Jakarta’s deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, has renounced his membership of the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party in protest at the proposed new bill that aims to abolish direct regional elections. Regrettably, his decision has also unleashed a grotesque feature of Indonesian politics: camouflaged racism.
Ahok’s resignation was followed almost immediately by a vitriolic attack on him by Gerindra Jakarta chairman Muhammad Taufik. “If the House of Representatives passes the new regional elections bill, what will be his reaction? The bill will become state policy. If he disagrees, he should change his nationality.”
Taufik may have thought he was being clever by trying to turn the tables. He argued that Ahok objected to the policy of Gerindra to push the bill through parliament and therefore he resigned. So, in a grand display of perverse logic, Taufik demanded that Ahok relocate to another country since he was opposed to a proposed new law of the land.
Clearly, Taufik failed to grasp the fact that the membership of a political party is voluntary. However, citizenship, except in the case of naturalization, is attained at birth. And Ahok’s status as an Indonesian national was definitely established this way.
As an Indonesian citizen by birth, Ahok cannot be deprived of his nationality unless he commits high treason. An objection to a government policy, however public and vocal, does not constitute treason. It is simply, as Taufik conveniently failed to acknowledge, the constitutional right of any citizen.
Even more perversely, Taufik’s remarks point to a deep undercurrent of racism. Ahok, by the virtue of his race and religion, is a double-minority individual in Indonesia. Born into a minority ethnic Chinese family, he is also a Christian in a largely Muslim nation.
If Ahok were not a Chinese Indonesian, it is doubtful Taufik would have challenged him on the question of nationality. He probably would have Ahok deposed as deputy governor through the regional parliament instead.
Unfortunately, the race card is still considered a potent weapon in Indonesian politics. The recent presidential election saw a rigorous campaign to convince the masses that Joko Widodo was, alternately, a treacherous agent, or even the son of a Chinese Indonesian.
The old phobia against Chinese Indonesians in political posts is, alas, alive and well in the nation’s psyche. It certainly does not help when supposedly educated politicians like Taufik continue to inject racist undertones into the public sphere so remorselessly.
Ahok’s objection to the new bill on regional elections is understandable. As a double-minority politician, he said he would not have become deputy governor, had the election been left to members of the regional parliament.
It is irrefutable that the political conventions left by Suharto greatly hampered any chances of minority groups, racial or religious, to enter government at the highest levels. For the most part, Javanese bureaucrats tended to dominate, with token representatives from non-Javanese ethnic groups, save the Chinese. The only exception to this maxim was when Suharto appointed Bob Hasan as minister in his last and short-lived cabinet.
Under the New Order, Chinese Indonesians, however talented, could not hope of entering politics openly. The only viable option was the role of informal advisers and dealmakers. It was a backdoor solution that would only serve to create and affirm the stereotype that Chinese Indonesians sought to influence the government in an underhanded manner.
The Wanandi brothers, founders of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), were very close to the Suharto clique. Both Jusuf and Sofyan Wanandi served the Suharto regime in an advisory capacity through CSIS until it fell out of favor in the late 1980s. Indonesianist Benedict Anderson once remarked that a person as capable as Jusuf Wanandi would have become a minister at the very least, had the Indonesian government then not prevented Chinese Indonesians from entering politics.
Even after Reformasi, Chinese Indonesians could only occupy public offices through political patronage. Kwik Kian Gie served as coordinating minister under Abdurrahman Wahid. Similarly Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also had one Chinese Indonesian in his cabinet, Mari Elka Pangestu.
It was not until the full application of the direct elections for regional heads of government in 2005 that, gradually, a healthier form of political participation by Chinese Indonesians emerged.
Logically speaking, their historical experiences were so traumatic that the majority of Chinese Indonesians will simply stay away from politics. Even attaining public office through patronage is no longer an attractive option due to its changeable nature. Consequently, the electoral route is and will be the preferred option for Chinese Indonesians wishing to serve as politicians. For a minority group brought up with inherent fear of discrimination, a public vote of confidence is perhaps the best way to remove insecurities. However, as the strength of Ahok’s protest indicates, this avenue may soon be closed for an indefinite period of time.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya