Thu, 04 Aug 1994

A wise decision

The government's decision to slightly ease a 28-year-old restriction on the use of Chinese characters in public and the teaching of the Chinese language is actually an admission of the fact that the world has changed and that old rules and patterns must give way to new concepts and ideas.

That pragmatism was behind the decision is obvious. The decision to allow hotels and recreation centers to publish brochures and programs in Chinese for the benefit of their Chinese patrons is aimed at drawing more Chinese-speaking tourists to this country. In other words, one cannot help but surmise that money is the real reason behind the decision.

Still, as the old saying goes, suspicion dies hard. That is why the decision stipulates that the tourist industry brochures must first pass the government's scrutiny and that they have to be printed at a specified state-authorized printing firm.

Nevertheless, one can expect that the decision will constitute another step towards a more realistic China policy in the future. For almost three decades following the abortive communist coup of 1965, in which communist China was allegedly involved, we have been conditioned by the security agencies to be constantly on the alert against the so-called "Chinese peril".

It was for that reason that the government banned all Chinese literature and all kinds of expressions of Chinese culture in 1966. That was also the reason why the government advised all ethnic Chinese who are Indonesian citizens to change their names and to adopt Indonesian ones. On the one hand, the policy was apparently an effort to contain China's influence over the ethnic Chinese which make up about three percent of the population in this country. On the other hand the government hoped that it would speed up the so-called "Indonesianization" process, which would make the ethnic Chinese an integral part of the nation.

Although Indonesia re-established active diplomatic relations with China in 1990, the government's domestic policy regarding the Chinese remained unchanged. And in a way, the policy seems to have been relatively successful. Nowadays, except perhaps in a few pockets such as in North Sumatra, we can find more and more ethnic Chinese, particularly among the younger generation, who speak only Indonesian, have only one Indonesian name and feel that they are true Indonesians.

Yet, one has to admit that quite a number of indigenous Indonesians still harbor ill feelings toward ethnic Chinese, although some experts have argued that this is not a real racial sentiment but more likely an expression of group envy.

Whatever the case, the world has changed. Everywhere, ethnic Chinese have emerged as one of the most successful population groups in the world. China is now viewed as a newly awakened "capitalist" giant with an enormous potential, from which all countries are eager to benefit. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have proven themselves to be the strongest among the Asian "dragons" as well as highly potential investors. Taiwan has even pledged to surpass Hong Kong as the second largest foreign investor in Indonesia by next year.

Apparently, Indonesia does not want to be left behind in the race to get a slice off the delectable pie. And thus, the decision to ease the restrictions was taken.

We think it is the right decision, although perhaps it has come rather late. In this era of globalization we have to know more about our future partners (and rivals, too) than ever before. And since we have to deal more with countries which have a dominant ethnic Chinese community, we need to have more Sinologists and China experts. Studies on Chinese literature and culture -- including their ways and strategies of doing business -- must be supported and encouraged.

To continue to suspect that a subversive mind is lurking behind all those Chinese characters is, in our view, just stretching it too far.