ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
INDONESIA POLLS: More Chinese candidates
Publication Date : 30-03-2014
When Indonesian businessman Karna Brata Lesmana was a boy in the 1960s, strangers would often harass him to his face.
"I would be walking down the street and people would yell, 'Eh, Cina!'," said the ethnic Chinese politician, using the derogatory term used to refer to the Chinese in Indonesia. "I did not feel comfortable."
Fifty years on, Indonesia is a different country, he said.
"Race is no longer an issue," said the 54-year-old, who is running for a seat in the national Parliament from Jakarta with the People's Conscience Party (Hanura).
In eight months of campaigning, he met thousands of people, all with "a smile on their face".
Karna is among 700 Chinese Indonesians running in the April 9 elections - for seats at the national, province, district and regional levels. This is out of some 200,000 politicians fighting for nearly 20,000 seats.
In 1999, just after race riots which left more than 1,000 dead, fewer than 50 candidates took part in elections. In 2004, that number rose to about 150, and has continued to swell in elections since.
The growing numbers of Chinese Indonesians going into politics stems from deliberate policy changes in recent years, which have helped the Chinese assimilate into society.
Since 2000, the government has stopped suppressing the practice of Chinese customs and religions, the norm during the Suharto era. In 2002, Chinese New Year became a public holiday, and the government began referring to China and Chinese with the more neutral terms "Tiongkok" and "Tionghua" respectively, rather than "Cina".
Within the Chinese community, there is the growing realisation that political participation is the "only way change can take place", said Dr Hoon Chang Yau, assistant professor of Asian studies at Singapore Management University.
As a result, race is no longer as controversial as it was during the time of the 1998 riots, which were sparked by food shortages and widespread unemployment.
"The Chinese are no longer 'singled out' or 'set apart' from the rest of Indonesians as in the previous regimes that had them set as convenient targets by 'conflict entrepreneurs'," said researcher To-bias Basuki at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
Ethnic Chinese make up 3.7 per cent of Indonesia's 250 million population, according to the 2010 census. But there are no hard and fast definitions for race as ethnic affiliation is self-declared, and many Chinese do not mention their race.
Candidates have also been inspired by Jakarta deputy governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his Hakka moniker Ahok. He has made a name for himself as a forceful leader who has confronted key issues such as traffic congestion, accountability of government officers, and raising the minimum wage.
"People have learnt from Ahok that everybody is the same as long as you are doing your job properly," said Eddie Lembong, founder of non-governmental organisation Nation Building Foundation.
"The 'Ahok effect' has created favourable conditions for many Chinese to become enthusiastic about participating in politics."
What is notable is that their causes have become mainstream, and have national resonance.
Karna's mission, for example, is to eradicate graft among elected government officials.
For lawyer Hermawi Fransiskus Taslim, who is running for a seat in the national Parliament from Banten with the Nasdem Party, it is to fight all kinds of discrimination.
Ex-Olympic swimmer Richard Sam Bera, a Jakarta candidate for the national Parliament with Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle, wants the country to become a powerhouse for sports.
The candidates tend to identify themselves as Indonesians "who happen to be ethnically Chinese".
Some include their Chinese names in their campaign materials. For others, it is only their facial features and complexion that give them away.
It is a big change from the position taken by the Chinese in the aftermath of the 1998 riots, when they set up social and political organisations to fend for their rights.
Several Chinese parties were formed, and political participation was ethnic-based.
"But very soon they realised they didn't have enough numbers, and that the ethnic approach wouldn't work as it further reproduces the stereotype that Chinese are exclusive," said Dr Hoon.
Over the last 10 years, a larger number of Chinese Indonesians have joined mainstream parties.
While the candidates no longer champion ethnic Chinese issues, they continue to enjoy strong support from the community.
Sam Bera said funding for his campaign came quickly from the community, while Karna got help of all kinds from many Chinese friends in the business community to produce campaign material, among other things.
Despite the social progress in Indonesia, candidates and analysts say discrimination persists.
When Ahok ran for vice-governor, for instance, he faced ethnic attacks and smear campaigns.
"If there wasn't that issue I think the margin (of victory) would have been much bigger, especially in an urban cosmopolitan area," said Basuki. Ahok, together with governor candidate Joko Widodo, won 53.8 per cent of the vote in 2012.
In the rural areas, the perception remains that the Chinese are out to enrich themselves, lamented Hermawi, who noted cases where officials are unwilling to give government jobs to the Chinese.
"The difficulty is in changing the mindset," he said.
On his part, the politician has come up with a plan to help with the paradigm shift: help the poor; teach tolerance; and practise what you preach.
His university alumni, for instance, have started seven schools in poor districts, where they regularly screen films promoting values such as pluralism.
"The message we want to send is this: Although we are different, we are all Indonesians. We want to show that there can be 'bhinneka tunggal ika', or unity in diversity," he said, referring to Indonesia's national motto.