“I’m surprised you work at NGO,” the online taxi driver stared at me from his rearview mirror, “I think those who work there are mostly non-Chinese.” The driver is a Chinese. I laughed, then asked why he had such thoughts.”I rarely had any Chinese friends involved in the social world,” he replied.
This conversation immediately catapulted me to the history of Chinese-Indonesians in the socio-political field. After 1740 Batavia massacre, the Chinese allied with Java against the VOC (Dutch East India Company). It was recorded as one of the biggest rebellions the VOC had to deal with.
Fast forward to centuries later, Sie Kok Liong provided the venue for 1928 Youth Pledge declaration. At the same moment, one of the Jong Sumatra member, Kwee Thiam Hong, invited his three Chinese compatriots, Ong Kay Sing, Liauw Tjoan Hok, and Tjio Djin Kwie to join the Youth Pledge.
There are also many Chinese names that appear as freedom fighters: Liem Koen Hian, Siauw Giok Tjhan, Ang Yan Goan, Ong Hok Djoe, Oey Oh Lian, Tan Tjin Nio, Yap Thiam Hien, and many more. Some are fighting in the frontline, some are behind the scenes. With these facts, we should no longer be surprised by the Chinese contribution in the socio-political area. But the driver is not familiar with the names I mentioned, made me realize that even many Chinese-Indonesians have no idea of their history!
I just remembered that when I was in school, I had never heard of such a story as well. After reading various history books, few years ago, I realized that there is only one national hero name that comes from Chinese: John Lie. He was the captain of ‘The Outlaw’, the ship who smuggled overseas in exchange for weapons to defend Indonesian freedom. He was awarded as ‘national hero’ in 2009, or 21 years after his death.
The history of the Chinese contribution in the socio-political area was darkened systematically, especially during the New Order regime, which by all means try to block Chinese-Indonesians contribution in those field. As a generation born in the New Order era, I felt myself that it made me completely blind of my own ethnic history. On that time, the history of Chinese contributions in nation building is as dark as other historical events such as the 1965 massacre, May 1998, and others.
Discrimination for more than three decades along with repression of critical thinking succeeded in instilling negative stereotypes about Chinese-Indonesians across generations. Ironically, historical amnesia seems still happening in Indonesia, which has experienced an era of information disclosure since the fall of the New Order.
The Director of Remotivi, Muhamad Heychael even observed that some online news today precisely prosecute ethnic Chinese through four narrative modes: problem selection, identification, generalization, and pseudo-historical (May 2017). According to Heychael, the indication is seen from the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in social media.
As results, Chinese-Indonesians are always in vulnerable position, though the elimination of racial and ethnic discrimination policy have been ratified in 2008.
No wonder if politicians who think only for their short-term political interests easily recycle this issue in the packaging of identity politics. The dichotomy of “native/non-native” or “resident/descendant”, for example, can be reappeared easily with effective results. The research from ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute also emphasized that racist rhetoric occurred during the Jakarta gubernatorial election last year has triggered the growth of anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia (September 2017).
The research also confirmed the stereotype that the Chinese are too dominant in the economic field, too greedy and ambitious. The history that for centuries the Chinese had little choice was simply ignored. It also confirmed that many pribumi (‘native’) believe that Chinese-Indonesians may harbour divided national loyalties.
At the other side, Charles A. Coppel stated that “ethnic Chinese are arguably more Indonesian, and more national than other Indonesians” (October 2017). He showed that 60% of Chinese-Indonesians are use Indonesian language in daily conversations at home and only 24% use their own language. I myself almost 100% using Indonesian language in daily conversation at home.
These phenomenon shows us a continuous cycle of discrimination, though not in the exact same degree. At one time, Chinese-Indonesians topics is not a big problem but at other time, it is very easy to be raised as a big issue that connotes negatively to the unity of the nation.
The cycle is difficult to stop if the government never intends to acknowledge historical facts, the first step towards reconciliation so the citizens can learn from history. A Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History not only shows the contribution of Chinese-Indonesians and the long line of discrimination that accompanies it. History also shows us all that the game of identity politics always leads to catastrophe, and for that we must avoid. If it is well understood, identity politics will no longer have a place to thrive and and threaten the tolerance that has been painstakingly built by the founding fathers.
However, some of my Chinese friends are still do the best for the country by working across the differences. They are mobilizing literacy for rural communities, empowering the local people, serving medics in remote areas, even helping the victims of human rights violations. They are not denying the pressures that occurred – or may occur in the future. But they chose to get out of their comfort zone while still hoping that the game of identity politics does not widen on a national scale.
Chinese New Year is a good momentum to remind us that Indonesia is a country that respects all its citizens without exception. Chinese New Year become a unifying moment as a nation that upholds unity in diversity. In current conditions, maintaining tolerance does not seem easy, but it is not impossible – especially if we have a desire to learn from history. We strive to be better versions of Indonesians, who uphold humanity above all differences.
Happy Chinese New Year, Gong Xi Fa Cai!
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