As we are closing to 2020, we really love to return to the 1980s. Previously I was talking about the retro Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, and soon after that Jakarta’s Governor Anies Baswedan revived the term pribumi. On his inauguration speech at that.
Many Indonesians understand what he’s getting at. I was aware of the dichotomy of pribumi and non-pribumi as a kid in early 1990s, seeing the terms used in newspapers and television news. My father and my school friends were “non-pri”, non-indigenous Indonesian. But in 1992 and 2017, hardly anyone minded the Arab-Indonesians or Indian-Indonesians or mixed-race Indonesian. “Non-pri” referred exclusively to Chinese-Indonesians.
In the West, ethnic Chinese were the “model minority” – hardworking, law-abiding, and successful. Now many younger Chinese challenge this notion, aware that such idea encouraged passivity in politics, was used to mask systemic discriminations, and hid the complex experiences of being a minority.
On the other hand, in Southeast Asia ethnic Chinese are still not well-accepted. A century ago, Western colonials labeled Southeast Asian Chinese as “Jews of the East” with the similar prejudices against European Jews – disloyal, greedy, and selfish. In 1990s’ Indonesia, “non-pri” carried all the negative tones against Chinese-Indonesians, even when it was supposedly used in neutral context, for example on globalization and inequality. Widely used in conversations in cafes and warung kopi, the term conveniently sanitized racism when talking about what’s holding Indonesia back.
The defenders of Anies' speech followed the textbook steps of justifying racism. First there was denial: His critics supposedly didn’t read the full speech properly. Then, contradict the accusation: “If you think you’re Indonesian, then why do you have to be mad?” Then whataboutism – what about the Chinese slur “tiko”, which is more offensive? Finally, outright racism, praising the governor for saying what the people have felt for years.
The next day, another tactic was used: Anies was not the first and the only politician who used the pribumi word. Within hours, this argument had been debunked – the screenshotted headlines came from a sensationalist tabloid, or had been revised with apology from editors. Such counter-argument did little from deterring people using one of the listed arguments once again. The point is, Anies was right, whether he used pribumi to refer to all Indonesians or to exclude Chinese-Indonesians.
What is absurd is how Chinese-Indonesians were absent from this debate, while in other countries a politicized statement against a minority would invite responses from members of that group. Here I want to express gratitude to my friends who readily called out the governor and troll accounts justifying racism against Chinese-Indonesians.
Why don’t Chinese-Indonesians fight back, then? The most common explanation is that they have been traumatized enough with racial violence, from the war of independence, to the anti-communist massacre of the 1960s, to the May 1998 riots. But I can’t help drawing the comparison with African-Americans, who have faced a century of riots, public lynching, legal discriminations, and, recently, strings of unjustified killing by police officers, and yet still speaking up every day.
The defenders of Anies' speech followed the textbook steps of justifying racism. First there was denial… then accusation… then whatoutaboutism …finally, outright racism.
There is a world of difference between African-Americans and Chinese-Indonesians. Around the world, ethnic Chinese are taught by family members and by the community that being political is bad. They are being taught to stay out of trouble, and to mind their own business. I once read a tweet saying that black women keep on fighting because they have nothing to lose, and in my reflection, many ethnic Chinese have so many things to lose, no matter how rich or poor they are.
I believe most Chinese-Indonesians are also alarmed with the invocation of pribumi, and coping with their own ways. I know that there are brave Chinese-Indonesian activists, journalists, analysts, politicians, and academics putting their safety and career on the line to defend pluralism.
I have accepted the fact that I will not able to be close to other Chinese-Indonesians. Just recently I understood that my desire to do so had made me miserable for more than a decade. I am not sure if this is the case with other politically vocal Chinese-Indonesians, but that is what had happened for me.
My friends were mostly silent on the pribumi statement. A friend reported that in her WhatsApp group, several people didn’t understand the meaning of the word when someone brought up the controversy, even when they were in their 30s. When someone else pointed out the context and the implication, there was no discussion developing. What’s going on? Ignorance? Stoicism? Denial? Self-preservation? Currently I’m unable to fathom the ethics of Chinese-Indonesians in dealing with the resurgence of racism here.
Throughout my life I have heard advocation for Chinese-Indonesians to fix their attitudes. To be less rude to other Indonesians. To be more active in the community. To act more “Indonesian”. This politics of respectability, like everywhere in the world, would not fix racism. Professional trolls don’t hate the Chinese because the t-word hurt their loved ones, but because they are bigots working for right-wing politicians.
Political pundits may pinpoint Ahok’s strategic errors in the gubernatorial election, but the real cause he was defeated and convicted is because he’s a Chinese-Indonesian leader, and so many Jakartans, including the middle class and the rich, didn’t want to be governed by a minority. Like in other countries, the racial and religious majority in Indonesia believes that minorities and foreigners are challenging the demographic status quo, and have to be pushed back.
Indonesian bigots will step up their attacks against Chinese-Indonesians, a public enemy along with LGBT+ communities and “communists.” In Indonesia and other countries, it is evident that such blatant hostility could be popular, at least in recent times. I cannot afford waiting for other Chinese-Indonesians to join the resistance. Other Indonesians are willingly standing up for them, for Indonesia, with or without them.
Still, I wish they could care a little bit more. They don’t have to be political, but please give a damn.
Read Mario’s commentary on the heels of the divisive Jakarta gubernatorial election and follow @MarioRustan on Twitter.