Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok). (Kompas.com)
A Chinese Indonesian politician who contests an election is so rare that he tends to be the focus of some attention. This is the case in the upcoming Jakarta gubernatorial election, where Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, is gunning for deputy governor as the running mate of Solo mayor Joko Widodo.
The 45-year-old geology graduate from the capital's Trisakti University earned his spurs in 2005 by running for, and winning, the election for bupati or regent of East Belitung, on Belitung Island off Sumatra.
He won more than 37 percent of the vote, as a Chinese and Christian in a district that is over 90percent Muslim, based on his track record of helping needy members of the community.
“I'm in politics not because of ethnicity, but because of family influence,” he said. “I can't deny that I'm of Chinese descent, but I do not think that I'm representing only the Chinese.”
There have been Chinese ministers in recent years, but they were appointed technocrats: economist Kwik Kian Gie was coordinating minister for the economy and later national development planning minister from 1999 to 2004, and economist Mari Elka Pangestu was trade minister from 2004 till last year, when she became tourism and creative economy minister. Hasan Karman, who was elected mayor of the mostly Chinese West Kalimantan city of Singkawang in 2007, is also Chinese.
Basuki's family started a silica sand plant on Belitung, and his father often helped when their neighbors were in trouble – from dealing with the authorities to handouts.
He once thought of packing up and emigrating, but his late father held him back, saying he should help those without means to defend their rights.
The push for his entry into politics came when corrupt bureaucrats shut down their factory on flimsy grounds in 2003.
Basuki's political rise has been swift. In 2004, he was elected to the regency's assembly. In 2006, he resigned as regent to make a bid for governor, but failed to get elected.
In 2009, on a Golkar ticket, he won a seat in Parliament, where he has been lauded as a key fighter against corruption.
He left the House two months ago after switching to the Greater Indonesia Party (Gerindra) of former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto. Many Chinese still believe the retired general had a part in the 1998 riots, but he and his supporters maintain he has been wrongfully fingered.
Basuki's candidacy comes at a time when Chinese Indonesians are becoming more active in politics, with at least 15 elected to Parliament in 2009, up from 13 in 2004, and six in 1999.
But he would rather downplay the role of ethnicity, for he is confident the vast majority of voters have gone beyond thinking along ethnic lines, and want leaders who are clean and capable.
He said there is still a lot of corruption in politics that extends to the business arena, and has this to say to businessmen, many of whom prefer to stay silent about corrupt politicians to avoid risks: “Do you want to do everything above board, or have to close down your business one day?”