Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Minority participation and democratization
By Christine Susanna Tjhin, Jakarta
The Jakarta Post - Opinion (Friday, September 3, 2004)
Since the legislative election in April, more Chinese-Indonesians have undoubtedly been engaged in the country's democratization, and this degree of enthusiasm is a new precedent for their future participation.
In the past, the only "participation" expected concerned economic activities. The reconstruction of the Chinese-Indonesian identity was shaped much by such economic preferences, which led to the stereotypical stigma that the ethnic group, which comprises 2 percent of the Indonesian population, makes up 70 percent of the economy.
Although no valid proof exists to indicate the precise economic power of Chinese-Indonesians -- nor any to calculate the economic power of other ethnic groups in Indonesia -- this "popular" stigma has stuck.
The notion of Chinese-Indonesians holding economic power has held sway for as long as the nation's history, particularly since the colonial era. However, this stigma was amplified in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis by the laziness and bombastic tendencies of some former journalists, who quoted incorrectly Michael Backman's 1995 work on Indonesian conglomerates.
Backman investigated the market capitalization of 300 companies and found that 73 percent of the companies' total market capitalization was owned by Chinese-Indonesian conglomerates. Market capitalization, however, is not the national economy, because it excludes state-owned enterprises, multinationals and foreign companies that provide far greater contributions. Still, the damage had been done and attempts to rectify the fallacy were mostly futile, and the effect of this long-held "popular" stigma peaked during the tragic events of May 1998.
In the context of the 2004 general elections, elites who needed funds thought it would be profitable to lure the support of Chinese-Indonesians with trivial promises of enforcing the abolishment of the Chinese-specific Indonesian citizenship certificate, or SBKRI, and of eradicating discrimination -- but without appreciating the actual potential of the Chinese-Indonesian community in contributing to democratization.
Speaking of the Chinese-Indonesian community and democratic development in terms of the unproven sums of money they might have and could donate is superficial and potentially damaging. Why not look at Indonesians of Chinese descent with glasses of a different shade?
Since the 1999 presidential election, Chinese-Indonesians have relatively been more confident in expressing their political aspirations. Some encouraging signs are: one, increasing membership of Chinese in political parties; two, an increase in the number of political discussions and seminars hosted by Chinese-Indonesian associations with assertive members; and three, informal presidential campaign teams that generated various social activities in different localities.
Each of these activities showed the physical and public presence of Chinese-Indonesians. This presence, at this early stage of democratic consolidation, has been enough to erode the apolitical stigma, and regular media coverage of their presence has helped greatly in drawing a different picture of the Chinese-Indonesian.
Even if it is not yet comprehensive -- at least to the general public -- their political participation has increasingly become evident.
However, this presence is not supported adequately at times by quality substance. In an earlier piece (The Jakarta Post, March 29, 2004), I illustrated some drawbacks -- in particular the participation of youths. Some of these drawbacks still exist, yet improvements have also emerged, as was evident in an event hosted on Aug. 22 by the Chinese-Indonesian Reform Party (PARTI), which showed Chinese-Indonesian youths' increasing participation in politics.
If the event covered in my March piece reflected the Chinese community's mood toward the legislative election -- namely, party-oriented debates -- the August event reflected their mood toward the presidential election. Encouragingly, many legislative candidates who had failed to win a seat were still willing to campaign for presidential candidates.
In the August event, a pro-Megawati team and a pro-Susilo team were engaged in a debate. Due to variety of factors, the Mega-Hasyim team was bigger -- but this may not automatically mean that the Chinese-Indonesian community favors Mega-Hasyim more.
There are issues far more complicated and critical than which candidate Chinese-Indonesians prefer.
The most heated topic raised by youth representatives was the Kalla factor and the possibility of affirmative action for Chinese-Indonesians. This was even more hotly debated than the SBKRI issue. That they are still complaining predominantly about the antidiscrimination and SBKRI issues shows a limited ability to link their arguments to mainstream human rights discourses against all forms of discrimination. Additionally, the debates often slipped into petty arguments over individual style, gestures or word choice.
Beneath the surface of the hot topic of affirmative action is an inherent rejection of all forms and shapes of discrimination. However, most Chinese-Indonesian political figures are either not very eloquent in translating this fundamental issue into their debates and speeches, or are not fully aware of it.
If the first is the case, it is only a matter of experience -- of engaging more in and familiarizing themselves with mainstream issues. If the latter is the case, however, then there is little quality in the greater political participation of Chinese-Indonesians.
Some Chinese-Indonesian may cast their votes this September for the candidate who could ensure no more -- or the least -- discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians and/or who could provide the stability necessary for better economic prospects.
This existing mindset is narrow, but perhaps at this point, this is understandable, given the previous situation and intimidation. Still, this critical lack must be changed.
A greater participation of youths in mainstream political and/or social movements may be the only hope for change.
Fortunately, some of the above-mentioned signs also indicate mainstreaming, in particular among the informal campaign teams -- which were initiated by Chinese-Indonesians and became more diverse in the process. Some even have a structured cooperation between different regions, although they are largely based in Jakarta. Such inter-ethnic engagement brings about positive developments in the quality of current and future political participation.
Many issues remain for the Chinese-Indonesian community to tackle, particularly women's political participation. This, however, does not detract from their readily embracing a greater role in the country's democratization.
Despite the shortcomings, the stereotypical accusations of Chinese-Indonesians being apolitical will soon become invalid as their participation continues to grow. Skepticism that rule their political participation as insignificant because of their small numbers will also soon become invalid. Chinese-Indonesian participation will become one of the determining factors of democratization, precisely because they are a minority.
While the country moves toward greater decentralization and consequently, the increasing relevance of local politics, Chinese-Indonesian participation in areas with a bigger distribution of the minority group will provide worthy examples for national politics.
Democratization is not a monopoly of the majority. Lessons learned from minority participation are vital contributions to the overall democratic engagement.
The writer is a researcher of the Department of Politics and Social Change at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).