Misplaced racial tension in Jakarta

Monika WinarnitaMonika Winarnita

First published in The Jarkarta Globe on 15 February 2013. 


The 2012 election of Chinese Indonesian Basuki “Ahok” Purnama Tjahaya as deputy governor was charged with racial tension.

However, focusing on Ahok’s “Chineseness” as a problem for his and ex-Solo Mayor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s effectiveness in running Jakarta is a fallacy.

Claiming to be a “real” Betawi Jakartan, the incumbent governor, Fauzi Bowo, campaigned against them on the basis of race and ethnicity. Dangdut music star Rhoma Irama weighed in by questioning Ahok’s legitimacy as a “true” Indonesian.

Although Jokowi and Ahok won the election, they remain targets of an ethnically- and racially-motivated campaign from 2014 presidential candidates.

Lawyer Farhat Abbas used the recent Jakarta floods to criticize both Jokowi and Ahok as well as Chinese-Indonesian businesses whose buildings were saved. He said he would be proud to be the only presidential candidate who will not be getting Chinese votes.

According to Melani Budianta, a professor at the University of Indonesia, many Chinese-Indonesian tycoons in fact voted for Fauzi instead of Jokowi and Ahok.

She argued it was the youth, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, taking a stand against racism — and campaigning for social change by (effectively) using social media — who constituted the majority of supporters of Jokowi and Ahok.

Although the youth’s vote saw Ahok’s Chinese ethnicity as a positive attribute, there are four reasons why it should not be seen as a “problem” in Indonesian politics:

First, they are doing a good job. Jokowi and Ahok set clear agendas to which they can be held accountable and have an impressive track record in public office.

In 2012 the Jakarta Globe described Ahok — at the time a district head of Banka Belitung — as advancing the people’s welfare with free education and subsidized health care while also representing the aspirations of “Chinese-Indonesians.”

The team also helps Indonesia’s international image. It is rare to get a good news story about Indonesian politicians in the international media, but a recent article in the Economist applauded Jokowi for being different to other Indonesian politicians.

As the winner of the international award for best mayor (for Solo), Jokowi regularly attracts such attention.

Second, it is a misconception that being Chinese is somehow incompatible with being Indonesian.

Chinese were at the forefront of Indonesia’s nationalist movement against colonialism, five of whom were recorded as members of the preparation committee for Indonesia’s independence.

In 1932 the Partai Tionghoa supported not only the absorption of Chinese into the Javanese population but also Indonesia’s self government.

Chinese-Indonesians have been representing Indonesia as national athletes since the 1950s, winning Olympic medals, many of them as badminton players.

We have also had two post-reform government ministers who were Chinese-Indonesians; Kwik Kian Gie and Mari Elka Pangestu. Even the late President Abdurrahman Wahid said that he had Chinese blood in him.

Some classic Indonesian dishes like nasi goreng, mie goreng, sio mai and bakso reflect strong Chinese roots.

Betawi attire, female wedding dress and makeup, folk dances and the accompanying music, gambang kromong, as well as the tanjidor orchestra, all have major Chinese cultural influences, and this mix is accepted as part of Jakartan cultural identity.

Third, being Chinese is crucial to being Jakartan. Batavia and now Jakarta has always been a melting pot. Slang terms such “gue,” “loe,” “seceng” and “gocap” are derived from Chinese languages.

The Chinese came before the Dutch (1293) and participated in the construction of Batavia in the 17th century.

Historians claim the first “Betawi” population was a mix of Mardijkers (Dutch colonies’ freed slaves), Indo Dutch, Portuguese, Javanese, Sundanese and Chinese.

The Dutch relegated the Chinese to “middle men” merchants.

The stereotype of Chinese-Indonesians as “rich merchants” has been challenged by Yunita Winarto, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia, through her description of Chinese descendants in Tangerang as ordinary farmers that intermarried with local Indonesians.

This community is known as “Cina Benteng,” and is often called the ancestor of Jakarta’s Chinese and those residing in the capital’s vicinity. Yunita also thought it was important in a Muslim majority country for her students to learn about Muslim Chinese.

She took them to the Lautze Mosque in the Sawah Besar, Pecinan area of Central Jakarta, which was run by Yayasan Haji Karim Oei with historical links to Muhammadiyah, Masyumi and the nationalist movement.

The mosque’s founder claimed Chinese-Indonesian Muslims in Jakarta numbered up to 80,000, or 5 percent, of the 1.6 million Chinese Indonesians who made up 20 percent of the city population.

And last, having a Chinese-Indonesian deputy governor of Jakarta gives the Chinese-Indonesian community a renewed sense of belonging.

This is crucial as Jakarta’s international reputation after the May 1998 riots became equated with ethnic violence against the Chinese. 150,000 Chinese-Indonesians fled the country the following year.

Nevertheless, many have returned either permanently or as visitors, trying to maintain their Indonesian identity through family engagement and professional or community involvement.

In Perth, the main destination in Australia for those who fled the riots, Chinese-Indonesians have performed the Betawi ondel-ondel and Jakarta jaipongan dances as part of Indonesia’s Independence Day celebrations and at multicultural events.

Keeping their Indonesian citizenship, the majority in Australia have remained permanent residents, and thus vote in presidential elections.

One controversial presidential candidate does appear to understand the importance of the Chinese-Indonesian vote and support as an integral part of Indonesia — former chief of the army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) and Suharto’s son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto.

Indonesia expert Jemma Purdey stated in a seminar (and publication) at La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue, that Prabowo had engaged the Chinese-Indonesian community in a dialogue as part of his 2009 parliamentary campaign.

Prabowo set out not only to reconcile with Chinese-Indonesians but also to convince the Indonesian public of their “loyalty” citing the large numbers of “returnees” to Indonesia since 1998.

He does, after all, have a large investment in their support, challenged by human rights groups and demoted by a military tribunal amid suspicion over his role in the 1998 events.

Was it then also a smart move for him and his political party, the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), to back Jokowi and Ahok in their election? We will see in the run-up to 2014.

Monika Winarnita is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University and researcher at the Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University, Melbourne.