A few first notes

Rev. Yosef P. Widyatmadja


The problem of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia can be said as the most sensitive racial issue in the world. Compared with other countries in Southeast Asia, the treatment applied towards the Indonesian ethnic Chinese shows more troubles. For many Indonesian Chinese, the riot in May 1998 would be as horrible and unforgettable as the "hell" for the Jews. It is for everybody in Indonesia to answer whether the problem waits its solution for a hundred or a thousand years long. During the late New Order government, rather than living in a conducive environment most of the time the Chinese has always become a scapegoat, "a milked cow" (in economy their success would attract coercive begging) and "cut chicken" (they are an easy target for any social dysfunction). What must the government and the Chinese do in facing this historical reality? This paper is written as a consideration for the policy maker and the Chinese themselves.

Chinese Indonesian: A Special Child or A Milked Cow?

History tells us that before the incoming of Western people, there had been a long relationship between Indonesia and China on economy, culture and religion since the era of Majapahit and Sriwijaya kingdoms. The interaction between the ancient kingdoms had already existed even before Ming and Ching dynasties. At that time many Chinese sailed from the Mainland China to Southeast Asia regions including Indonesia in search for food, a better living condition and a fortune. Some of them fled from a poverty and natural disaster that often happened in China. During Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, ethnic Chinese was officially differentiated from the indigenous people (called bumiputera). For example, colonialist law divided the society by three groups i.e. European, Eastern Asia and bumiputera. It was said that ethnic Chinese had gained more facilities and position compared to indigenous people. Was it just a myth or a reality? History proved that Dutch colonialist was never doubtless to sacrifice ethnic Chinese in order to turn away people's attention and anger that should have been directed towards the government. While, in fact, in their many aspects of life, ethnic Chinese was restricted and barred. They were left free only on businesses. Then, Indonesian government, both the Old and New Order reaffirmed the practice of the Dutch with the following ways:

1. To use the Chinese as a motor/driving force in economy.

2. To keep the Chinese away from a close relationship with the indigenous people.

3. To make the Chinese as a scapegoat whenever a crisis raised.

Furthermore Suharto's New Order government had deliberately created a negative image of the Chinese to invoke people's hatred and anti-Chinese sentiment by:

  1. Replacing a more acceptable term for calling the ethnic: Tionghoa (from Chung Hoa: the Chung continent?) with Cina or "the descendant citizens". The government and the press widely used the term pribumi (indigenous) and non-pribumi (non-indigenous) to distinguish the Chinese from the rest of the people. Actually the word Cina is a political terminology instead of ethnically one, so is the same with the word Indonesia. If we use Cina it would mean the people of China rather than the Chinese who has been an Indonesian citizen. In that case we have wrongly placed the Indonesian Chinese as the Chinese citizen of The People of the Republic of China (PRC). Neither can they be called overseas Chinese or Chinese immigrants as these terms can only be used for they who live outside China yet still hold Chinese citizenship.

  2. Issuing a President Decree that coerced the Chinese to change their original name for an Indonesian one (in fact any names but Chinese). But, it is by no means that after the changing the Chinese would receive an equal treatment as their Indonesian counterpart. So the rule could easily be seen as one of the political efforts to abolish any characters and identity that are typically Chinese.

  3. Outlawing Chinese schools.
    The New Order government did not allow the use of Chinese character and Mandarin. They summoned for a closing of all Chinese schools that existed during the Old Order time. Restriction on using Mandarin was also propaganda to arise people's hatred and resentment toward the Chinese.

  4. Discrimination against the followers of Confucianism.
    The New Order government placed many restrictions for the public ceremonies of Confucianism. And that there was no civil right given to the Confusions unless they wanted to admit themselves as Buddhist.

  5. Prejudice of the role of the Chinese during the colonialism and communism.
    There was a widespread assumption that all Chinese worked for the colonial and involved in communist party. But the fact was many indigenous people were loyal to the Dutch and became a proponent of communism. It was really not true that all Chinese worked with the Dutch or supported the communist party (Indonesian Communist Party). The threat of communism was considered identical to the existence of the Chinese. All in all, the Chinese was seen not as a part of the Indonesian and their sense of unity was doubted. In its response, the government then formed an institution for co-ordination of national unity known as Bakom PKB (the acronym for Badan Koordinasi Persatuan dan Kesatuan Bangsa) that worked from local to national level. But, as a matter of fact, the Bakom could not do much for creating a unity of the Chinese and the others. Instead, it was used by the government for a means for collecting fund from the Chinese that expected a protection and a safety guarantee from the government in return. It was also known that the government used the Bakom to screen the ideology of the Chinese for the fear of communism.

  6. Orientation to the motherland: a myth or a fact?
    A thought that the Chinese still could not replace their orientation to their motherland should be questioned. Is this true? If it is, it would likely happen amongst small number of the Chinese but for the bigger number who have lived for generations in Indonesia, the dream to go back to their motherland is never existed. Exodus for the Chinese that could happen during the hard times such as in May 1998 would only mean a survival. They would likely choose to seek a shelter to a saver country like the US, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, but never to go back to the so-called motherland. Even in such a situation, a shelter is never the best choice. They would choose to remain in Indonesia if there is no wild hatred directing toward them. Even, going to another place for safety reason is very reasonable no matter what the nationality of the people. And defending the root, though no more freshly recognised, is humane. The Korean and Japanese descendants who have become American citizens would do the same even though they would do whatever the country (the US) needs them to do.

  7. The Chinese as an economic animal.
    The Chinese is known to have a natural instinct of being a good businessman and that many of them work in the area of commerce. This is actually true not only for Chinese but also for some local tribes too. The people of Padang and Bugis are good in business. But, for creating the image that Chinese only know how to make money or usually called economy animal, the government exposed greatly the success of Chinese businessmen. What is look like a good fashion would turn to be a curse since the people who live in poverty would see the Chinese as the cause of their poverty. They would envy the Chinese wealth and would think that the Chinese rob their belongings. The way the government created a negative image of Indonesian Chinese, in which the success of people like Yap Thiam Hien (a lawyer who staunchly criticised the government for their neglect of human rights) and Commodore John Lie (lived in the war time to defend Indonesia) was subsided by the other success of cunning businessmen like Liem Soei Liong, Bob Hasan and Edi Tansil,only strengthened the people's hatred toward Chinese. The media also contributed the wrong image by delineating a wrong conduct done by a Chinese while the same conduct done by non-Chinese citizen would not be given the same highlight. If there was special facilities given to the Chinese in the area of business, it was never meant as a free gift. This had to be followed by a back-street return in the form of big money for the government officials.

  8. Discrimination in law and education.
    Discriminative actions against Indonesian-Chinese can also be seen in law. On education, only a very small number of Indonesian-Chinese students can enter a state university. Even on the application forms, they have to write down the original ethnic, for example Mongoloid. On government service especially ABRI (Indonesian arm forces) ethnic Chinese can never sit on structural position.

Is the Chinese a threat or a force?

The existence of Chinese in Indonesia is an inevitable reality. This reality is often be used as a short-term political consumption and temporary necessity that benefited the regime. An integral and holistic approach was never applied in order to accept the Chinese as true Indonesian in what they are. Each ethnic, each tribe in this world definitely has positive and negative sides. Cunning, corruption and collusion do not belong to only one ethnic. In the era of globalisation and entering 21st century, the Indonesian Chinese could greatly contribute the country especially in the economic sphere. If the government cannot create a nation based on people's aspiration and commitment to build Pancasila-based society (fair, prosperous and democratic), then, Indonesian Chinese will continually be targets of scapegoat, looting and violence. A nation with indigenous and non-indigenous dichotomy will weaken national stability and nationalism itself. The concept of citizenship and nationality should be arranged with political commitment to build fair and just society with the equal treatment for the citizens of all kinds of tribes, ethnic and religion. The concept of nationalism and citizenship would not tolerate a single ethnic act as a representative of the whole nation. A democratic country which highly support human rights will certainly accept and respect any differences of its people, be it religion, culture or ethnic. No special sacrifice required from one ethnic to have and to hold nationality. Any efforts to deny diversity and form conformity is just like making a time bomb that will be exploding to destroy brotherhood in one nation.

Towards a New Indonesia.

In order to realise new Indonesia on fairly prosperous society, democratic and appreciate human rights, then government attitude and policies toward Indonesian Chinese needs to be reviewed. Openness and political will from the government will be much needed to minimise conflicts and hatred among the people.

A. The call and duty of the government

  1. To soon ratify the International Law against racial discrimination and to follow it up with the necessary Government Rule.

  2. To abolish all government regulations that have an impact of differentiating the indigenous from the Indonesian Chinese (the holder of Indonesian citizenship).

  3. To abolish the special regulation for the Chinese in formal dealings such as the application of documents for parent originality, name changing, etc.

  4. To use the term Indonesian Tionghoa for Indonesian Chinese descendant, Indonesian Padang for ethnic Padang and the same for other ethnic. To use the word Cina only for people holding Chinese passports.

  5. To withdraw government resolution on name-changing rule for Indonesian Chinese and treat all Indonesian citizens equally.

  6. To repeal the ban on using Chinese language or Mandarin and willing to accept Mandarin as the second foreign language learnt at public school.

  7. To acknowledge Confucianism as religion.

  8. To abolish Bakom PKB and Chinese Section in the government institutions.

  9. To give the same opportunity to all Indonesian citizens to have a career in government institutions or other professions.

  10. To create clean and reliable government as a way to refill the economic gap.

  11. To build a nation and character building based on humanity and solidarity, not by an integration or assimilation.

  12. To officially accept Chinese as one of many ethnic in Indonesia. In this era of globalisation, people of one country do not consist of only single ethnic, but could be of many ethnic and tribes.

B. The call and duty of the Indonesian Chinese.

Expecting the reposition of the Chinese in Indonesia does not mean anything without struggle, sacrifice and unity from the Indonesian Chinese themselves. And such changes will not automatically come out of the blue or come as a gift from Indonesian government. Struggle for changes needs time and should be started from now on. What Indonesian Chinese people need to do toward new Indonesia is:

  1. To play a role in all fields.
    The Indonesian Chinese should not be content in doing business only or playing badminton as they are now dominating. They have to be involved in some other aspects such as law, politics, media, society, culture and science. The example of Yap Tjwan Bing, Yap Thiam Hien, John Lie, Kwik Kian Gie, Onghokham and Arief Budiman as Indonesian Chinese public figures is needed from all part of Indonesia.

  2. To erase the image: success out of collusion.
    Public opinion and image about successful and wealthy Chinese because of collusion and corruption should be ended. Collusion and corruption are not done only by the Chinese, but also can be practised by other ethnic. Success in career and business must be gained from hard working, living modestly, trustworthy, loyal and preserved. The Indonesian Chinese still have a great chance to reach success without having collusion, corruption and nepotism.

  3. To maintain high solidarity and unity.
    The Indonesian Chinese is greatly divided by their religious, beliefs, regional and educational background. Each has their own group and they usually are reluctant to socialise and to show solidarity to the others of the same ethnic, not to mention toward other ethnic. Therefore, all Indonesian Chinese should develop humanity and solidarity that reach beyond region, tribes, religions and education background.

  4. To form organisation or NGO for human rights.
    The Chinese need to have an organisation or NGO that works in the field of humanity and human rights. It is also important for the Indonesian Chinese to make a national and international network for nurturing the work. The increasing role of NGO is needed in this new era of globalisation. This kind of organisation made by the Chinese should not be questioned nor rejected as long as it is aimed at developing humanity, maintaining peace and human rights. This organisation should also be a right place to accept all Chinese in their multicultural condition. It should also accommodate Indonesian Chinese struggle in the society and national life. Dedication, work and life for humanity, technology, culture and others are good ways to eliminate the public opinion on ethnic Chinese as "a man born to be a trader". Meanwhile, the notion to establish an Indonesian Chinese political party at the moment is not appropriate.

  5. Rediscovery of history.
    There is no such a white clean history of one ethnic or one nation. Every country and nation in this world has always a dark side of their life. While here in Indonesia, it is the dark side of the Chinese that the government had spread out. Therefore the Indonesian Chinese must dig their existential history in Indonesia by themselves and write down names of Indonesian Chinese figures and heroes who have a contribution to the building of Indonesia. It is also suggestible to build a museum showing historical arrival of the Chinese in Indonesia together with the story of their important role for this country. People's lack of understanding in the history and position of the Indonesian Chinese led to the suspicion and hatred.

  6. To introduce and socialise Chinese culture as a part of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Indonesian national vow which means Unity in Diversity).
    The Indonesian multi-cultures and religions must be highly appreciated. It is almost impossible to require Chinese culture to melt in regional culture. It is also can be said as to betray the basics of human rights. What we can do is to try to make Chinese culture interact and peacefully exist side by side with other regional cultures.

  7. To build a global network for Indonesia and humanity.
    It is undeniable that ethnic Chinese are widely spread in the world. To build a global network amongst the ethnic Chinese is a good thing though one should bear in mind that it should not be aimed at benefiting the Chinese exclusively but also for Indonesia and humanity.