Chinese Identity in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Jennifer Yang Hui

May 1998 saw the most recent case of anti-Chinese violence across Indonesia. In the same turn of events, Suharto was unseated, after 32 years in power, as the president of Indonesia. In the aftermath of the fall, the Chinese in Indonesia were seen to have taken advantage of the fresh memories of the persecution as well as the democratic impetus afforded by the fall of Suharto and came out in the open with regards to their ethnicity. After decades of ban, the "three pillars" of Chinese culture was finally restored. Post-1998, the Lunar New Year celebration is gradually allowed. There is also a renewed interest among Indonesians, not only the ethnic Chinese, in learning the Chinese language. Chang-Yau Hoon, an Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at the Singapore Management University, examines the phenomenon in detail in Chinese Identity in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Culture, Politics and Media.

Admittedly, the study of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia is very much saturated with the works of esteemed scholars such as Leo Suryadinata. However, Hoon's keen insight into the dynamics of pribumi-Chinese relationship, Chinese publications and effects of policies on Chinese Indonesians is one of the pioneers in post-Suharto era Chinese study.

Traditional literature on the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia stressed on the erosion of culture brought about by the ban imposed by the Suharto regime. The fall of Suharto is thus seen as an opportunity for the restoration of Chinese culture in Indonesia. Hoon, however, called for a critical examination of the post-Suharto Mandarin boom as a unique phenomenon, rather than as a re-establishment of pre-1965 situation. The book argued that developments in the post-Suharto era do not show a re-emergence of pre-1965 Chinese identity, but one that is shaped by entirely new forces. For instance, the author found from his research that many young generation Chinese Indonesians are learning Chinese language in the post-Suharto era not because they identify with being Chinese as an ethnicity, but due to factors that increased the language's marketability such as the rise of China as a regional power. In fact, the interest in acquiring Chinese language skills is not only confined among those of Chinese descent in Indonesia, but also among the non-Chinese. Singling out the phenomenon as a unique one and situating it in the context of the times was an important issue.

Pointing out Chinese culture and organizations that persisted in Indonesia despite Suharto's repressive measures towards them was a very strong argument put out by the author in the book. While it is true that the regime might have succeeded in creating an entire generation of Chinese Indonesians who are unable to speak or write in the Chinese language, many scholarship on ethnic Chinese in Indonesia do not concentrate on the preservation of Chinese culture in the "private domains" during the Suharto years. Hoon argues that cautious preservation of the "Three Pillars" of Chinese culture went on in the form of exclusively Chinese social gatherings, modification of Chinese temples into Buddhist Vihara and their lack of display of Chinese symbols in their compounds, and private Chinese language tuitions. Using examples from his field research, Hoon also filled in gap in the literature of Chinese Indonesians by elaborating on their story during the Suharto period.

The field research that made up the material for the book was carefully conducted and keenly examined. Hoon backed detailed exploration of Chinese identity with many examples gleaned from field research. For instance, his observation of what being Chinese means for many Chinese Indonesians was coupled with anecdotes and actual quotes from his respondents.

In pointing out the reason for some of his observations, a minor note of contention needs to be made. In page 104 of the book, the author attributed the "general decline in today's reading culture" as a factor contributing to the failure of Indonesian-language Chinese press to gain popularity in Indonesia. While the author has pointed to the right issue, the term/ labeling may be better described as a change in preference of medium to obtain information. Today's generation has not lost interest in reading; they simply prefer a different medium such as the Internet, to keep updated on information. Certainly, this is but a negligible note in an otherwise well-written and argued book.

A poem discussing the dynamics of perception between pribumi and Chinese Indonesians that was published in Republika was provided on Appendix 2 on page 187. A minor note on translation similarly needs to be pointed out. The book translated "Anda bilang emang gue pikirin" as "You just say ‘I have to think'". The correct English language translation should be: "You just say ‘Do I care?'" This is a minor point, but necessary in order to allow readers to have a better understanding of the actual poem.

Chinese Indonesians in post-Suharto era appear to be in a better position towards integration into the nation. The impact of repressive policies towards Chinese culture during the Suharto period, as well as long-term living in a country where they are considered sojourners had definitely made their marks on the community. However, the case of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia showed the ultimate resilience and adaptability of a community through the times.