In search of the identity of Chinese-Indonesians

  • Indonesia
  • Sunday, 01 Dec 2019

The rise and fall of Ahok: The career trajectory of the former Jakarta governor provided hints of new possibilities for the involvement of Chinese-Indonesians in the republic’s political scene. – AP

CHANGES in the electoral system following the fall of the New Order government in 1998 have made it possible for Chinese-Indonesians to compete in local elections.

The fundamental question is: Who are these candidates actually representing? Do they defend the Chinese-Indonesian community or their own interests? Or can they represent all Indonesians?

Indonesia’s Education and Culture Ministry’s culture director-general, Hilmar Farid, explored the question of identity and the history of Chinese-Indonesians at a recent conference in Melbourne, Australia.

“The Chinese community (in Indonesia) is an imposed identity (whose members may) have different political aspirations,” he said in his keynote address in front of scholars from seven countries at Clayton Campus, Monash University.

It is not easy, Hilmar said, to define who Chinese-Indonesians actually are.

“I would say I am one-16th Chinese,” he said to the chuckles of more than 150 people.

“But also an Arab (by descent). So real Chineseness is a very complicated (concept), but (Chinese-Indonesians) have been involved in politics and government for a long time.”

The next question is: What are their political aspirations apart from their political rights like the obligation to possess surat bukti kewarganegaraan (proof of citizenship), he said, citing an example.

Tracing Chinese-Indonesian politicians post-1998, Hilmar came up with a number of them, including Yansen Akun Effendy, the first Chinese-Indonesian regent in Sanggau, West Kalimantan, in 2003; and Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who became regent of Belitung Timur in 2005.

“What is interesting is that most of them were not political operators but businessmen.

“Some had networks within New Order government organisations like the KNPI (Indonesian Youth Committee),” he said, referring to candidates who are not party cadres and, unlike local party elites, are mostly supported by nationalist and non-religious parties.

In most cases, Hilmar said, the Chinese-Indonesian community played a pivotal role in establishing businesses and in ensuring the supply of daily needs.

He said the emerging candidates had been most notable in the central and eastern parts of the archipelago and on the Riau Islands.

The rise of Ahok and his fall in April 2017 when he was defeated in the Jakarta gubernatorial election, Hilmar said, provided hints of new possibilities.

“Many analysts cited blasphemy of Islam as the factor that brought Ahok down, but a Chinese and a Christian candidate in another region proved otherwise,” he said, referring to Sula Islands Regent Hendrata Thes in North Maluku.

Thes, who has earned the nickname “the Ahok of Sula Islands” partly because he is a Christian leader of a majority Muslim population and also because he was embroiled in blasphemy charges and was attacked by a smear campaign because of his Chinese background.

This didn’t seem to work in Sula, Hilmar said, as Thes won the election with the support of three parties, including the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

“For me, this raises a question. I thought that maybe people in the Sula Isles were much smarter than in Jakarta,” Hilmar said, inciting laughter among the audience.

In the case of Ahok, he said, around 70% of voters were happy with his performance but only 26% of them actually voted for him.

“There are two different things here. One, Ahok as a governor and Ahok as a blasphemer,” Hilamr said.

“In social science, it is called a Chinese ‘floating signifier’ or a ‘sliding signifier’. In Ahok, it bundled into one: blasphemer, anti-Islam, anti-ulama, ethnic Chinese.

“It turns out that Chineseness means a lot of different things in different contexts. The (Sula) election also revealed that local politics have their own dynamics.”

Nevertheless, Ahok’s rise ushered in a new movement, he said, referring to Ahok’s one million supporters when he initially hoped to run as an independent candidate.

He eventually entered the election with the support of the Gerindra Party to the chagrin of his fanatical supporters.

“The movement, probably unintentionally, gained its own momentum and took a life of its own – it was not even about Ahok,” Hilamr said, referring to young people who entered politics in droves and the dozens of ethnic-Chinese candidates in local elections throughout the country.

Some aspiring young people set up the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), which garnered a number of seats in city councils in April’s legislative elections.

The PSI is keen to cut all relationships with political establishments, Hilmar said.

As a governor of Jakarta from 2014 to 2017, Ahok introduced a new style of leadership by pushing for a clean government and for transparency and efficiency, he added.

Ahok was convicted of blasphemy and was jailed for two years following his defeat to former Education Minister Anies Baswedan in an election marred by massive anti-Ahok demonstrations.

He was freed in January this year. – The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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Chinese , Indonesians , elections


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