Wednesday, September 08, 2004

TEMPO's Special Report: Chinese Indonesians (3 of 14)

Weekend Family Reunions

After the mass rioting in 1998, many ethnic Chinese families moved to Singapore. Some have returned, but many have chosen to be part of the community of commuters.

Take a look at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Cengkareng on Fridays. You will find dozens of executives ready to fly to Singapore. Their cell phones kept ringing one Friday. A man wearing a jacket raised his phone to the ear and said, "Easy, my dear, I'll be home in two hours."

They are weekend daddies. They are busy with their work during the rest of the week and live in Jakarta. When it's Friday, they throng Cengkareng to depart for Changi Airport, Singapore. Then on Monday morning, after two days and three nights with their families in Singapore, they fly back to Jakarta. Thus, the Jakarta-Singapore commuting cycle repeats.

Among the ethnic Chinese groups commuting between the two countries are bankers, capital market analysts, information technology consultants, medical specialists and also Indonesia's best architects. The commuters' close schedules put them often aboard the same planes. "We see the same people on every weekend," said Lin Che Wei, the capital market analyst who earned the title "Best Analyst" in Asia Money magazine, 1997.

Lin Che Wei, director of consulting firm Independent Research and Advisory, has performed his Cengkareng-Changi commuting routine for the past six years. "It started after the May 1998 incident, to be exact," he said, referring to the tragedy that changed the entire face of Indonesia so drastically, among others marked by the fall of President Suharto.

On May 12, 1998 several students of Trisakti University were shot dead. The next day, the heated political atmosphere got out of hand. Looting, arson and rape prevailed in all corners of Jakarta. Thousands of people-not only ethnic Chinese-were trapped and burnt alive.

"I was in the office at that time," recalled Che Wei. He was panic-stricken, which could be understood as his house was on Jalan Gunung Sahari, Central Jakarta, right behind the residence of tycoon Lim Sioe Liong. Furious masses set fire to Lim's house, which was reduced to ashes. Che Wei was certainly worried about the safety of his wife and two little daughters.

Thank God, they were safe. His family escaped the rage of masses running amok. In the evening, as the rioting slightly subsided, Che Wei rode a motorcycle, guiding a Kijang car that took his family to the Mandarin Hotel on Jalan Thamrin. After two days staying at the hotel, the whole family took refuge in Singapore. Since then, the life of Lin Che Wei has changed. The 36-year-old is now part of the community of commuters traveling the Jakarta-Singapore route.

Edward (not his real name) had about the same bitter experience. The neurologist felt he had done a lot for the country. In the early 1970s, after graduating from the School of Medicine, University of Indonesia, Edward was directly assigned as a doctor under inpres (presidential instruction) to a remote area in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). Then in the 1980s, after finishing his specialist study, Edward returned to NTT. "I was actually free to practice in a big city. There's no obligation to serve a remote region because I'd been an inpres doctor," said Edward. But his obsession with devotion prompted Edward to choose the solitude of NTT, where physicians were badly needed.

Only in the early 1990s did Edward return to Jakarta. And there followed the nightmare of May 1998. "I was very disappointed and sad," he said, adding that he was convinced that the mass riots were not a genuine social upheaval. "Some circles were trying to perpetuate power by sacrificing their people," asserted Edward. In November 1998, the Ketapang incident broke out, with subsequent burning of schools and churches in Jakarta. "We lived in fear," he remarked. "Children couldn't attend school peacefully. They were told to stay at home when the situation got heated."

In 1999 Edward decided to move. His wife and two kids, still elementary and secondary school students, have settled in Singapore. Edward still practices in Jakarta and only now and then visits Singapore. "It's my wife who becomes a commuter. She and the children commute to see me," said Edward.

In fact, becoming commuters as an excess of unrest is not the first time. The Memoir of Oei Tjoe Tat records that part of the ethnic Chinese community led the same life after the ethnic disturbances of May-June 1946. The riots, originally centered in Tangerang, later spread to various towns. An estimated 25,000 people from different areas, covering Tangerang, Majalengka,

Kuningan, Indramayu, Bobotsari, Gombong, Pekalongan and Tegal, evacuated to the capital city. After the tension abated, some of them made a living in Jakarta and commuted to visit their families in the regions.

Not all Tangerang incident evacuees settled in Jakarta, of course. Similarly, not all the ethnic Chinese moving after 1998 have resided in Singapore. "Many have failed to survive in Singapore," said David, his pseudonym. The middle-aged man is an active congregation member at the Presbyterian Church, Bukit Batok in Singapore, which is frequented by a lot of Indonesian churchgoers.

David explained that many factors caused the survival failure. Apart from the difference in culture, the cost of living in Singapore is very high. Life becomes hard if a settler has to work in Jakarta with an average salary. The burden further increases if he is affected by the 5-C life style a la Singapore-car, credit card, career, condominium and country club. "Hush...there's still another C: concubine alias mistress living in Batam or Jakarta," said David laughingly.

With the high living cost and negative excess that may arise, many families have lost their equilibrium. "Housewives are wary of their husbands having mistresses," he noted. This worry has finally caused many of them to return home. "Their children have also returned to schools in Jakarta," added David.

Not all those now back in Jakarta put forward the high cost argument. Harsono D. Amidjojo, an entrepreneur with several hotels in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, for instance, had his own reason for coming home. "I want to get more involved in the process of change toward a better Indonesia," he said.

Harsono spent five years as a Jakarta-Singapore commuter. But later he felt something lacking in his family life. He was eager to nurture his children's sense of nationalism. "It's impossible to do so in Singapore," he added. Consequently, in 2002 he decided to return to Jakarta.

The 1998 rioting, to Harsono, was a crucial turning point. In the New Order period, before this tragedy, the ethnic Chinese tended to be apathetic, apolitical, exclusive and less concerned about their environment. Then, mass outrage-though perhaps not fully genuine-broke out as a blow and accusation. "The unrest proved that something was at fault in our society," he indicated. "We, ethnic Chinese citizens, and the entire public are responsible for the failings."

Harsono took a concrete step. He wanted to contribute to the solution of this national issue. "I've published Koranku," he revealed. Koranku is a weekly paper targeting secondary and high school students. Rather than business-oriented, it aims more at cultivating moral values among youths. So far 10 editions of Koranku, in the format of education and entertainment, have appeared and circulated in 180 schools in Jakarta. "It's my wish that Koranku will have a share in the nation's character building," said Harsono.

Lin Che Wei agreed with Harsono. On most occasions, Che Wei has even appealed that his friends, Chinese businessmen, show their concern over the nation's future. "They shouldn't just want to be safe without striving for change," he pointed out.

Che Wei himself has manifested his participation in introducing a change by continuing his business in Jakarta. Actually, he has wide opportunities to become a global analyst with a very big salary. By doing his business in Indonesia, Che Wei remains capable of actively spotlighting corruption cases and dirty business practices, joining hands with journalists. Last year, Che Wei's dedication to the anticorruption campaign earned him a Suardi Tasrif award from the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI).

However, unlike Harsono, so far Che Wei cannot yet totally leave Singapore. The continuity of his two daughters' education in Nangyang Primary School is his main reason for residing in Singapore. The 89-year-old school has the advantage of excellent Chinese language and culture instruction. "I want my children to know their cultural roots as Chinese descendants," said Che Wei. To Che Wei, becoming Indonesians should not necessarily lose track of their roots as Chinese offspring.

So, won't he find it difficult to inculcate nationalism in his daughters? As a solution, at least twice a year the Che Wei family vacations in Indonesia. During the holidays Che Wei intensively introduces Indonesia's cultural diversity to the children.

Being a commuter and living in Singapore will not change him and his family into foreigners, Che Wei guaranteed. "Our hearts continue to serve Indonesia," he assured.

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