Chinese Indonesians, Then and Now

A hot issue in Indonesia right now is the gubernatorial race in the Jakarta Capital District. The race pits incumbent governor Fauzi Bowo and Nachrowi Ramli (Foke-Nara) versus Joko Widido and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Jokowi-Ahok). Ahok is Chinese Indonesian, and Christian. And that has been interpreted by some in Indonesia (like the ridiculous Rhoma Irama) as unacceptable, a fact which I, myself, find unacceptable.

Soe Tjen Marching has a nice commentary in a piece (registration required) on Chinese Indonesians at Koran Tempo, which you can also read for free at IndoPROGRESS. Unfortunately for non-specialists, it’s in Indonesian. Here’s how it starts.

Apa Beda Marissa Haque dan Ahok atau Basuki Tjahaja Purnama? Banyak.  Tentunya tidak perlu saya sebutkan lagi. Tapi, apa persamaannya? Mereka sama-sama mencalonkan diri menjadi wakil Gubernur (Banten dan Jakarta). Marissa dengan leluasa menyatakan tentang kakeknya, Siraj Ul Haque, yang berasal dari Uttar Pradesh, India Utara. Bahkan dalam salah satu blognya, dijelaskan bahwa kakeknya adalah orang India asli, sedangkan ayah mereka adalah orang Pakistan. Namun, ini tidak menjadi masalah. Marissa Haque tetap orang Indonesia. Bandingkan Marissa dengan Ahok. Berkali-kali Ahok menekankan bahwa dia adalah orang Indonesia.  Seakan dia harus berjuang hanya untuk mendapat pengakuan untuk hal yang satu ini.  PR yang tidak perlu dikerjakan oleh Marissa saat ia mencalonkan diri sebagai Wagub.

What are the differences between Marissa Haque and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a.k.a. Ahok? Lots. I needn’t say much more. But what are the similarities?  They both are candidates to be Vice Governor (Banten and Jakarta). Marissa openly notes that her grandfather, Siraj Ul Haque, comes from Uttar Pradesh. In fact, in a blog post, it was revealed that her grandfather was an Indian, while dad was Pakistani. But no problem. Marissa Haque is still an Indonesian. Compare Marissa with Ahok. Over and over again, Ahok emphasizes that he is an Indonesian. He has to struggle even to get people to recognize that. This type of PR isn’t necessary for Marissa as she campaigns to be Vice Governor.

The rest of the piece is an interesting and at times personal commentary on the problems that Chinese Indonesians face in Indonesia today: problems of recognition as Indonesians, problems which other “non-indigenous” Indonesians whose ancestors hail from the Middle East or South Asia never face. She makes a point that the Dutch colonial government’s policy of identifying Chinese migrants as either indigenous (pribumi, at that time Inlander) or Chinese, and forcing them to choose appears to have had a long lasting effect: Rasisme yang ditanamkan oleh pemerintah kolonial Belanda = the racism that was planted by the Dutch colonial government. This despite the fact that many, many Indonesians probably have at least a smidgen of Chinese, Indian, Arab, Persian, Dutch, or Portuguese ancestry.

(I’d emphasize that that is probably even more true in places like Jakarta. For instance, without commenting too much about  what we can conclude from people’s appearance, take a good look at Nachrowi Ramli, a typical example of what Indonesians call the “Betawi” or “Batavian” ethnic group.)

But Dutch racism cannot explain everything. The Indies had plenty of non-Chinese foreign populations, and on the whole, these other foreign Easterners (andere vreemde Oosterlingen) have assimilated much more easily. The Chinese are uniquely excluded here, which is exactly why Marissa Haque is an interesting foil for Ahok.

Building on that observation, I have been working over the past months on two projects that look at ethnicity in Indonesia, one which looks at ethnic heterogeneity across the archipelago, and another that focuses on foreign migration to colonial Java. With an undergraduate RA, I recently compiled some data from the 1930s census of colonial Java, which allows me to count, as of 1930, the number of Chinese in any district (today this is approximately the kecamatan). Here are the top five by Chinese population and the top five by percentage Chinese.

District Regency Chinese Population (1930)
1. Batavia Batavia 47087
2. Soerabaia Soerabaia 36866
3. Semarang Semarang 27423
4. Weltevreden Batavia 24601
5. Tangerang Batavia 19734

Batavia, now divided between the provinces of Jakarta Capital District and Banten, really had a lot of Chinese people. This is also true in percentage terms.

District Regency Percent Chinese (1930)
1. Batavia Batavia 25.4
2. Semarang Soerabaia 12.6
3. Soerabaia Soerabaia 11.9
4. Maoek Batavia 10.9
5. Weltevreden Batavia 9.8

There is, unfortunately, no source of comparable data for the “outer islands.” Within Java, there is a pretty strong correlation between Chinese settlement and settlement by the “other foreign Easterners.” More on this some other time.

But moving ahead, we know that today there are still lots of Chinese, in Jakarta and elsewhere. The 2000 census counted roughly 2,300,000 Chinese in Indonesia, with the most concentrated in the following kecamatan (all urban) areas

Kecamatan Kabupaten Percent Chinese (2000)
1. Pasiran Kota Singkawang 43.3
2. Tujuh Belas Bengkayang 15.3
3. Taman Sari Jakarta Barat 15.1
4. Tanjung Balai Selatan Tanjung Balai 15.0
5. Pontianak Selatan Pontianak 12.9

Recall that these only count Indonesians with “Chinese” on their ID card who identify as Chinese rather than something else. There is essentially no mechanism in the census that I’m aware of to allow people to reveal the fact that grandma or grandpa was Chinese, and even if there were, I’m not sure people would want to, or even that everyone knows. (I tried this once in a survey and didn’t get anywhere.)

What I find interesting of the criticisms of Ahok is that they tend not to specifically identify his ethnic background as the problem, although there are some exceptions. Instead, they focus primarily on the fact that he is Christian. I tend not to infer too much from the nasty things that Indonesian public figures say during campaigns—Foke-Nara are behind in the polls, and like all politicians everywhere they have handlers and hangers-on who say ignorant things because they think that they are helping—but it is interesting that the language that the anti-Jokowi-Ahok crowd has settled on is more religious than ethnic in tone. Even if Christian is just broadly understood to be a code word for Chinese in this context, it’s still interesting, because Indonesian politicians have historically not been too shy about speaking out against Chinese Indonesians.

It is also interesting because Jokowi-Ahok is supported by Partai Gerindra, founded by Prabowo Subianto, Soeharto’s son-in-law and a former general who many hold at least partially responsible for the anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in 1998.

12 thoughts on “Chinese Indonesians, Then and Now

  1. I was disappointed, although not entirely surprised, with PKS’s explanation for switching their endorsement: “demi persatuan umat”, which I understand to mean “for the sake of muslim or brotherhood unity”. See here:

    http://www.tempo.co/read/news/2012/08/11/228422892/Dukungan-PKS-Dinilai-Mencurigakan

    My hypothesis would be that the party leaders were offered a big pot of cash to switch–which they couldn’t refuse. There’s probably some pretty worried 2014 presidential hopefuls willing to stump up serious money to slow Jokowi’s popularity.

  2. I’m with you, Sam. But lemme ask you…is Jokowi considered a legitimate Prez threat in 2014? I’m not following events closely enough to know.

  3. Interesting Tom. Who was “andere vreemde Oosterlingen” is a complex question, that doesn’t give itself up to easy analysis.

    For instance, in the 1915 numbers for Ambon, included among the Vreemde Oosterlingen category are 500 Chinese, 439 Arabs and “Klingaleezen” (Tamils, essentially, I think, though the term may include anyone from the Indian subcontinent), AND, interestingly, 576 Javanese “and other Foreign Orientals.” (J Paulus, Encyclopedia of the Dutch East Indies, 1916.) This little inclusion of Javanese as “foreign” always stirs interest in the Indonesian audiences I’ve given presentations to about my research this year. Their popularly imagined community is quite imaginary in some ways. Although I doubt there was anywhere where Chinese were ever counted as “Inlander.”

    I’d check the Batavia data for you, but I don’t have the book with me in Solo. But it is on my list to look at where Javanese were seen as “foreign” at the time, before the changes in ethnicity policy that were reflected in the 1930 census.

    Of course, who was “European” at that time also makes it an interesting category, since even “full blooded” natives adopted by European (which included Japanese) fathers (often relatives of their native wives) could get European legal status, and the place of “Indos” in this is another challenge.

    But I do think it’s fair to say that race and racial and regional identities in contemporary Indonesia are largely results of Dutch colonial ethnic policy. Hopefully I will have a chapter on this in my dissertation, including looking at the adatrecht programs (designed to blunt pan-Islamic Indonesian identity) which did a fair amount of telling natives from different parts of the archipelago just “who” and “how” they were, or so it appears.

    At least in Central and East Java, there is clearly a role in anti-Chinese feeling that is inherited from Dutch policies that gave the Chinese “middleman” status in the structures of economic extraction from the Indies, including control of the opium farms, and the ability to travel broadly without passes. Tie this also to the Chinese being “urban” and many/most Javanese having a sense of having come from small towns (even if they don’t really) and you have a potently separated mix of identity and class issues that we still see in play today, obviously.

    The “Christian” part though, is new. But I wouldn’t discount this as also being a factor, particularly with the way the FPI and others are constructing their rhetoric about Islam and nationalism. But it will be cross-cutting to be sure, and will also have to do with out-and-out coalition politics, which are making (perhaps) strange bedfellows of Jokowi and Gerindra. (Though both excel at tactics of suppressing popular unrest, albeit through different tactics and means.)

    Would love to hear more about your project, though, to be sure!

  4. No I don’t think Jokowi is a serious pres threat at this point. But there’s a lot of under-decided voters, the main candidates (Bakri, Prabowo and Mega) ain’t making much headway in the polls, and Mega-after his strong showing in the first round of Jak gub election–flagged the possibility of nominating Jokowi for president. A lot would depend on what he can achieve–or look to be seen achieving–in his first year, should he win. It’s a bit of a long shot at this stage. It’s a big jump from walikota to national politics.

  5. Hi Charley, I’m intrigued by your comment that both Jokowi and Gerindra excel at suppressing popular unrest. Can you elaborate? Also, being in Solo, what’s your take on whether Jokowi deserves the reformist credentials he carries?

  6. Thanks for reading, Charley! Those are some really interesting thoughts.

    The Ambon figures are interesting for the way that they represent Javanese as others in Ambon. Do they have a separate category for Javanese as Inlanders? If so, one possibility (although I’m not sure how likely this is) is that the Javanese counted as foreign Easterners there are self-identified Javanese who had spent a generation in Malaya or somewhere else, thereby earning some kind of “other foreign” stamp. Again, I’m not sure how likely it is.

    No doubt the Dutch racial policies were a big deal. But I find it too simplistic to attribute all of what we see today to the Dutch. There is some self-perpetuation going on, with social policy under the New Order clearly attempting to preserve the Chinese as subalterns without doing anything of the sort to Arabs or South Asian Muslims. (Tamils are maybe a different story, one that I can’t speak knowledgeably about.) I think of it this way: of the few Arab Indonesians whom I know, not one has ever been asked if he’s Indonesian, even though the Dutch were clear that Arabs were not pribumi.

    I’d also be curious, like same, to hear your impressions of Jokowi. You should know that in the circles that I frequent (and I bet the same is true for Sam) he is considered a star. I don’t know enough to form an opinion myself, but that is what I hear.

  7. Tom, yeah, I’ll have to look into it closer when I’m back in Ann Arbor in two months. The idea of Javanese being able to be either “foreign” or “native”in the same place is an interesting one, and not something I’d thought of. But my gut is that there wasn’t yet the BIG IDEA (being celebrated today in fact) of Indonesia Raya, so in fact Javanese could be seen as “foreign,” most particularly in places like Ambon with quite long histories as specific places, and lots of “foreigners” present, all playing similar roles in the spice trade.

    As to Jokowi, he is loved here in Solo, no doubt. He has done a huge amount to control the little aggravations of life in the city. Polisi don’t make random stops, and, apparently, neither they nor city administrators are asking for nearly the same amount of graft as previously. One of the things Jokowi will tell you, though, is that he has done a lot to get demo’s etc., under control. He does it not through oppression, but through inclusion and cooption. So, according to some folks here, when there were demos early in his time in office, he opened up the gates of the city hall, invited the marchers in, and listened to them. He then, in the eyes of some social activists here, wouldn’t do anything about their concerns, but he was able to blunt their effectiveness. They claim it has been his goal. There are particular concerns that he is willing to overlook certain communities in order to make sure his overall goal of bringing large-scale big-money development succeeds. So, activist impulses brought under control, albeit by a new “tactic” is the way some folks are reading the situation. But, for most people here, he does seem to be making the city more liveable. And hey, Starbucks just opened this morning at the new very very fancy Paragon mall, so we’re one step closer to Jakarta standards!

    Now will he be able to duplicate this in Jakarta? It would be interesting to see. Solo is such a small place in many ways, and Jokowi clearly had military support a few months ago during the FPI incidents, where it was military police who came into the city from the bases to the east and took control of the situation, which was, in the end, pretty minor. But again, he was willing to make sure things stayed “peaceful.” He also was able to force a resolution of sorts in the lockdown of the kraton, again using military police to some extent, I’m told (but I didn’t see this myself.)

    Jakarta is much more complex, and there are many more political actors to keep control of.

    So, he many be a new breed of Indonesian politician, but he is nonetheless committed, it appears to me, to maintaining a certain level of social control. And this is something that the middle class in particular welcomes strongly.

  8. Thanks for the thoughts, Charley! I’d certainly like to hear more about this.

    It’s hard to know what to infer (especially from 6000 miles away) about a politician who does not listen to constituents. Is it coopation, or simply politics? If the former, is that bad? Big questions. They’ve rarely been asked in the context of an otherwise popular and relatively clean Indonesian politician, because there are so few of them!

  9. Yeah, I’m trying to figure that out some, and keeping in mind the things I’m hearing from different folks. What does strike me though is the sense of wanting/needing to control and “keep the peace.” Now, in the context of a city that erupts in violence every 15 years, this isn’t necessarily a crazy thought/impulse. Although one might make an argument that Solo erupts precisely because there is so much social control, conflict avoidance, built into cultural and political practice locally, so a lot of stuff stews and gets worse.

    What role the FPI and their ilk plays in this is also challenging. My view of them, at least locally, is that they’re basically the preman of older days in new guise. Many can’t recite Qur’an, don’t know much about the Islam they espouse, and have long histories of premanism in the city, or so I’m told. It appears to be different in Jakarta. But they are, in Solo, essentially the same basic group that attacked the Chinese 14 years ago, and whose predecessors were gotten rid of in the Petrus killings by the military a half-generation earlier, having first been used to assert certain types of local control. And they’re coming out of the same kampungs, at least according to some folks here. Suffice it to say, the areas are not economically well off either.

    The one thing I haven’t heard anything about directly here, and perhaps the folks you are talking to would know, is about how the money flows, and is flowing, in the Jakarta effort. I’m told in general that the major problem with the political class here is that by the time they are actually elected, they are so in debt to the party and the party system that has fronted their election money that they are much more easily controlled. And that much of the corruption money flows not so much to individual politicians as it does through them and into party structures. (I’ve heard this in a Jakarta/national context rather than in a local/provincial context, but it would be an interesting question to ask, if one could.)

    The other interesting thing about the Jokowi narrative in Solo is the speculation that he must really “have something” on the heads of the police locally, and that it can’t just be everyday corruption or woman-issues or some such. But he seems to have been able to control the high level hidden politics locally quite well.

    The FPI outbreak in April (or March? I forget the date precisely, but before mid-May to be sure) was interesting. I was driving home, past the FPI kampung area, and was stopped by a policeman, who asked where I was going, and then urged me to continue straight there. I asked him what was up and he said that the FPI would be right there in about 10-15 minutes. Now my internal thought was “so what are y’all doing to stop that?” but I knew better than to say so, and went on my way. The FPI then went on their sweeps, with the police apparently knowing when and where they were headed. Jokowi was then called out by folks in Jakarta for “not being able to control his own city,” and the next day the military police (cf., Gerindra connections,) came into Solo from the camps out east and put things back in order. So it’s not like there isn’t some sort of push back from the (non-military) police, perhaps, but the local sense is that Jokowi has them firmly under control.

    And meanwhile, here on the day before Idl Fitri, I’m sitting in a very nice new mall (all that’s open) that is clearly catering to a very high income clientel, and to them only, a new phenomenon in a very Jokowi Solo. But how those balances will be maintained will remain to be seen.

  10. Back in 1998, when anti-Chinese pogroms were in full gear, where were you guys?

    Why didn’t any of you speak out for the Chinese?

    What is the meaning of your “study” in the distribution of Chinese in Indonesia now?

    What are you actually trying to achieve?

    We all know that the Indon (and Malays in Malaysia) do not like the Chinese

    For centuries there had been many episodes of anti-Chinese pogroms in Indonesia and Malaysia

    • In Indonesia there many large companies run by Chinese Indonesians, such as Wings food, Kalbe Farma, Sampoerna, etc., prefer employing Chinese descendant workers than Indonesians since the latter are assumed lazy, slow, and out-of-date. No, they are not. It’s a way of revenge. Sound fair to you? I had a bad experience in 2001 of losing the battle of a job interview at a famous cigarette factory in Surabaya only to know that the new hired workers were two newly graduated Chinese. Worse, the HRD manager was a Chinese Indonesian. How will you speak about the discrimination done by them? You always complain about the bad treatment you receive from bumiputera but neglects what your ‘compatriots’ in return.

  11. ^ Penang

    It is difficult to speak out when one feels insecure of one’s own identity, especially if one’s race has been treated badly for generations. Also, at the time, there was no internet. What people are trying to achieve now is to end the kind of racism that may not be as bad as it was in the past, but still deeply rooted in Indonesian mentality. Just because such racism is common, it does not mean that people shouldn’t care, because it does hurt.

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