he said yes, thinking he was probably going to be taken away for interrogation, the official said: "Come with me. You don't have to wait in the queue. You are a celebrity".

"I have always felt Indonesian. Indonesia is my country. It's other people, mostly people who don't know me, who keep reminding me that I am not quite Indonesian, that I'm Chinese," he said.

For that reason, he has sometimes felt he has been thrown in limbo; not fully Indonesian yet not fully Chinese either.

Arief is well regarded by those who know of his activities and his achievements. The ethnic Chinese communities he has been in contact with in Indonesia think highly of him.

"They tell me that they're proud of me because I am proof that given the opportunity an ethnic Chinese can succeed in any field of his choosing, pointing to the fact that I've made my name not through success in business and commerce, as is usually expected (of Chinese)."

In 1970, he decided to change his name and asked his Minang wife Leila to pick one suitable for him.

However, not everyone was happy with this decision.

Benedict Anderson, a well-known American author-academic and a close friend of Arief and Leila's, told them names were sacred and that changing them would be tantamount to disrespect.

Arief went ahead because he wanted to give other ethnic Chinese the message that it was all right to do so.

He has always believed in assimilation of the ethnic Chinese into the indigenous population, adding it should be done naturally and voluntarily, without force or pressure.

Although he was attracted to young women of ethnic Chinese descent, it never occurred to Arief to marry any of them. He wanted to "marry out". He said when he met Leila, the mutual attraction was very strong and he knew he wanted to marry her.

There was no opposition from his family. Leila's however, gave one condition: he had to become Muslim.

"They didn't want her to marry a non-Muslim, because they believed only by marrying a Muslim man would a Muslim woman be secure in her faith."

With his family's blessings, Arief agreed to become Muslim. He explained to Leila, however, that he believed in God, but not God as fashioned by any institutionalized religion. And he hasn't moved from that stance.

Arief has recently retired, though he still retains an office at the university. He is free to travel to Indonesia whenever he pleases; something he very much looks forward to, as it gives him the opportunity to be involved in public lectures while continuing to observe political events in Indonesia.

At 66, Arief feels he still has a lot to offer his country. With the benefit of his experiences and the breadth of his perspective, indeed he has.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.