Conference Indonesia Ten Years After (1998-2008)
22-23 May 2008
Oost Indisch Huis, University of Amsterdam

Celebrating Cap Go Meh in Tangerang

Starting with an universal paradigm that says : One of the most important features of a healthy democracy is the fact that it treats its minority (ies) well.. If we apply this paradigm to the Chinese minority in post-Suharto Indonesia, indeed Indonesia is doing quite well and it could be argued that in this last decade a landslide has taken place.

Let’s take several positive examples: recently two laws were adopted in parliament, the Law on Citizenship in June 2006 and the Law on Citizens Administration in December 2006. Both laws passed parliament by acclaim, adopting the fact that Chinese Indonesians are now legally seen as Indonesia asli, Indonesian natives.

The changes are really breathtaking, especially if one looks back in history of racist policies against the Chinese in the last 250 years. Celebrating Imlek in present-day Indonesia has become a huge public event, in my childhood Imlek was much more a family event.

During the Dutch colonial period, the Chinese minority was put under the category of vreemde oosterling (foreign oriental) a blatant racist term. Colonial administrations are by definition racist but Dutch colonialism had very specific and robust racist features, still felt in places like Suriname but also Indonesia.

Already in the fifties, it became apparent that there were complications with the Indonesian citizenship for the Chinese. During the Sukarno days in the 50s and 60s Indonesian Chinese firstly had to renounce their Chinese citizenship and then to be able to adopt the Indonesian nationality. I remember in my childhood having to go to sign this document renouncing my Chinese citizenship while my ancestors had already left China 6 generations ago, almost two hundred years ago, to gain my Indonesian citizenship.

But in the Suharto days racism against the Chinese became structural, Chinese calligraphy was banned, including books, newspapers etc, Chinese schools were banned, cultural manifestations were also suppressed to the extent that Taoist and Confucian followers could hardly pursue their traditions. The regulation to change the Chinese names into Indonesian names created quite an upheaval among the Chinese community. The many Pecinans, Chinatowns in many towns all over Indonesia became the only Chinatowns in the world without Chinese signs.

More than 30 laws and regulations were established, all of them anti-Chinese. One of the legal documents that created much headache and sorrow was the need for Chinese to possess the SBKRI, a document introduced in March 1978, as proof of being an Indonesian citizen. The present Indonesian government has finally abolished the practices of needing an SBKRI paper.

All the post-Suharto administrations contributed to the eradication of the racist policies towards the Chinese. BJ Habibie scrapped more than a dozen of racist regulations and this trend continued in the following administrations. Gus Dur went even further and started to revive Chinese festivities like Imlek, Chinese New Year, Cap Go Meh, Ceng Beng etc.

It should be mentioned that changing policies is one thing but showing clear sympathy for the Chinese is something else. At one point Gus Dur mentioned casually that one of his ancestors, Tan Ka Lok, was Chinese, a significant gesture of siding with a minority.

Megawati made Imlek an official holiday and President SBY has made it a custom to attend the official Confucian celebration of Imlek among the Chinese community. It is indeed amazing how old traditions, despite oppression for more than one generation can be revived so easily.

The Cap Go Meh tradition in Tangerang, complete with decorated boats in the canal, specific food like kue keranjang and barongsay/dragon dances and carrying the Toa Pek Kong to the temple and within short time, has become part of the touristic agenda of Indonesia.

Within the time constraint I want to limit myself to a few burning political and economic topics dealing with the Indonesian Chinese.


The statistical data on Chinese in Indonesia are notoriously inaccurate so I use an estimate figure of 10 to 12 million ethnic Chinese, often used by key members of Chinese organizations. Name changes and the many inter-marriages has only increased the difficulties of determining the exact number of Chinese Indonesians. In the big cities, in particular the capital, the number of Chinese is enormous, estimated between 500.000 till 750.000. New Chinatowns has mushroomed in the suburbia of Jakarta.

Going further, the Chinese Indonesians are in fact the third largest ethnic group after the Javanese and Sundanese. Using another universal paradigm that groups in society with a strong economic position, automatically also carry political weight is definitely valid for the present day Chinese Indonesians. This is gradually appearing in post-Suharto Indonesia. There are now cabinet ministers of Chinese descent, high civil servants, members of parliament and gradually also elected district chiefs,mayors and even a vice-governor in places with a sizeable Chinese community.

Indeed, this is an expression of post-Suharto politics. But a generation earlier, in the beginning of the Orde Baru, the Chinese community were more than often seen as politically suspect. In the mid sixties, at the height of the Cold War, Indonesia also became an important political arena of leftwing against rightwing politics. Sections of the Chinese community were seen as part of the fifth colon for the (Communist) People’s Republic of China and one of the effective propaganda campaigns post October 1965 was that China had distributed weapons to the Communist youth in Indonesia as as part of the ploy to seize power.

The Suharto regime created an atmosphere of fear and used direct military operations but also intelligence operations against the millions of ‘suspects’. The military intelligence, BAKIN, created a special body called BKMC (Badan Koordinasi Masalah Cina, Coordinating Body for the Chinese Problem). One could have imagined somebody like Goebbels or Himmler inventing a name like BKMC. Another body that was created was Bakom PKB, Badan Komunikasi Pembinaan Kesatuan Bangsa, Communicating Body for the Guidance for the Unity of the Nation. Another mouthful of a grotesque creation of the Suharto period, actually a creation by sections of the military in conjunction with a group of right-wing Chinese.

Guidance was indeed a common policy for people or groups of people who were seen as deviating from the political guidelines of the New Order and this could apply to so called separatists, religious sects and also to minorities like in the case of Bakom PKB, to the Chinese minority. This Bakom PKB is actually a continuation of LPKB, an institute with the same name that propagated assimilation for the Chinese into the Indonesian society. This controversial concept was backed by a small minority among the Chinese. Another, much bigger group was organized within Baperki, an organization that pursued the path of emancipation of the Chinese with the preservation of its own cultural identity. Their concept was usually called integrasi secara wajar, an organic way of integration. Suharto’s rule meant the end of the integration concept and for years the Chinese Indonesians suffered a kind of cultural genocide under the policy of assimilation.

The end of the Suharto dictatorship almost automatically also meant the end of asimilasi. Assimilation policies are entirely against the general principles enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and it is therefore more than logical that asimilasi ended in the dustbin of history. One important note, though, some of the senior proponents of asimilasi are still present and active in public life. They include Harry Tjan Silalahi, the Wanandi brothers (Yusuf and Sofyan) and Hadi Susastro, all senior researchers at CSIS, arguably still the most important think-tank in Indonesia. In the spirit of reconciliation they should be asked why they supported and propagated such an inhumane and devious political concept?

The asimilasi policies had severe negative consequences. The Chinese organisations withered away, some like Baperki and Perhimi were directly banned and its leaders incarcerated, others just went under and practically became defunct. By the end of the New Order only burial organizations remained active and former Chinese schools alumni organizations maintained its, partly underground, activities.

Almost instantly after the fall of Suharto, a period of let “hundred flowers bloom” emerged. Several political parties specifically with an agenda for Chinese Indonesians emerged, a wide range of social and cultural organisations were established and different business associations blossomed. Marga (clan) organisations emerged and a variety of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist organisations, often competing with each other, became part of the daily scene.

While the asimilasi has been buried properly, the integrasi concept is also under going erosion and urgently needs a reappraisal. In an increasing globalised world it is more than often that the experience of people, having lived and studied in at least two countries plus living in an increasingly multi-ethnic societyy. This is a globalised phenomenon and includes the tens of millions of migrants who have found a better life in their second homeland. The outcome of having multiple identities is becoming an increasingly common feature in this present day world. Many of the younger generation of Chinese having had the opportunity of studying and working abroad, more than often have become typical examples of persons with multiple identities.

It is interesting to note that children of assimilationists, having studied abroad, started to question their parent’s views of denouncing their Chinese identity. Multiple identity is in fact nothing new, in fact, peranakan Chinese like Oei Hong Kian describes in his biography how he became a product of three civilisations and is indeed proud of it.

In the literature a distinction is made between peranakan Chinese (ones that hardly master Chinese anymore) and totok Chinese, the ones that still speak mandarin or other dialect. Nowadays the distinction between peranakan and totok becomes more blurred as many peranakans have started to study mandarin, not the least because of career opportunities due to the increasing economic super power role China is playing.

While in the integrasi concept is an one way road into Indonesian nation building, the present generation of Indonesian Chinese has developed other views about integrasi. They feel quite comfortable in being both Indonesian and Chinese and maybe other identities. The recently published book: Cokin, so what gitu loh, , expresses this kind of new assertiveness of: “I’m Chinese. so what”.

Economic data on the position of The Indonesian Chinese is similarly outdated and inaccurate but a figure of 1995 is still often being used in the literature. It states that 73% of private capital in the Indonesian economy is in the hands of Chinese entrepreneurs.(Michael Backman, 1995) This figure explicitly excludes state monopolies and state owned companies. This figure might be inflated and inaccurate but I use it in the context that the Chinese middle class is definitely a solid middle class with a substantial grip on the economy.

It remains a fact that Chinese-owned firms, are dominantly present in most private sectors of the Indonesian economy. A casual glimpse to the gross and retail trade, shopping malls, high streets and big markets and we see the strong position of Chinese entrepreneurs, including manufacturing and distributing traditional Indonesian commodities like kretek cigarettes, jamu industry and the batik trade.

More than often, analyses try to downplay the economic successes of the Indonesian Chinese and switch to the facts of the woeful conditions of poor Chinese communities in places like Tangerang, Riau islands or West Kalimantan. While this is also true, these communities do not represent the accumulation of wealth that has occurred amidst Chinese entrepreneurs all over the Southeast Asian region.

Around 80% of the overseas Chinese live in the Southeast Asia region and it cannot be denied that the Chinese play a dominant factor in the economy. The same economic boom of the 70s and 80s has in fact created a small layer of super-rich Chinese businessmen, unprecedented in history.

One needs to compare the economic successes of the Southeast Asian Chinese entrepreneurs with successes of other minorities in different parts of the world, notably the Jews in the US, Indians in East Africa or parts of the Pacific etc. This also explains that in periods of turmoil and power vacuum, social upheavals more than often take the shape of racial outbursts against these successful minorities.

One specific feature makes the Indonesian Chinese even more vulnerable. In the Dutch period a small group of Chinese were given certain privileges like toll roads, pawn shops and opium retail trade. This kind of privileges had its obvious backside by creating animosity from the population at large. The saying in Dutch: “Elk regent zijn eigen Chinees” (Each District Chief its own Chinese) continued and took different shapes after Indonesian independence and Suharto developed it into its most ultimate form.

General Suharto indeed had its own pair of token Chinese, notably Liem Sioe Liong (now living in Singapore), sometimes known with his Indonesian name Soedono Salim and Bob Hasan aka Thee Kian Seng (after serving a sentence is now living in Jakarta). They enjoyed a lot of economic privileges which was shared with the Suharto sons and daughters. But with the economic boom of the seventies and eighties a new layer of big Chinese entrepreneurs, usually called conglomerates, emerged.

At the height of his power Suharto simply had to summon the 30 bosses of the conglomerates to the palace or his TAPOS ranch, each to cough up several billion rupiahs as extra tax for the many private economic enterprises of the Suharto dynasty or other purposes. This phenomenon got the name Konglomerat TAPOS, and became one of the most striking economic features of the Suharto period. As expected the Konglomerat TAPOS became the negative stereotype of the Chinese in the eyes of the Indonesian population. And indeed, in the heydays of the Suharto regime a series of anti Chinese outbursts occurred in places like Pekalongan, Situbondo, Temanggung, Rengasdengklok, Banyuwangi and several places outside Java. The Suharto downfall coincided with the May Tragedy where in several parts of Indonesia, including Jakarta, Chinese Indonesians became the key target of looting, burning and raping.

The swift changes in this last decade have in general a positive impact but it needs time before these changes can really materialise into a more structural improvements for the position of the Chinese in general. The participation of Chinese in all kinds of political, social and cultural activities is already occurring and will positively improve the emancipation of the Chinese Indonesians into grassroots communities.

Redistribution of wealth and creating or strengthening a social safety net are important features for a country like Indonesia where a huge gap exist between the rich and the poor. This is not only the task of governments. We have seen in many parts of the world how a wide range of activities has been developed. From engaging professionals like doctors and nurses to do voluntary work in deprived areas to developing micro credit activities and other economic schemes that will strengthen the economy of local communities.

A new breed of rich and super-rich businessmen has emerged on this globe, which goes hand in hand with new ideas how to improve conditions on thi globe. Serious efforts are being made to channel money to eradicate poverty, improve the standards of education and help to improve health conditions in poor parts of the world or to build better housing and infrastructure.

The Chinese middle class can play a substantial role in these fields and become pro-active in- and outside government schemes. It will strengthen civil society at large, which again will positively enlarge and broaden a growing middle class and at the same time weaken the strong patron-client relationships in Indonesia.

Liem Soei Liong, Jakarta, April 2008


Ed. Ivan Wibowo, Cokin, so what gitu loh ! Feb. 2008

Didi Kwartanada, foreword in Peter Carey, Orang Cina, Bandar Tol, Candu dan Perang Jawa, Perubahan Persepsi Tentang Cina 1755-1825, Komunitas Bambu, 2008

Mona Lohanda, foreword in B.Hoetink, Ni Hoe Kong, Kapitein Tiong Hoa di Betawie dalem tahon 1740, Masup Jakarta, September 2007

Benny G. Setiono, Tionghoa dalam Pusaran Politik, Elkasa 2002

Ong Hok Ham, Riwayat Tionghoa Peranakan di Jawa, Komunitas Bambu, 2005

Oei Hong Kian, Dokter Gigi Soekarno: Peranakan yang hidup dalam Tiga Budaya, Intisari 2001

Leo Suryadinata, Understanding the Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, ISEAS, 2007

Andreas Harsono, From Sabang to Merauke, Debunking the Myth of Indonesian Nationalism (draft), Jakarta, April 2008

SUARA BARU, INTI periodical, Breaking Through the Sterotype, Maret/April 2008

SUARA BARU, INTI periodical, Politisasi Etnis & Masa Depan Bangsa , Mei 2007

SUARA BARU, INTI periodical, Tragedi Mei 1998, Mei 2007

Untuk Share Artikel ini, Silakan Klik Disini

Mohon Beri Nilai dan Komentar di bawah Artikel ini


Supported by :

April Insurance

Lebih dari 100 Perusahaan Asuransi di California

Klik atau telpon 1-800 281 6175