Thursday, May 20, 2004

Black May 1998: 6th Commemoration (12 of 40)

Chinese Indonesians enter politics
By Laurel Teo
The Straits Times (March 19, 2004)

Once politically subdued, a growing number of ethnic Chinese are now contesting in the upcoming polls

DR A.B. Susanto, 54, runs a management consultancy in Jakarta, and headed the Indonesian Catholic Community from 1998 to 2003.

Last year, the ethnic Chinese, who still advises a number of civil-society groups, put on a new hat.

He joined the Muslim-based National Awakening Party (PKB) and will contest as one of its candidates in the upcoming general election.

Once typecast as avaricious businessmen who care all about money-making and nothing about nation-building, many Chinese in Indonesia, like Dr Susanto, are sloughing off that image, as more and more among them take the plunge into politics.

On April 5, at least 170 will be jostling for positions in the 550-seat national Parliament, as well as the 128-seat new regional representative council.

More are expected to compete at the provincial and regional legislature levels.

Contrast this with the handful who entered the 1999 polls, winning just four seats in the national legislature.

One obvious reason for this new trend is the government's change of heart.

Under former president Suharto, the government curbed any political pursuits by the Chinese, who make up 4 per cent of the nation.

'So even if we wanted to, there was no chance for us to take part,' said businessman Tadjudin Hidajat, 64, another aspiring political candidate.

But since the collapse of Mr Suharto's New Order regime in 1998, the restrictions have been gradually lifted.

Political parties, on their part, are also reeling in more Chinese, not only as rank-and-file members, but also as high-ranking office-bearers, added Mr Alvin Lie, 43, who won a legislature seat in 1999 on the National Mandate Party (PAN) ticket.

The subtext of this: parties now value the political contributions of their Chinese members, instead of treating them as token symbols or deep pockets to finance campaigns.

Regulations aside, the May 1998 anti-Chinese riots, too, played a big part in jolting the community into action, said Mr Hidajat, who described the incident as a 'painful wake-up call'.

With the mushrooming of political forums, often advertised in local papers, awareness is also much greater among the Chinese.

The emergence of more Chinese-language papers, banned in the past, has also given greater platform to the community's issues and political candidates.

That the once-subdued community now daringly lobbies politicians for changes, is another measure of the heightened political ferment, noted PAN's Mr Lie.

Top on the list of burning issues are the discriminatory practices that still linger from the old era.

In 2001, the Chinese-Indonesian Association counted no less than 60 such laws and regulations.

So it comes as no surprise that a sizeable chunk of the community leans towards nationalist parties with inclusive agendas, such as the two giants - the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and Golkar, or smaller ones like the Democratic Party.

But a number have also thrown in their lot with reformist Muslim-based ones such as PAN or PKB - formed in 1998 by Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim group.

A case in point is Dr Susanto. Courted by a swarm of parties, he was persuaded in the end by the PKB's 'clear terms on inclusiveness and pluralism'.

'I was also touched by how sincere they were,' said Dr Susanto, who highlighted the fact that non-Muslims hold more than 40 of about 250 leadership positions within the party.

That Chinese candidates are campaigning under a colourful spread of political flags, instead of converging under one, is a good sign, said business tycoon Sofjan Wanandi, 63, one of the few Chinese legislators during the New Order.

'This will quicken the assimilation of the Chinese into Indonesian life,' he said, adding that minority Chinese should seize this chance to prove to the majority that they are, indeed, sincere about having a stake in this country.

'Show them we don't just make money and then run away when there's a problem.'

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