Sunday, May 12, 2002

Black May 1998: 4th Commemoration (5 of 17)

An old tale of pluralism and discrimination
By Alexander Irwan, Sociologist, Jakarta
The Jakarta Post (March 9, 2002)

"Alvin" got married to a woman from Padang, West Sumatra, which created a commotion in both families. His uncle predicted, in a rather threatening tone, that the cross-ethnic marriage, combined with differences in religious backgrounds, was a recipe for divorce. Marriage is a constant struggle, said his uncle, even for people like your aunt and me who are both Chinese and have the same religion.

And just like any other couple, they indeed struggled to make their marriage work. So far so good. On Feb. 5 2002, that was last year according to the Chinese calendar but this year according to the Roman calendar, his wife gave birth to their second son. And they both became busy finding the right name for their baby.

According to Chinese astrology, the boy was born in the year of the snake and had an element of metal. There are other elements in the Chinese astrology, namely fire, water, earth, and wood. Although Alvin himself did not know much about Chinese astrology, which was basically a perspective to help manage human relations, whether at the level of individual, household, or institution (including business), he got help from his friends who were more knowledgeable regarding the subject matter. His friends advised him and his wife to name the baby with at least two words, one word meaning fire, and another one meaning wisdom, love, or humanity.

It was the element of metal that needed to be softened up. Otherwise the boy would grow up cold and rigid. He would follow his logical reasoning and execute his decision without giving room to any consideration of humanity. Ever heard of cold-blooded teachers, executives, gangsters, parents, or politicians? If the son became a boss, he would fire an employee just like that, no matter if her husband had just lost his job due to a serious illness or suffered some similar cruel twist of fate. That's just an example of how cold-blooded he could become.

And that's not all. A "metal" person tends to become very stubborn. Look at Gus Dur, one of his friends said. The former president was also born in the year of the snake and his element was metal. On top of that, his parents named him "Wahid", which means the best, number one. And indeed he grew up a very stubborn politician. He did not flinch even an inch to the pressure of students and civil society organizations that demanded him to carry out total reform.

Since Alvin and his wife had decided not to give a Chinese name to the baby, they started asking friends to suggest names from whatever languages they knew. They thought it was cool to mix different cultures, using the Chinese concept but picking the names from different languages.

Among the names that meant fire, bara (Indonesian), latu (Javanese), dahana (Sanskrit), and aidan (Celtic) were the most appealing to them. On the wisdom, love, or humanity side, the selected names were mudita and karuna (Balinese), aldan (English), prajna (Sanskrit) and amando (latin). The last name actually should sound amanda (deserved to be loved), but they changed it to amando because the baby was a boy. The change was off course protested by some of their feminist friends. While sorting for the right name, they called the baby "dedek", meaning "adik", or little brother/sister.

The couple's enthusiasm, however, was crushed by the hard and cold fact of existing discrimination. Like any other parents, they wanted to have a birth certificate of their child.

A well respected hospital in South Jakarta, where the baby was born, ran a service to help new parents get a birth certificate for their baby. The one page brochure differentiated parents into three categories. The woman at the desk explained that for Muslim Indonesian citizens, the fee was Rp 150,000. And the amount was the same for Christian Indonesian citizens. But for the third category, WNI Keturunan Tionghoa, meaning Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent, the fee was Rp 300,000.

Worse, the ethnic Chinese were required to provide a citizenship document, or "Surat Kewarganegaraan", and "Surat Ganti Nama", an official document regarding the change of their Chinese into Indonesian name. Meanwhile, "Muslim and Christian citizens" were only required to bring in photocopies of general documents such as marriage certificates, birth certificates, and family cards.

The woman officer behind the desk responded to the couple's upset reaction by saying that it was not the hospital's policy but the policy of the Jakarta's Civil Public Record office. And if they did not believe her, she told them to get the birth certificate directly at the Civil Public Record office.

For the ethnic Chinese, it is not the making of the Chinese new year to become a national holiday that they want to see. No other ethnic group's new year had been turned into a national holiday anyway. There would be too many new holidays if the government made all ethnic groups' new years into national holidays. It was off course nice to be able to say Gong Xi Facai, watch the barongsai dance in public, and read Chinese newspapers again. But what's more important for the ethnic Chinese is the removal of the ethnic-based unequal treatment practiced by the government offices.

At the heart of the discrimination against the ethnic Chinese is the formal division of the Indonesian citizens into two categories: The pribumi or indigenous and the ethnic Chinese. It was the colonial Dutch who created the division. The purpose was to make the ethnic Chinese vulnerable politically and became dependent on their protection while carrying out the function of appropriating surpluses from the pribumis to be handed out to the Dutch.

Around two centuries later, the dual citizenship structure remains intact. So does the political vulnerability of the ethnic Chinese. Just like two centuries ago, the ethnic Chinese are currently having ample room to express their cultural values. But because of the official discrimination, the more the ethnic Chinese expressed themselves culturally, the more their political position becomes vulnerable. By maintaining the official discrimination, the government is actually helping the continuous growth of seeds of intolerance.

Discrimination is always by design. And it is indeed a scary picture since the ethnic Chinese did not receive any protection from the state during the May 1998 riots, where many ethnic Chinese, men, women, and children, became victims.

By the way, the couple decided to call the baby Bara Mudita.

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