Thursday, December 10, 2015

Clash of Race in Indonesia — Reactions to the Lamborghini Crash

A Surabaya Police officer inspects a wrecked Lamborghini which crashed into a roadside kiosk, killing one person and injuring two. (Antara Photo/Didik Suhartono)

The recent misadventure of Surabaya resident Wiyang Lautner seems to have gained notoriety beyond our borders. The international press has reported how the 24-year-old driver of a Lamborghini sports car lost control of his vehicle while allegedly engaged in a speed race on a public road, and crashed into a roadside kiosk, killing one and injuring two others.

In a rather sinister turn of events, pictures began to circulate on social media of Wiyang being used as a selfie backdrop by friends who visited him at a police station. The friends in questions were reportedly members of the Surabaya Night Cruise (SNC), an elite club of owners of top-of-the-line race cars.

The jovial and smug expressions of SNC members captured in the selfies generated a torrent of condemnations from the country’s netizens, which, unfortunately quickly degenerated into Sinophobia. Wiyang and his SNC friends appear to be upper-class Chinese Indonesians. It didn’t help that the police seemed to “go soft” on Wiyang by releasing him from detention due to “medical” reasons.

As a Chinese Indonesian myself, it was with mixed feelings that I witnessed racist comments and stereotypes by many who seemed to believe that the callous behavior of Wiyang and his gang was typical of all Chinese Indonesians. Some commentators even venomously called for the repetition of the 1998 riots, when Chinese Indonesian businesses were targeted and thousands of Chinese Indonesians were killed or their women raped, to “teach the Chinese a lesson.”

Yet I also reflected on the fact that although I belong to the same ethnic group as Wiyang and his friends, their world can’t be further apart from my own. Unlike Wiyang and his friends, most Chinese Indonesians, including myself, are rightly classified as middle-class at best.

There are even quite a few Chinese Indonesians, by the virtue of their wealth, who could hardly pass as middle-class. So to believe that most Chinese Indonesians are super rich or are in the habit of twisting the law of the land with impunity is just off the mark.

In fact most Chinese Indonesians today have to live with prejudice and misguided stereotyping that the racist online comments only prove. Nor can we rise above the law. In many cases, the application of the law is slanted against us.

I can recall several incidents experienced by friends and family who were inadvertently involved in traffic accidents with non-Chinese Indonesians. Even in cases where the fault clearly lay with the latter, it was always the Chinese Indonesians who were either beaten up by the bystanders, forced to pay unreasonable compensation packages or extorted by the police.

The majority of Chinese Indonesian victims of the 1998 riots were the ones who didn’t have enough wealth and influence at their disposal to make quick getaways from Jakarta. The ones who did were either lucky or the very wealthy with access to military protection or modes of transport unavailable to most like a helicopter ride.

As a very small minority ethnic group — the 2010 census recorded Chinese Indonesians to be merely 1.19 percent of the total population — Indonesians of Chinese ancestry no doubt punch above their weight when it comes to their role and influence in the country’s economy. The policies of Indonesia’s successive governments also unwittingly played a part in bringing about this phenomenon.

In 1959, for instance, President Sukarno issued Government Regulation 10 disallowing “foreign nationals” from conducting retail trade in rural areas. The Chinese, most of whom were still citizens of China in those days, were forced to choose between life in the cities or repatriation. Most chose the former and were therefore at hand when the urban economic boom in Indonesia during the presidency of Suharto took place.

So by forcing small rural Chinese entrepreneurs out of the small towns and villages, the government inadvertently created highly competitive Chinese Indonesian business people who, through their experience in entrepreneurship, were better equipped than others to take on leading roles in commerce. The Suharto government also foolishly placed an unofficial restriction on Chinese Indonesians from entering the civil service or the military, leaving business the only viable option.

Faced with such restrictions, it is no wonder that many Chinese Indonesians went on to excel at business. By the same token, we can hardly blame Wiyang’s parents for buying their son a Lamborghini, although most Chinese Indonesians would see this as being excessive. It’s their right as private citizens to do what they see fit with their money. One could even argue luxury cars purchases generate huge tax revenues for the government.

However, privileged Chinese Indonesians like Wiyang and his SNC friends should also be able to conduct themselves with greater sensitivity and empathy, as any responsible citizen should. As members of a minority group, they should also bear in mind that whatever they choose to do may reflect back on other Chinese Indonesians in the form of stereotypes.

This is particularly important as more and more Chinese Indonesians are starting to embrace professions outside the world of trade and finance. For the sake of better racial relations in the country, Chinese Indonesians need and must become good role models. I would urge my fellow Chinese Indonesians to bear this in mind, in whatever we do.

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