Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Black May 1998: 5th Commemoration (8 of 24)

Reform is only skin deep
The Jakarta Post (February 11, 2003)

President Megawati Soekarnoputri and Chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) Amien Rais impressed many when they attended the Chinese New Year reception in Jakarta last week.

How could the public not be impressed?

The presence of the two top national leaders, both looking sleek in their Chinese attire befitting the occasion, lent credence to the country's commitment to pluralism, and to respecting the rights of the Chinese, the country's largest minority racial group, to observe their cultures and tradition.

This is the first time that Chinese New Year was made a national public holiday, as a recognition not only of the size of the Chinese community in Indonesia, but also of the important role it plays in the nation.

The many colorful lion and dragon dances performed in public places, banned during the Soeharto regime, are further testimony of the country's improving race relations.

It is therefore easy to conclude that Indonesia has made significant progress during these last five years of Reformasi when it comes to race relations, especially with regard to the question of the ethnic Chinese here.

But as far as the reform credentials of both Megawati Soekarnoputri and Amien Rais, they probably do not go much deeper than the silk of the fine Chinese clothing they wore a few nights ago. They just look like "reformists", but their commitment and actions are highly questionable.

Both Megawati and Amien's rise to the national leadership is owed, in large part, to the 1998 reformation movement. They have both failed to address the question of racial discrimination that still exists in this country.

They could have used the reception last week to convey the message to those present, including many leading Chinese-Indonesian figures, of their commitment to wipe out all of the remaining discriminatory laws and regulations.

Instead, they have chosen not to act or comment, even while the issue has been fiercely debated in public during the observance of the Chinese New Year.

The bad news came from the government's staff at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, and the State Secretariat, who, amidst the debate, dropped the bombshell last week: The racist rules are here to stay, at least for a little while longer.

Both government agencies pointed to the existing 1958 citizenship law as the basis of the government practice of requiring Indonesians of Chinese descent to obtain a court document as proof of citizenship (SBKRI). This rule is applied even if one is born in this country. Even if one's parents already have the document, it is still required, and will likely be for one's children and grandchildren.

The government says that as long as the 1958 law is not repealed, the practice will continue. The government is drafting a new legislation on citizenship, but with the House of Representatives flooded with more than 50 bills to deliberate, it will be a long time before the new law can be enacted, if ever.

This SBKRI ruling is one of about 60 other government rules and regulations that discriminate against Chinese-Indonesians on the basis of the color of their skin.

Sadly, going by the government's attitude to ignore altogether the entire issue of discrimination against the Chinese community, it looks like changes, if they ever come, will only come slowly.

Most of the changes that we saw in the last five years have been largely cosmetic.

The Chinese already celebrated the New Year -- albeit secretly -- annually even when the government forbade an open display of their cultural expressions. A holiday to mark the new year is certainly welcome, but that is not the biggest issue confronting the Chinese community in Indonesia today.

Racism, and especially one that is institutionalized through laws and government regulations, is the challenge that needs our urgent attention.

Institutionalized racial discrimination, in turn, breeds the prejudices that still exist in our society. You eliminate the racist rules, you will gradually phase out these racial prejudices in society.

By ignoring the problem, and by refusing to revoke the laws and regulations, this government is not only condoning racism, it is also promoting and nurturing it.

This, in short, is a racist government.

All that we really needed in this campaign to eliminate racism was a strong political will from the top.

President Abdurrahman Wahid, perhaps the only true pluralist among present day leaders, started the process to eliminate racist laws and regulations after he was electd president in 1999. Sadly, he did not see his work completed as he was toppled prematurely in 2001.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri or MPR Chairman Amien Rais, who is a presidential hopeful himself, could have used the Chinese New Year reception last week as a platform to make their position on the issue clear. They chose not to.

But then, as we have learned about some of our leaders by now, their reform credentials are only skin deep.

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