Fri, 31 Jan 2003

Equality key to Chinese-Indonesians' integration

Indonesians of ethnic Chinese descent currently enjoy more freedom to express their cultural identity, thanks to the reform movement that started in 1998. Nevertheless, they are still legally discriminated against in some areas. The Jakarta Post's Maria Endah Hulupi talked to Eddie Lembong, chairman of the Chinese-Indonesian Association (INTI) to discuss relevant issues.

Question: This Saturday, Chinese Indonesians will celebrate Imlek, or the Chinese Lunar New Year. How do you view this celebration?

Answer: Basically, the Imlek celebration has both cultural and ritual aspects, but there are also Chinese who celebrate it to rediscover their ethnic identity, which for decades had been denied them.

Imlek can also serve as an expression of cultural freedom. I think it helps foster understanding with other ethnic groups and pave the way to bridging the differences to create a sort of cultural mosaic.

This Chinese New Year will be celebrated as a national holiday. Meanwhile, some Chinese Indonesians have filled important positions in the political, economic, cultural and entertainment sectors. Do you feel these are positive developments?

These are all indeed a positive development, considering the situation during the Soeharto regime when we were not even considered a part of the nation. Discrimination at that time hampered social integration and of course, were not good for the country because they neglected the potential of the Chinese minority. Now it seems that the orientation has shifted to exploring the nation's potentials for the common good.

What are some of the problems Chinese Indonesians currently face?

Indonesians of Chinese descent still have problems in various aspects of life, ranging from nationality to legal and security issues.

We see these problems as a heritage of the past. We don't want to blame anybody, but we have to acknowledge that they are real.

Soeharto actively campaigned for assimilation between Chinese Indonesians and native Indonesians. But some people said the campaign failed. What do you think?

In my opinion, Soeharto's failures had its roots in the lack of understanding about the problems of the Chinese in Indonesia.

What happened in the past was a forced integration and assimilation, and that failed because it was not a true and voluntarily process.

What about the existing anti-Chinese laws and regulations?

Discriminative rulings against the Chinese originated in the Dutch colonial era, and these rulings inspired the Indonesian government to issue other discriminative regulations.

During the Dutch era, these discriminative rulings were used to segregate the people into four groups based on their race and religion, namely the Dutch (and other Europeans), Chinese/Indian /Arab immigrants, indigenous Christians and other indigenous people.

Discriminative practices, unfortunately, continued until after we gained independence (in 1945), as we were not ready to solve social injustices as well as other problems. Little effort had since been made to end discrimination.

Discrimination continued during the New Order in the many registration forms, including registration for birth certificates and identification cards. This has to stop because it allows discriminative treatment. All other discriminative regulations must also be scrapped.

Do you think the government has done enough to ensure equality?

Our government has too many problems to deal with right now, and we don't want to be pampered and spoiled by the government.

Instead, we wish to work together with the government because the problems facing the country are huge, and we must admit that not many officials are competent in handling them.

What does INTI do to help end this problem of discrimination?

We at INTI support efforts to promote equality in all aspects of life. We want to solve the Chinese problem once and for all.

Chinese Indonesians should be accepted as part of the country. There should be no discrimination and we need to lift the wall that separates us from the others.

Internally, we also want to make the Chinese aware of their tasks and responsibilities. Cooperation with other components is imperative.

This is our long-term program, to foster ethnic equality through education, and we have established cooperation with state-owned, Islamic, Christian and other universities, as well as formed good relationships with various religious leaders to achieve it.

At INTI, we encourage Chinese Indonesians to set out goals in a nationalistic framework and not think of only our own community members. This way, the country's various elements, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, can make their own contributions.

What should the government and other groups do to improve inter-ethnic understanding and cooperation?

In my opinion, what the government should do is, along with the rich and powerful elements of society, help support the weak. When the economic gap is narrower, this will help reduce suspicion and develop understanding.

Education is important also. There is a Confucian adage that says education helps bridge the gaps, including social and economic gaps. This will, in turn, increase public awareness of justice and equality.