Sun, 20 Jul 2003

The saga on the political stage

Lie Hua, Contributor, Jakarta

First impression: This is really a tome, in the real sense of the word. When you consider the topic of discussion, it must be agreed that a book 10 times as thick as this one would not be enough to make an exhaustive discussion of the subject.

Chinese-Indonesians have their roots in this country as far back as the 9th century A.D., when they began to arrive on this foreign shore in search of a new life. Although the biggest waves of Chinese immigrants were recorded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for over 1,200 years, Chinese-Indonesians have been part of the Indonesian people, albeit with a great many changes in fortune.

This book is interesting reading because it sets the discussion of the lives of Chinese-Indonesians against the backdrop of Indonesia's history. Readers can find the history of this country unfolding before them and at the same time observe how Chinese immigrants became established in this country.

A period of over 12 centuries is long enough for the inter- relationship to develop between Chinese immigrants, their descendants and the indigenous Indonesians, especially considering that the first batches of Chinese immigrants were males.

They married indigenous Indonesian women, with these unions further strengthening ties between the newcomers and native Indonesians.

Understandably, Chinese-Indonesians have played a role alongside indigenous Indonesians in the historical stage of this country. There are quite a lot of examples in this respect and readers can find a fascinating description of how Chinese- Indonesians have helped shape the history of this archipelago.

One obvious example is the contribution of Chinese-Indonesians to the development of the Indonesian language. As Chinese immigrants first settled in coastal areas and conducted trading activities, they used Malay as the medium of communication, thereby helping in its spread throughout the archipelago.

Linguistically, this kind of Malay -- the vernacular language -- is called Low Malay, in contrast to High Malay, the language used by more educated people. It is this Malay that later developed as the present Indonesian language. Many things can be explored in the language area that can show the important role that Chinese immigrants played in the development of the Indonesian language.

The book also gives copious examples of Chinese-Indonesian literature, as well as evidence of Chinese-Indonesians' interest in and concern for Indonesian affairs in general.

Another interesting feature of the book is its lengthy discussion of the group's participation on Indonesia's political stage, a subject which, as the title suggests, must be the main reason for the writing of this book. In all phases of Indonesian history -- before and after the country's declaration of independence on Aug. 17, 1945 -- there are records of Chinese- Indonesians' participation.

The book also gives quite a detailed account of how Dutch colonial rule segregated Chinese-Indonesians from other Indonesians. To be sure, this "divide and rule" policy has left a legacy of unreasonable spite against Chinese-Indonesians.

Unfortunately, as the book says, Chinese-Indonesians used to be divided into two camps -- the assimilationists and the integrationists. The former believed that Chinese-Indonesians had to abandon all things Chinese and assimilate into Indonesian culture.

The latter countered by saying that Chinese-Indonesians had to be integrated into the Indonesian community. While retaining their Chinese tradition and mores, they, just like any other ethnic group in multi-ethnic Indonesia, would naturally become part of the Indonesian nation. Forcing them to assimilate would always lead to the "Chinese issue". Their argument was that Chinese-Indonesians had lived alongside indigenous Indonesians for hundreds of years without causing much trouble.

Of course, the presence of Chinese-Indonesians is a fact and in the reform era, it must not be manipulated for certain political motives. During the New Order era, the ruling regime issued many regulations that prohibited Chinese-Indonesians from sticking to their tradition and mores.

Instead of settling the problem once and for all, the issue remained a thorn in the side of national development of the country. The discriminative regulations just highlighted the government's "special" treatment of Chinese-Indonesians.

If Chinese-Indonesians are allowed to lead their lives normally like every other ethnic group in Indonesia -- reward them for their merits and punish them for their transgressions -- the issue would disappear by itself.

The book does not explicitly say this, but it is the message that one can interpret after examining the saga of Chinese- Indonesians and how they have fared in their adopted homeland.

One word of warning: If you want to really digest the book, read it slowly and carefully as it contains a huge number of names that interact to weave a mosaic of how Chinese-Indonesians have fared during their many centuries in Indonesia.

Despite the cynicism of their countrymen, many of them have silently devoted their lives to increased prosperity and glory of this country. Their traces can be found in many aspects of life in this country, ranging from language, to architecture and food.

Such a thorough and detailed work is only to be expected from Benny, himself a Chinese-Indonesian and the founder of the Tionghoa Indonesia Association (INTI) and the Center for the Study of Nationality Issues (ELKASA).

Tionghoa dalam Pusaran Politik (Chinese-Indonesians in the Political Whirlwind), by Benny G. Setiono, ELKASA, no publication year xv + 1,139 pp