A New Year Dawns


The Year of the Pig was welcomed in the Indonesian capital Jakarta last Sunday in the same style as well established public holidays everywhere: with crass commercialism. Sales were on in the city’s ubiquitous malls, while billboards did their best to get a marketing angle on the holiday.

Public displays were a little light on the pig imagery a sign of deference to the Muslim majority but they were public nonetheless. The routine of the Chinese New Year, or Imlek, seemed so well established it was hard to believe this was only the fifth year it had been a public holiday, and only seven years since public displays of Chinese culture were banned altogether.


Post-reformasi Indonesia is seeing a renaissance of sorts of Chinese culture. After being suppressed during Suharto’s New Order regime, Indonesia’s Chinese minority is slowly regaining a place in the country’s multicultural fabric. The changing position of Indonesia’s Chinese the vast majority of whom are non-Muslim shows that more than just sinister Islamism, separatism and religious strife has sprung from under the shackles of Suharto’s rule.

Ethnic Chinese have lived in Indonesia for several centuries. Numbers are sketchy, but the overall population probably sits somewhere between five and six million. Chinese Indonesians are more likely to live in urban areas and be in higher income brackets than the Indonesian population as a whole.
While the ethnic Chinese had long been treated as outsiders, the height of discrimination was reached during the Suharto regime. Indonesian Chinese were widely suspected of being supporters of the Chinese Government-backed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), whose purported responsibility for an abortive coup in 1965 served as the pretext for the mass slaughter of up to two million suspected PKI sympathisers many of whom were Chinese and Suharto’s subsequent rise to power.

Suharto’s regime enacted around 50 laws and regulations restricting Chinese Indonesians’ citizenship rights and suppressing Chinese names, culture and language. But Suharto also kept a small group of wealthy Chinese businessmen close to his regime. The identification of this group with the worst of New Order cronyism meant that when the East Asian economic crisis struck in 1997, Chinese Indonesians became a useful scapegoat and the target of deadly pogroms across the country.

Since Suharto’s fall, official discrimination against Chinese culture has gradually been lifted. His successor BJ Habibie allowed Chinese languages to be taught in schools and removed official requirements for special citizenship certificates. President Abdurrahman Wahid followed by lifting bans on public displays of Chinese culture, writing and the import of Chinese language publications.

The first celebration of Imlek as a national holiday was in 2003. But it was only with the passing of last year’s citizenship law that Chinese Indonesians ceased to be identified separately as non-indigenous citizens. Before that, the identity cards, which must be carried by all Indonesian residents, marked people of Chinese descent as permanent, and easily identifiable, outsiders.

The removal of official discrimination against Chinese Indonesians doesn’t mean informal discrimination is over. But Haksu Buanadjaya, the Religious and Educational Chairman of Matakin, an organisation that promotes Chinese Confucian culture and religion, is positive. ‘We are in a better position now than in the past,’ he said.

Image from sxc

Sitting in his small office in an industrial estate in Jakarta’s northern suburbs, Buanadjaya, who like most Chinese Indonesians still uses his ‘Indonesianised’ name in public, said his organisation has received support from all sides of Indonesian politics. When opposition did arise, he said, it was normally from individual politicians, not Parties.

Buanadjaya also rejected any suggestion Islamic groups were a problem for his organisation. ‘All the leaders of Islam know that we want to be good neighbours, good brothers. So if you speak to the leaders of the Islamic religion (in Indonesia) they’re all good for us, they support us,’ he said.

This is where Indonesia’s Chinese rebirth shakes up the usual story about Indonesia in the Western media.

Indonesia is neither an Islamic nor a secular nation. Under the official State ideology of Pancasila, all Indonesians are expected to believe in one true God. Only five official religions are recognised: Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, with the last two officially syncretised into monotheistic beliefs. Every Indonesian must declare one of the five religions on his or her identity card, the Kartu Tanda Penduduk (KTP).

Since most Chinese Indonesians are Christian, and the remainder largely Buddhist, the increasing acceptance of Chinese culture has on one level occurred within Pancasila‘s traditional religious mould.

But Buanadjaya’s group wants to reshape this mould. He said most Chinese Indonesians are also, to varying extents, Confucian. He wants religion to be an option on the KTP, and says that the Religious Affairs Minister, M Maftuh Basyuni, is on his side.

Buanadjaya also said groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the nation’s largest Muslim organisations, who have a combined membership in the tens of millions, are in support of Matakin’s efforts. He said the main opposition comes from Christian and Buddhist groups, who believe any change to the KTP would pose a threat to their official numbers.

Buanadjaya readily concedes that Indonesia’s fundamentalist Islamic groups also oppose the rise of Chinese culture and religion, but he believes they are a limited force. Unlike the Middle East, or even Aceh or Malaysia, the mainstream of Indonesian Islam will always be liberal, he said.

It’s easy to doubt Buanadjaya’s assessment. There’s no way of telling where the real limits of radical Islam’s growth will be. The glacial pace at which Indonesia’s political elite approaches reform, and its innate conservatism when it comes to issues of national unity, could also stifle efforts toward pluralism. And of course, residual resentment of the ethnic Chinese sits under the surface among some Indonesians.

Buanadjaya remains optimistic. He thinks his own modest goal of changing part of one section of one official document will have massive implications.

What is evident from the resurgence of Chinese Indonesians is that, for all the talk of Islamisation, there is also a pluralistic trend within Indonesia. Indonesia has always been an officially multicultural country, albeit with internal contradictions.

As the last vestiges of Suharto’s New Order regime die off, Indonesia is taking tentative steps toward its own idiosyncratic kind of inclusiveness.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.