The ascent of an ethnic Chinese to become governor of Jakarta underscores how far Indonesia has come in its struggle to break from its authoritarian and racially charged past.
AS Indonesia celebrates reformist Jakarta governor Joko Widodo winning the presidential election, it also marks the rise of his deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who takes over from him.
Purnama, 48, is the first ethnic Chinese to become the governor of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, a teeming metropolitan in the world’s largest Muslim nation of 245 million people.
The ascent of geologist and businessman Purnama, nicknamed Ahok (pronounced as Ah Hock), underscores how far Indonesia has come in the country’s struggle to break from its authoritarian and racially charged past where, just 16 years ago, ethnic Chinese were targets of mob violence in an orgy of burning, looting, rape and murder when riots erupted across the country.
“With the advance of democracy, we have become less conscious of differences so that the presence of Ahok and others like him in political positions has become natural,” says well-respected former Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja.
“People are increasingly aware that people should be judged on merit.”
A Hakka and Protestant, Ahok was born in Manggar, East Belitung in Sumatra island, on June 29, 1966. He is the first of four children. His late father, Kim Nam, was a tin and sand miner who was known for his philanthropy.
In an interview with the Jakarta Post last year, Ahok revealed that he inherited three islands from his late father. The islands are registered under his mother’s name.
Ahok came to Jakarta to attend high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in Geology from the Trisakti University, which is patronised by the country’s upper-middle class.
In his personal website, he says he entered politics to fight corruption as bureaucrats had made it difficult for him to set up a quartz sand company.
In his earlier days, frustrated with obstacles to his business venture by a corrupt bureaucracy, he wanted to give up and move abroad but his father asked him to stay, according to Ahok’s personal website.
His father told Ahok that one day, the people would vote for him to fight for them, which he found difficult to believe at that time.
Ahok’s personal experience with corruption has made fighting corruption, transparency and accountability a cornerstone of his administration.
He gave out his personal mobile phone number to the public for them to contact him if they had any issues that needed to be addressed.
In the first few months, his phone received at least 5,000 text messages every week.
Ahok would pick up the calls himself at night after he had finished dealing with official matters, according to his office staff.
He also disclosed his personal wealth online along with details on how Jakarta’s budget is spent for greater transparency and accountability to taxpayers.
“Since Ahok came to the public eye, I feel there is a more positive perception of ethnic Chinese,” says Syafik Alielha, a social activist and book publisher.
The deepening economic crisis of 1998, which threw millions out of work, fuelled anger against the Chinese who make up about 2% of the population but who were often perceived as controlling a disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth.
The mayhem that started on May 13, 1998, occurred against a background of massive anti-government demonstrations, adding to the pressure that forced the late President Suharto to resign a week later on May 21 after having ruled with an iron fist for 32 years.
But, as Indonesians learnt the hard way, the ousting of a long-running autocratic leader is only the first step in the long march to reforms.
A post-Suharto Indonesia became a democracy in the making as multi-party and direct presidential elections were held.
Despite the high voter turnout in every democratic election that has been held since 1999, it failed to uproot the country’s corrupt bureaucracy and institutions.
When Ahok agreed to be the running mate of Widodo in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2012, racial slurs were thrown at him in a race which many did not expect them to win as it had traditionally gone to politicians with massive wealth and connections.
Ahok and Widodo had neither a huge war chest nor connections to big business, the military or elite families.
For Jakarta residents fed up with decades-long cronyism and corrupt administrations, the pair represented a clean break from the past, a clean slate on which to write a new and better future. And Jakarta voted them in.
Ahok took over from Widodo earlier this year when he campaigned for the July 9 presidential elections.
Straightforward and hard-working, he has shaken up Jakarta, earning both praise and brickbats for his no-nonsense style.
He threatened to fire the city’s transportation administration for corruption during a surprise visit to their office a few weeks ago. Video clips of him losing his temper on inefficient civil servants have gone viral with viewers expressing support for his action.
“I love Ahok,” enthuses Okki Soebagio, a Jakarta businessman.
“Now the civil service don’t dare to be lazy or corrupt because Ahok will fire them.
“Him being Chinese is not an issue at all. We have long passed that. And as a Jakarta resident, I believe I represent many of the people here.”
Under Ahok, Okki believes Jakarta can be transformed into a modern city with well-developed infrastructure like Malaysia and Hong Kong.
In a country dominated by the gentle and polite Javanese culture, Ahok’s bluntness is seen as abrasive by some.
Human rights lawyer Frans Winarta, who is also an ethnic Chinese, cringes at some of Ahok’s straight-talking and jokes.
“During a TV interview, when asked whether or not he is ready to be Jakarta governor, Ahok joked he was ready to be the vice-president,” Winarta recalls.
“Such bluntness could be perceived as arrogance. He needs to tone down. But the young generation do love him.”
Winarta has long called for ethnic Chinese to be sensitive towards the feelings of the majority, to be humble and polite at all times, as he is mindful of the long-held perception of the community being arrogant.
The reform era in Indonesia has seen discriminatory laws being revoked. A major milestone includes the accordance of the title “pribumi”, which means sons of the land, to ethnic Chinese.
In the past, the title was accorded only to indigenous Indonesians.
Now, anyone born in Indonesia is listed as pribumi. The designation gives every person the right to vote, according to Winarta.
Sarwono, on the other hand, believes Ahok should remain as he is.
“Ahok has a strong character. He is forthright, honest and effective at the same time,” says Sarwono.
“Ahok should stay in character. People appreciate that. He attracts crowds and they love him as he is.”
Still, Ahok’s term will face many challenges despite his popularity.
As a Jakarta governor, he will be the symbolic head of at least eight Islamic organisations.
A hardline Muslim group called the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has already voiced its opposition to Ahok.
But given Indonesia’s youthful population, who are far better educated than their forefathers, and the progress made in Indonesian society, Sarwono is optimistic it would not be a major problem.
“Most Indonesians will have no problem with a non-Muslim being the symbolic chairman of Islamic councils since, in the context of governance, these councils deal with social services, not with religious teachings,” says Sarwono.
Ahok faces far greater challenges in tackling the city’s traffic congestion, massive flooding during the rainy season, spatial management of greater Jakarta as well as the allocation of land and land disputes.
His predecessor is the only Jakarta governor to successfully push for a much-needed mass rapid transit (MRT).
The MRT’s groundbreaking was held in October 2013 and the first phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2018.
The other set of issue is public service in health, education and housing, according to Sarwono.
But there is genuine hope among the people that for the first time, Jakarta’s chronic problems stand a good chance of being resolved as its governor will now have the ears of the new president, Widodo.
“Widodo as the president can do a lot to assist Ahok by implementing cross-provincial programmes since he knows how difficult it is for the governor to deal with them without central government intervention,” says Sarwono.
Winarta sees Ahok as one of the brightest hopes to break down barriers and dispel long-held prejudices against ethnic Chinese as being unpatriotic.
As a civil servant, Ahok has the platform to show Indonesians that he serves the people and his country.
“He (Ahok) does care about the people and Indonesia. He wants Indonesia to be prosperous and he is a patriot.
“He has the chance to show Indonesia that the ethnic Chinese can also work for the people,” says Winarta.
Winarta has long advocated for ethnic Chinese to join the country’s public service, to sign up for the police force, military and government administrations to serve the country to forge better race relations.
“If he is successful, he (Ahok) may even win a second term. And who knows, maybe one day he could be the next president of Indonesia. That would truly be historic,” says Winarta.