Life Lines

The return of Chinese-Indonesians

Alvin Lie, also known as Lie Ling Po, was a businessman and a lecturer before being elected as a member of the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2009 as a member of the National Mandate Party (PAN).

The 51-year-old said that he decided to get involved in politics because he wanted to participate in solving problems at the grassroots level. His previous position as a businessman might have given him the chance to see real problems facing society, but it did not give him much of an opportunity to
take action.

“I cannot just stand on the sidelines. I want to participate in improving the condition of this country,” the man, who became political specialist, said of his reasons for entering politics.

Once left out of the country’s political constellation, now Chinese-Indonesians are venturing back into the political arena with various causes.

The change in Indonesia’s political system in the late 1990s has given a fresh opportunity to Chinese descendants, who for years had suffered discrimination and stigma in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

The 1998 reform movement that put an end to Soeharto’s regime, notoriously famous for its discriminatory policies against Chinese-Indonesians, helped the ethnic minority to reclaim its rights to receive equal treatment in the economic, social and even political realms.

The same reason also applies in Hendrawan Supratikno’s case. The 52-year-old felt hopeless as a lecturer and economist in his attempts to promote changes that always ended up with no one paying attention.

“I wrote books but no one read them. Now, I have the position to influence policymaking,” the legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) told The Jakarta Post.

“I never say I am Chinese. I feel my Javanese language skills are better than my Chinese. I can quote Arabic or the Koran if I need to,” Hendrawan said.

Experts believe that Chinese-Indonesians’ new stronger position has triggered their active involvement in local politics. More and more Chinese names are being heard in legislative polls and regional elections. The latest in the spotlight is Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese-Indonesian lawmaker, who is running for deputy governor of Jakarta in the upcoming election.

“The new era brings new chances for Chinese-Indonesians to show up and try their luck in local politics,” said Aimee Darwis, an expert on China-Indonesia relations.

For years, Chinese-Indonesians have suffered from stereotypes as the country’s “economic animals” that have heavy economic influence but little political say.

The participation of Chinese-Indonesians in politics can actually be traced back to long before the country’s creation.

Historian Didi Kwartanada mentioned Tan Jin Sing as a respected figure in the Yogyakarta regency in the early 1800s.

However, it was not until the Sukarno era that Chinese-Indonesians officially made it into politics. A number of Chinese names were listed among the ministries assisting Sukarno during his administration.

The political situation at that time also allowed for the establishment of the first and largest Chinese-Indonesian political party, Baperki. During the 1955 legislative election, the party gained a seat in the House of Representatives and two other Baperki candidates were also elected to the People’s Consultative Assembly.

However, Soeharto’s subsequent dictatorial regime banned the party and confined Chinese-Indonesians to the business sector through its infamous de-politicization policy. The Chinese community was also subjected to a series of discriminatory laws like the banning of Chinese New Year celebrations and Chinese language during Soeharto’s 30-year authoritarian rule.

The discrimination climaxed as protests calling on Soeharto to step down escalated into riots in May 1998. Fourteen years ago, Chinese homes and shops were looted and burned, and Chinese women were reportedly raped during the chaos, forcing the others to flee to other countries.

The case undoubtedly traumatized the Chinese community in Indonesia. It took Soeharto’s ouster for Chinese-Indonesians to finally feel secure in their own country.

Chinese’s confidence toward the country grew after successive governments repealed discriminatory laws against the Chinese, starting in 1999. The newly elected president Abdurrahman Wahid abolished the ban on public displays of Chinese culture in 2000. Two years later, president Megawati Soekarnoputri declared Chinese New Year a national holiday.

The progress was soon followed by the appearance of Chinese figures occupying important and strategic governmental positions. Names like Kwik Kian Gie and Mari Elka Pangestu joined the Cabinet teams and have set a good example for any Chinese descendants interested in entering local politics.

The increased participation of Chinese-Indonesians in politics can be seen in the number of candidates competing in national polls. Less than 50 Chinese descendants stood in the 1999 national poll, but there were almost 150 in the 2004 general elections, according to data from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The increasing number of candidates has translated into improved chances for ethnic Chinese politicians to secure places in the national legislature.

According to CSIS data, at least 15 Chinese-Indonesians won seats in the 2009 legislative election, compared with 13 in the 2004 election and six in the 1999 polls.

Chinese descendants also started showing their political leadership skills by winning several seats in
regional elections.

These politicians usually come from various non-political backgrounds, mostly from the business and education sectors.

But despite these ethnic Chinese politicians’ humble mission for the country, they are still reluctant to include their racial background in the struggle.

Didi of the Nabil Foundation explained that such attitudes reflected a hint of past trauma experienced by Chinese-Indonesians.

In addition, Christine Susanna Tjhin mentioned this tendency as part of ethnic Chinese politicians’ moves to gain more votes.

Chinese descendants only accounted for 3.7 percent of the country’s population of 237 million in the 2010 national census, making the ethnic issue unattractive for use in political contests. For Susanna, it is more strategic for the Chinese descent politicians to focus on more popular issues like free basic education or healthcare than playing the race card even in regions with predominantly Chinese-Indonesian populations.

Despite Chinese-Indonesians’ growing political participation, it seems that Chinese minorities are still not well represented in the country’s politics. However, Budi S. Tanuwibowo of the Chinese-Indonesian Association said that purely aesthetic representation would not be a problem, because the aspiration of Chinese-Indonesians could still be channeled through other politicians.

“Having the same race and ethnic background doesn’t guarantee people will have the same aspirations. Other politicians with different backgrounds may help us in realizing our aspirations as well,” he said.

Budi said he would not worry too much as he believed Chinese-Indonesians’ aspirations had grown beyond racial and ethnic boundaries.

Supporting nationalist Chinese-Indonesian politicians, he said, “We also share the same dream of a better Indonesia.”

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