Based on the Chinese Zodiac, Friday is the start of the Year of the Horse. Nowadays, you don’t have to be Chinese or believe in Confucianism to take part in the celebrations. Many urban dwellers will be heading out of town or out of the country, taking advantage of the extended weekend. Others have been indulging in the Chinese New Year sales at department stores, and burgeoning middle-class families will be filling restaurants throughout Jakarta this weekend.
Like in neighboring countries, Indonesia will be holding celebrations to usher in the New Year.
In 2001, then-president Abdurrahman Wahid made Confucianism the sixth religion to be recognized by the state, joining Islam, Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The following year, then-president Megawati Soekarnoputri made Chinese New Year a national public holiday.
Since then, Indonesians of all persuasions look forward to the Chinese New Year, if not to celebrate then at least to enjoy an extra national public holiday in the calendar.
No one sees or cares about the anomaly of the decision, which passed without any controversy. With the exceptions of Jan. 1 and of Independence Day on Aug. 17, all other national public holidays mark religious holy days, including Idul Fitri, Christmas, Nyepi (the Hindu day of silence) and Waisak (Buddha’s birthday).
The population census does not ask about race, but most estimates put the number of ethnic Chinese at less than 5 percent of the population. Not all Chinese automatically follow Confucianism. Many are Buddhists or Christians, and a handful are Muslim. Yet, the state grants this ethnic group a national holiday. No other group in this ethnically diverse nation enjoys the same privilege.
Here is the paradox: As Chinese Indonesians become more assertive with their racial identity, thanks to greater freedom and fewer officially discriminatory policies in post-Soeharto Indonesia, they are becoming more inconspicuous, if not invisible. While earlier confined to the business world, many are making their mark in the entertainment industry, and some are emerging in government and in politics. Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama is an ethnic Chinese but many look beyond the color of his skin. And even if he steps in as governor this year, few will question his ethnicity since he has performed well in his current position.
There is now far greater social acceptance of the ethnic Chinese, many of whom have been here for generations and are as Indonesian as those claiming to be “indigenous” to the land. The anti-Chinese riots have almost become a thing of the past. The wealth gap between the Chinese and indigenous inhabitants has narrowed, with growing prosperity all around deflating the anti-Chinese sentiments.
Natural integration replaces Soeharto’s failed forced-assimilation policy. For the followers of Confucianism, the New Year certainly has spiritual meaning. But for the rest of us, it is really another reason to celebrate the nation’s diversity. To everyone, Gong Xi Fa Cai.
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