Wednesday, September 08, 2004

TEMPO's Special Report: Chinese Indonesians (1 of 14)

Six years after May 1998 tragedy in Indonesia... Following is Tempo Special Report (Tempo Magazine No. 50/IV/August 17-23, 2004) on Chinese Indonesians.


'Mandarinisation' is Not the Answer

Free from political and cultural shackles, the problems faced by the ethnic Chinese are far from over. There is progress, but there are more issues.

His name is Weibinanto Halimdjaja. He is a reliable financial economics observer. His thoughts are concise and sharp. Newspapers, television and radio stations vie against each other to quote his words. Because of his too-sharp analysis, he was once sued by a large corporation in Indonesia. He won because what he said turned out to be true.

Curious about him? His real name: Lin Che Wei.

Che Wei is obviously ethnic Chinese. Like millions of people of Chinese descent here, he has an Indonesian name, an alias, a name that is crammed into the spaces on his KTP (proof of citizenship card) or passport to make it sound native. However, Che Wei may be one of a few exceptions. He will never deign to use his Indonesian name. "What form? It is not my name. An Indonesian name is bothersome," said Che Wei, whose official documents all contain his Indonesian name.

Not wanting to be bothered is actually not the real reason. As far as Che Wei is considered, a name is an identity. For the sake of an identity, he is willing to fight. "Lin Che Wei means someone who is steadfast," he once said. It is this steadfastness that has taken him to trace his line of origin. He feels that, being Chinese in Indonesia means being someone who has lost his identity, his roots. That is why he traced his ancestors' footsteps all the way to Penang, Malaysia, and Hokkian, China. His efforts were not in vain, because his ancestor line several
generations preceding him is scattered there.

Here is another story, about someone called Liem Han Hwe. He was born in a village in Kertosono, East Java. He was born in an era when the republic was still filled with feelings of fury against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), in 1966. One day after Han Hwe was born, his father asked their servant to process his birth certificate at the civil registry office. At the office that was always deserted, the servant was asked the name of the little baby. "Suyanto," said the servant, following his master's orders. "Only Suyanto?" asked the official, unenthusiastically opening the form for completion.

The servant did not want the matter to be long-drawn out. He thought it would be far easier to calm the official by giving an additional name. Quickly his brain searched. And then he answered briefly, "Bagong."

"What? Bagong?!" asked the official, half yelling.

"Why Bagong?"

"Well, because the baby's eyes are too slanted, give it the name Bagong Suyanto so that later they will become big like Bagong's in puppetry." And so it was. In one single stroke, Liem Han Liang became Bagong Suyanto. Obviously the entire Liem family was scandalized. However, "fate" was written, literally, on a piece of paper which would determine his life later.

Bagong is not Che Wei. While Che Wei insists on using his real name, Bagong chooses to accept his fate calmly. "It's truly a unique name. Every time I write in the newspapers, science journals, or when someone invites me to speak at a seminar, those who don't know me will certainly be interested not only in my papers, but also in my name," said the dean at Airlangga University, East Java, with a smile.

Che Wei, Han Hwe, and millions of other ethnic Chinese in this country have no choice but to accept their absurd fate, ever since centuries ago. During the Dutch era, the authorities forced the Chinese-and the Arabs and Indians-to enter a racial box under the name of "Foreign Eastern group". In this way, the Dutch were able to blackmail the Chinese and at the same time paralyze their political bargaining position.

Times changed. In the Sukarno era, those of Chinese descent were able to enjoy a bargaining position on the political stage. At least, three of them-Oei Tjoe Tat, H. Mohamad Hasan alias Tan Kiem Liong, and Ir. David Cheng-were installed as ministers in the Cabinet of 100 Ministers. That was when Sukarno placed those of Chinese descent at the same level as other ethnic groups by calling them "suku peranakan Tionghoa," just the way we of today refer to "suku Minang," "suku Batak," and "suku Ambon" (Minang, Batak, Ambon ethnic groups).

However, the beautiful history ended. After the PKI insurgence in 1965 and the fall of Sukarno, the Suharto regime systematically burned the bridges connecting the Chinese and the indigenous people. He forced those of Chinese descent to the sidelines to be pariahs. The only place for the Chinese was to garden in the soil of economy. He created trade feudalism by protecting a few from them as cronies, and issuing various regulations shackling them. They were even banned from speaking in their own language, and using their real names. Those were the days of cultural genocide whose momentum was triggered by the G30S/PKI.

That revolt was an excruciatingly painful turning point for those of Chinese descent. For a long time before 1965, they did not face many problems. Budi Lim, one of the best architects in Indonesia today, told of how beautiful that time was. In 1956, he was still a 2-year-old toddler who lived with his family in the Jatinegara area in East Jakarta, today called Jalan Otista.

When Imlek (the Chinese New Year) arrived, Budi's father would call his friend, a fabric seller from Minang. When a car filled with material came, Budi's father would call the housewives in their village. "Come, take whatever you want, to make clothes," said Budi, recalling what his father said. When it was Lebaran, the neighbors would come bringing ketupat, gulai, opor (typical traditional food for Lebaran). "I would always look forward to green nutmeg flower for manisan," he reminisced.

Then the 1965 tragedy struck. Since then, his village buddies who used to run after kites in the rice fields started to avoid him. When they passed each other, they would yell, "Hey, Chinese!" It was like being Chinese was a mistake, a disgrace. At around that time, his father built a wall surrounding their house. The wall became increasingly higher, confirming that Budi's family was Chinese, and the Chinese were not allowed to step on indigenous soil.

The wall could even be in the form of a piece of paper called Proof Letter of Citizenship of the Republic of Indonesia, SBKRI. All citizens of Chinese descent must own this powerful letter shaped like a passport. And to obtain it is not easy, could even be hurtful. "When I was processing the SBKRI, the official at the embassy asked me to sing Indonesia Raya," said Teddy, an IT consultant who had been living in Singapore for the past 15 years.

He passed this test, but apparently the official was not yet satisfied. He started looking for something to trip Teddy over. "So, who was the composer?" he asked. Teddy easily answered, W.R. Supratman. Still not satisfied, the official asked a question that even an indigenous could probably not answer, "So, where did W.R. Supratman die?" Teddy did get his SBKRI, but not without feeling the hurt which remains with him until today.

The wall of SBKRI was revoked in 1996. And then, after the fall of the Suharto regime, other walls, such as the ban from speaking and using Mandarin letters in public places, the ban on performing the barongsai dance and celebrate Imlek openly, have all fallen away. But, how can one destroy a wall whose shape and form has never been clear in the first place?

The lack of clarity can still be felt six years after Suharto's ouster. A TEMPO opinion poll conducted at the beginning of this month showed that 72 percent of the 500 respondents of Chinese descent still feel that they are milk cows when they have to face the bureaucracy. "Please write in big letters, Pak, there's no use for reforms if it's like this," said Adong Wijaya, a resident at Taman Lopang Indah, Unyur Subdistrict, Serang Regency, who failed to obtain an SBKRI for his child.

Actually, Adong did not need to request the problem be written in big letters. Even without the capital letters, it is obviously felt that there is a serious problem with regard to the Chinese issue. SBKRI is merely one example, a tip of the iceberg; beneath it there are so many basic issues that are still unresolved.

Look, for example, at what Frans H. Winarta, a renowned lawyer and member of the National Law Commission says. Until today, there are at least 60 laws and regulations that strongly discriminate against those of Chinese descent. Included in this group are the Law on Citizenship and the Provisional People's Consultative Assembly (MPRS) No. 32/1966 on the ban against the publication of Chinese newspapers and the use of Chinese characters in shops (see The Ethnic Chinese After Reformasi).

The bottom of the iceberg spans so widey, from the obstacles created by the state, economic gap, and strong social prejudices among neighbors. In their turn, all obstacles only increasingly reaffirm the stereotyping that citizens of Chinese descent are economy-animal creatures who think of profits only and are always apolitical.

Che Wei gives an example of this. At several opportunities, he asked businessmen of Chinese descent which president they would choose in the next general election. The impression he got was that they did not really care who would win, Megawati or Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "As far as they are concerned, whoever the president is, what's important is that he or she will make business run smoothly," said Che Wei.

That is an apolitical choice. A choice that in Che Wei's opinion was born from years of conditioning and trauma that those of Chinese descent must be separated from the world of politics, military, and the government. A trauma that was born from the crushing of Baperki, the PKI revolt of 1965, and the May tragedy of 1998. This trauma may also be the reason why the majority of them-although in TEMPO polling claim that they are actively involved in the general elections-refuse the establishment of a special party for the ethnic Chinese group.

Fortunately, there are always people like Lieus Sungkharisma, Ester Jusuf, Budi Lim, Eko Prawoto-to mention but a few-who dare to leave the cocoon of trauma. It is also a good thing that there are people like Lim Goan Lay, better known as Halim H.D., an eccentric artist from Surakarta who believes that to remove the obstacles it is not enough by releasing barongsai on the streets or to celebrate Imlek on a large scale. "That's mere `Mandarinisation,' it doesn't touch the essence of the real issue," said Halim.

Halim yearns for the day when ethnic Chinese are good not only at trading, but are also proficient at cultural and social matters. Or, in Che Wei's language, there must a more balanced role by the indigenous and the minority ethnic Chinese group in the fields of economy, politics, military, and bureaucracy. Only by having a balance will the obstacles disappear on their own.

Halim is right, assimilation is not `Mandarinisation.'

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