Wednesday, September 08, 2004
A New Phase for the Chinese Role in Indonesia
By Lin Che Wei, C.F.A.
Director of Independent Research & Advisory
The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.
~ John F. Kennedy ~
Raising the subject of the ethnic Chinese group's role in the fields of economy and politics is an extremely difficult and sensitive task. The role of this ethnic group in Indonesia for decades-from the Dutch period to the Suharto era-tends to focus in the business field. Although here and there we see a prominent role in the fields of law, press, research, sports, and science, their role in the fields of bureaucracy and politics is relatively small.
In her book, World on Fire, Professor Amy Chua from Yale University shows the significant role of the ethnic Chinese group as market-dominant minorities in Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia. The term 'market-dominant minorities' is used to indicate that a certain ethnic group dominates the market and the economy. Amy shows how free market has caused the disproportionate concentration of riches in the hands of the minority ethnic group.
Amy also puts forth the hypothesis that with democracy, where the power is politically in the hands of the majority ethnic group, if it is not well-monitored, the market-dominant minorities phenomena and a democracy in its raw shape have the potential to create an inter-ethnic group conflict which can bring about disaster to this nation. Obviously this is not something we want to happen.
In my opinion, neither can we generalize that the ethnic Chinese group is identical to the rich group, because in reality not all Chinese in Indonesia are rich. Furthermore, in several areas such as in Kalimantan and Sumatra, there are those who are living below the poverty line. Data must be accurate before we conclude that there is a phenomenon of market-dominant minorities.
With the development of reforms, there is a demand for a role that is not focused on business alone, but one that also expands to other fields. In the New Order era, there was a belief that the economy was dominated by the Chinese who hardly played any role in the fields of politics, military, and bureaucracy. The separation between the group dominating the economy and that dominating politics, military, and bureaucracy needed a "bridge" to protect the interests of the two parties. It was the Suharto regime that became the connection between the two poles while at the same time being the patron for the market-dominant minorities, thus maintaining a power stability for a relatively long time.
If the hypothesis of market-dominant minorities truly exists, in the world of the present democracy it has the potential to create an ethnic crisis as described by Professor Chua. I have also observed the attitude adopted by the ethnic Chinese group in Indonesia. Several bad experiences, such as the September 30 Movement/Communist Party (G30S/PKI) and the May riots in 1998 which were followed by a disaster befalling the Chinese, may still be traumatic to some of this group in Indonesia. This ethnic rioting was one of the important things that caused the continuing polarization of the two poles. On the one hand, economy continues to be the focus; on the other hand, politics, military and bureaucracy receive limited attention only.
As a result of the experience and the conditioning, many Chinese take an apolitical stance; they try to maintain neutrality in politics and distance themselves from politics, military and bureaucracy. The tendency becomes as follows: if they exercise their political rights, they will use them to support whosoever can guarantee the stability and survival of their businesses. Such trauma and attitude tend to immortalize the polarization.
I see negative excesses arising from this apolitical attitude. Firstly, the polarization creates a fertile ground for crony capitalism-the Chinese, especially big businessmen, are often the main targets for the "funding source" for certain political activities. As a reward, their businesses will receive protection and easy access. Moreover, in several cases, collusion between businessmen has produced debtors with problems who do not pay their debts in full; they even get a release & discharge (R&D) and guaranteed protection against lawsuits.
This causes a deepening of hatred within the majority ethnic. It is like one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. It is as if the government makes its "Dooh Nibor" policies based on these lobbies. Dooh Nibor is Robin Hood spelled backwards. While Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, the "Dooh Nibor" policy of granting release & discharge to rich debtors is at the expense of the common people who must bear huge debts.
Secondly, the ethnic Chinese often seem to adopt a vague attitude in the midst of a moral crisis. Some of them tend not to take any stance or to side in politics. They tend to support whoever can give them "protection" and guarantee their business continued existence. They are worried that any involvement in politics will create a problem to their business if the figure they support does not emerge as the winner.
Thirdly, the Chinese's reluctance to be involved outside business means that they become more concentrated in business, and this worsens the market-dominant minorities phenomena.
In my opinion, the ethnic Chinese group must make their roles more balanced. It is important for there to be a balance between business and other fields. The principle where the interests of the nation are above those of a group and the interests of a group are above those of a person is very important.
Affirmative action may be a policy that can answer this complex issue. However, what type of affirmative action should be applied? Should it be based on ethnicity or the socio-economic condition? The next question, how to identify the sidelined groups effectively and accurately?
I see ethnicity-based affirmative action holds an enormous danger. First, not all Chinese are rich and mixed up in past crony capitalism. Second, the policy can threaten the nation's unity because it can spread to religion, and regions. Third, many among the Chinese themselves are repulsed by the collusion between shady businessmen and those in power, which has the potential to create ethnic problems, while not all Chinese are part of the market-dominant minorities. Based on that, it is highly unfair should ethnicity be used as the basis for determining an affirmative action policy.
An ethnicity-based affirmative action policy is also counter-productive because it can easily be translated into an "anti-Chinese" policy and applicable to all businessmen of Chinese descent regardless of their social-economic status. This has the potential to generate resistance among the Chinese, whose role and participation are essential in the revitalization of the economy and development in Indonesia.
If the affirmative action policy is translated as "anti-Chinese," the ethnic Chinese group may be reluctant to bring back capital, conduct business activities, and run the wheels of economy. That is why, identifying the strategy on affirmative action, methods, and communications are crucial. Balancing the role of the Chinese in the fields of economy, politics, military, and bureaucracy must be based on being highly aware that only with a sustainable social structure can we achieve an Indonesia that is more safe and prosperous.
Another negative excess of ethnicity-based affirmative action is an individual or group that is receiving preferential treatment may tend to become relaxed, spoiled, and unwilling to strive. This will take us further from the original objective of empowering other groups economically. Do we want to have a community structure that allocates efforts and work based on a meritocracy system or based on ethnicity?
In my opinion, the government must be bold enough to discuss and overcome this problem because turning the other way and avoiding this complicated issue is not a good step, because it doesn't solve the problem. In the future, this ethnic matter has the potential to breed a more serious problem.
It is a challenge for the ethnic Chinese group together with other components of the nation to answer the problem faced by market-dominant minorities and to solve the problem of ethnic jealousy. In my opinion, the ethnic Chinese group is in the best position to be actively involved in answering this challenge. The role of the Chinese in revitalizing the national economy is very important, but even more important is answering the problem of democracy and market-dominant minorities.
The main key to the solution of this problem is a more balanced role of the indigenous people and the ethnic Chinese minority in the fields of economy, politics, military, and bureaucracy. Professor Chua says, voluntary generosity from the market-dominant minorities is one dignified way to solving the complex issue.