Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Wibowo strides between two worlds
By T.Sima Gunawan, Contributor, Jakarta
The Jakarta Post - Feature (September 1, 2003)
The problems of the Chinese in Indonesia are quite complicated. It seems the Chinese are doing well here as some of them have managed to develop business empires and even become conglomerates.
But the anti-Chinese riots in 1998, which later forced president Soeharto to step down, provide clear evidence that things are actually not as good as they look.
But at the beginning, that was not the reason why Ignatius Wibowo became a sinologist. In the late 1970s, he became a student at the University of Indonesia, majoring in Chinese Literature, because he was told to do so -- not by his parents, but by his "supervisor".
"Yes, I am a Jesuit priest," said the 51-year-old man. He was directed to take Chinese studies to help try to find out why in such a great land, so few people believed in Christ.
The more he learned about China, the more interested he became. "It's interesting and challenging," he said.
He later enrolled in the graduate study program of the School of Political Sciences and the postgraduate program in Chinese politics.
Wibowo, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia, still preaches at Jakarta Cathedral once every month or two, the only time when he wears his clerical garb.
"Speaking before my students is much easier. I know exactly what they need and what to say. But I don't know what the congregation have in their mind. I don't know if they like my preaching or not, and I can't use the sort of scientific terms that I use with my students. I have to ... you know, it's like changing my way of speaking," he told The Jakarta Post last Monday.
Wibowo is the director of the Center for Chinese Studies, which has published two books and issues a bimonthly newsletter called Djeroek Poeroet. Once a month, it holds a discussion on Chinese issues in cooperation with QBWorld.
The center, which is in the process of setting up a website, was set up in 1999 to address issues affecting both mainland China and the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.
"I am surprised that so little attention is paid to such major issues," he said.
He observed that this lack of knowledge on the issues involved makes Indonesia unable to address them properly. "For example, the tremendous economic development of China ... we can feel the impact in the form of an influx of cheap products here. Because we don't really know what's happened there, we might respond negatively by accusing them of unfair business practices, or even of attempting to destroy our economy," he said.
"We would be able to respond more positively if we could reduce our image of China as a threat and instead build a better, more constructive relationship with China."
According to Wibowo, the problems of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia was another issue, but it has the cultural affinity.
"Understanding the problems of mainland China helps us to understand the problems here," he said.
One of the biggest problems for the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia is confusing about their identity and how to position themselves in local society. There are some Chinese who still find it hard to adapt Indonesian society, while others have managed to integrate themselves well in the local milieu. "But the latter were also the victims of the May riots, which shows that the Indonesian people themselves have not fully accepted them."
Despite the national motto of unity in diversity, the Chinese are not regarded as being on a par with other ethnicities like the Javanese, the Ambonese or the Batak people as the Chinese do not have a clearly defined territory, he said. "Once I asked a man if he was Chinese. But, instead of admitting he was Chinese, he said `I am Bandung man'."
And how about Wibowo himself?
"I don't really care about my identity. My Chinese blood, let's say is about 20 percent. I have a Javanese grandparent, and from my mother, I also have Dutch blood," said Wibowo
"One's identity is subjective and identifying someone by the color of his skin is basic racism," he said.
Born in Ambarawa, Central Java, in 1952, he grew up in Surakarta where he developed a fondness for wayang shadow puppet shows, Javanese traditional gamelan orchestras, and Javanese dance.
Wibowo, who lives in a house in Central Jakarta with seven seminarians, leads a modest life. He takes the train to his university in Depok, and hires a taxi only when necessary. Three times a week, early in the morning, he spends half an hour or so walking briskly around the block to keep fit. In his spare time, he reads, plays the organ or visits friends for a chat or a talk.
He said he is concerned about what he called the spirit of anti-intellectualism among scholars due to the lack of drive to deepen their knowledge and engage in research. They tended to quote foreign experts and only a few of them could contribute new thinking, he regretted.
Wibowo is currently conducting a comparative study on investment policies in China and Indonesia -- how China can attract so many investors while Indonesia is being shunned. He takes the view that China is successful because of collusion between investors and the authoritarian government. "Investors do not care whether a country is democratic or authoritarian. What counts is profits," he said.
"But my research is still at an early stage," he quickly added.
He enjoys his work very much, finding scientific activities "stupefying". "They can make you crazy," he said, laughing.