Thursday, May 20, 2004

Black May 1998: 6th Commemoration (14 of 40)

More Chinese-Indonesians become actively engaged in politics
By Christine Susanna Tjhin, Department of Politics and Social Change, Centre for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta
The Jakarta Post (Monday, March 29, 2004)

"If the world knows about 12 Chinese signs of the zodiac, Chinese-Indonesians know only of two -- the cash cow and black goat," joked Mely G. Tan years ago. The sardonic joke seems to have endured throughout Indonesian history and may be further accentuated in the 2004 elections -- or not.

The post-1999 political climate has been more conducive to greater participation. Increased Chinese-Indonesian participation as legislative (House of Representatives) and Regional Representatives Council (DPD) candidates can clearly be seen -- 172 so far, as noted by The Jakarta Post. Quality, however, is not as apparent.

Last Saturday, Paguyuban Sosial Marga Tionghoa Indonesia (PSMTI) and Forum Masyarakat Tionghoa (FORMAT), two of Indonesia's distinguished Chinese-Indonesian associations, cohosted a "Meet the Chinese-Indonesian candidates" gathering. Three DPD candidates and 12 legislative candidates of Chinese descent from 8 different political parties were given an opportunity to campaign in front of just over 600 PSMTI members/associates.

The enthusiasm seemed very encouraging. The audience was eager to listen, question, clap, yell support and wait, for around seven hours. Candidates were also full of brio in using their allotted time. Except for one person during the first session, who seemed appallingly self-content with his lack-luster answer "We are in the process of discussing it", whenever asked about his party's platform on gender and other matters.

The intense forum, for all its worth and triviality, was an interesting portrait of Chinese-Indonesian political participation, particularly with regard to social associations and political party affiliation.

First, it reconfirms the heterogeneous nature of Chinese-Indonesians. Twelve candidates are spread between eight different parties. When a participant criticized the three DPD candidates for not letting just one candidate run, thereby focusing the Chinese-Indonesian vote, others vehemently rejected this. While one participant regretted that no Chinese-Indonesian political parties had passed the electoral threshold, others did not.

Second, creativity of the candidates has so far been limited to form (style of presentation and facilities) rather than substance (issues or ideas). Ideas presented were mostly uniform, distinguishable only by eloquence, noise level or forcefulness.

Third, in terms of substance, the "ethnic discrimination" theme remained dominant on all platforms. This is not to say that one should drop the antidiscrimination movement. There must be a balance between making rightful demands against discrimination and delivering responsible civil and political obligations. Unless the balance is evident in the eyes of the public, the theme will generate only vague sympathy. It will also become increasingly less empowering for Chinese-Indonesians themselves.

Fourth, gender and youth issues occupy a miniscule place in the agenda, if at all. This may be a consequence of the current patriarchal system within society and/or the Confucianist concept of filial piety. Or was 10 minutes simply not enough to do justice to their vision and mission? Still, much has to be developed.

The overall tone of efforts to overcome the prevalent apolitical situation was pretty optimistic. But was this simply election hubbub or something more significant?

Many people might be curious about how the Chinese-Indonesian vote will be distributed, for reliable polling is well-nigh impossible. Chinese-Indonesians are obviously anxious about where their vote should go. But the more important, yet often overlooked, moment of democratization is actually the period between elections.

Most of the candidates in the forum were baffled when a female participant solemnly asked what they would do if not elected. Had she asked the entire audience what they would do after casting their vote, I wonder what would have happened?

Ideally, as responsible citizens, Chinese-Indonesians should be more involved in social and political participation. This goes beyond party membership or pursuing electoral candidacy. Chinese-Indonesian associations, to a certain extent, can play a critical role in stimulating participation, at least among their members.

Political education may well depend on the creativity of these longer-established associations. What PSMTI, FORMAT and others have done must be given credit, provided that they can maintain their non-exclusive objectives, engage in creative repositioning and apply a facilitative approach to their upcoming activities.

While their membership may be exclusive, their objectives and activities must remain far-reaching. Allegations that these associations are exclusive will automatically be rendered invalid once action proves otherwise. The forum has shown how associations can relate to party members. The associations have created the space for members to engage in dialog with candidates without imposing a collective party preference.

Though no social contracts were signed, the event has produced a moral commitment between members of associations and candidates. What can be pushed further on both actors is creative repositioning from "passive victims" to "proactive contributors". Becoming quasi-watchdogs/moral guardians by scrutinizing and "punishing" rotten Chinese-Indonesian politicians could be an alternative way of supporting the national movement against rotten politicians.

Of course, Chinese Indonesian associations are not the only catalyst for greater participation, but they remain influential. They still have a lot of gaps, for example limited participation by young people and women. Empowerment, unfortunately, does not seem to be on the associations' main agenda thus far. The relevance, sustainability and quality of these associations are pretty much determined by how well they deal with the empowerment of young people and women because both will definitely bring a fresh nuance to the whole endeavor.

Ultimately, cash cows and black goats may soon be replaced by something else: Honorable hares and daring dragons, perhaps?

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