TV Shows, Films Probe Indonesia's Discrimination
By Margot Cohen
The Far Eastern Economic Review (September 19, 2002)
A festive wedding anniversary cake sits untouched as a couple stares at a television screen. It is May 1998, and riots are wrecking Jakarta's Chinatown district, Glodok. "We have never managed to learn from history," sighs the man, clutching his wife's hand. She is a local Chinese. He is pribumi, part of the ethnic-Malay majority.
Ethnic tensions in Indonesia are real enough, but the couple is fictional -- two characters in a six-part television serial, Cinta Terhalang Tembok ("Obstructed Love"), that aired earlier this year on Indonesian TV. The series is one of a number of recent TV shows in Indonesia, along with a recent big-screen feature, that are breaking the Suharto-era taboo on discussions of ethnic differences. In each of them, the social and legal inequalities suffered by ethnic Chinese are examined through the device of inter-ethnic relationships.
The shows aren't perfect: Some reviewers have criticized them as didactic, superficial and historically flawed. And they haven't exactly scored in the ratings. With the exception of Jangan Panggil Aku Cina ("Don't Call Me Chinese"), which captured a 40% share of viewers, other offerings drew low ratings, according to TV surveyor ACNielsen.
Still, many Indonesians say they could represent the beginning of a welcome trend to promote social awareness. "The more exposure, the more positive it is," says Kristoforus Sindhunatha, the former chairman of a state body charged with overseeing cultural assimilation of minorities. "Nothing should be hushed up any more."
During the Suharto era, movies and TV shows preferred to uphold the cheery fiction of national unity, largely ignoring the ethnic Chinese, who account for 4% of the population but who hold a disproportionate share of the national wealth. When ethnic Chinese were shown, the portrayal was rarely complimentary. "If they appear at all in films, Indonesian-Chinese have minor and usually negative stereotyped roles: greedy moneylender, procurer, con man, or for a change, token soldier," notes anthropologist Karl Heider.
The taboo has eased, mirroring a greater willingness to allow the open expression of Chinese culture in the years since the fall of Suharto. But while such aesthetic blossomings have sparked little debate, the recent TV programmes and films have proved more controversial, not least among some ethnic Chinese.
Take Nico Krisnanto, an ethnic Chinese who founded the legal advocacy group Movement for Struggle Against Discrimination, or Gandi. One reason he didn't bother watching, he says, is that he believes individual relationships between ethnic Chinese and pribumi are generally harmonious. Where there are clashes it's due to "political engineering" by shadowy forces seeking to benefit from inter-ethnic violence, he argues. Therefore, the TV programmes and films "are not relevant. They just rely on romance. They don't explain about power politics."
However, Anton Supit -- Gandi's current chairman -- believes such programmes could play some role in spreading greater social tolerance. "But if it's only that, it's not enough. There must be political will, so that all Indonesians have the same rights."
Legal change, though, has been maddeningly slow, and ethnic Chinese still suffer legal discrimination. Such obstacles are at the heart of the TV drama Ing Tak Perlu Menangis ("Ing Doesn't Need to Cry"), based on -- and starring -- real-life badminton player Ivana Lie. The serial shows that despite the Chinese teenager's success on court in representing Indonesia , she couldn't get an Indonesian passport or even a local identity card. Ing was unwilling to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops -- and the script implies that she shouldn't have had to, either. Meanwhile, she is shown resisting suggestions that she take the fast track to assimilation by changing her name. The show also helps explodes the myth that all Chinese are rich: Ing's father is a humble temple-sweeper.
The accent on Chinese poverty also comes across in the soap opera "Don't Call Me Chinese," which is set in West Sumatra and tells the tale of a pribumi doctor who falls in love with a poor Chinese girl. Her hopes for love look doomed to failure, first because of West Sumatra's matrilineal culture, which demands a steep purchase price for local grooms, and then because of the attitude of her boyfriend's mother: "Don't be blind, she's Chinese!" the older woman cries. "But she is also human," her son replies.
The show's "deep human values" win kudos from Ranny Emilia, head of the Centre for Thought and Ethical Studies at Andalas University in Padang. "The message is quickly understood because the language is very transparent, very explicit -- exactly what was forbidden during the Suharto era," she observes. Other viewers might find the exaggerated simplicity that characterizes much of the dialogue in both this production and "Obstructed Love" a little grating.
In contrast to the penury on display in Padang, a lavish Chinese lifestyle splashes across the big screen in the movie Ca Bau Kan -- a title taken from the Hakka Chinese word for "woman," which has come to mean "prostitute." Armed with a budget of 5 billion rupiah ($564,000) for her first feature film, director Nia DiNata laboured -- in vain, say some local reviewers -- to portray the Chinese trappings of the colonial era. The bigger controversy, however, centres on the portrayal of Chinese protagonists, a hodgepodge of law-breaking businessmen.
"All the men were so cruel," says Myra Sidharta, a Jakarta psychologist. "Even towards the women, whom they claimed to love. I think it reinforced stereotypes." Yet the producers insist they wished to highlight the resilient relationship between a pribumi girl forced to become a prostitute for Japanese soldiers, and the Chinese-Javanese businessman who adores her. He also uses some of his wealth to support the anti-colonial struggle. "I was interested in getting involved in this film because it has a mission," lead actor Ferry Salim told local reporters. "Although [my character] is Chinese, he has a nationalist spirit."
That spirit unmistakably guides the TV serial "Obstructed Love." It depicts the life of a pribumi scholar from North Sumatra, beginning during the independence struggle and continuing up to the 1998 riots. We see him first as a young man, bridling under the occupying Dutch forces and hating in particular a Chinese soldier who beats his father. But, in a twist of fate, the two men subsequently become close friends. The Chinese man helps his companion to win the love of a Chinese woman, and even donates his blood to save his ailing friend. The message is clear: one nation, one blood.
Above all, the serial preaches forgiveness grounded in historical and cultural understanding. The young man learns that many Chinese were forced to take the side of the Dutch, who manipulated them to advance their own interests. Rather than condemn the Chinese for often speaking in their own language in the presence of pribumi, he grasps that many Chinese were simply ashamed of their imperfect command of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia. And rather than be swayed by his schoolmates' claims that the Chinese are "wily and opportunistic," he prizes their industriousness and benevolence.
For their part, some of the Chinese characters chide their brethren for harbouring suspicions against the pribumi. "We live in Indonesia, not in China," says the former soldier. "It's time that we all acted like we live in Indonesia."
If the dialogue sounds a little pat, so too, is the assimilationist denouement. Unlike Ing, the feisty badminton player, the Chinese maiden in "Obstructed Love" gladly changes her name and converts to Islam after she elopes with her beloved scholar. A tearful reunion with the parents follows. But as the serial closes with footage from the 1998 riots, it's clear that Indonesia has some way to go before it reaches a happy ending.