February 10, 2016
Celebrating Ethnic Diversity–Congratulations Jakarta Post and Republik Indonesia
It has been 13 years since democracy icon and late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid restored to Chinese-Indonesians the right to openly express their ethnic identity, including the ancient tradition of celebrating the Lunar New Year.
It was Gus Dur who lifted the New Order ban on anything related to Chinese identity in the aftermath of the September 1965 coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. Indonesia severed ties with China after the aborted coup, but the two normalised relations in 1990, although discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians remained.
Celebrating the Chinese New Year, therefore, has always been a celebration of ethnic diversity in Indonesia, which was originally conceived as a pluralist nation. It is not simply about New Year feasting or the joy of giving and receiving angpao (gifts of cash in red envelopes) and basket cakes, but also the joy of sharing happiness with the other ethnicities that form Indonesia.
More than just New Year-themed entertainment with dragon and lion dances and red lanterns that decorate public spaces and shopping malls, the celebrations to mark the turn of the Chinese calendar underline Indonesia’s acceptance that cultural differences enrich rather than divide the nation.
After years of persecution and restrictions, Chinese-Indonesians now stand equal with other citizens, whose freedom of expression and fundamental rights are protected by the Constitution.
The case of Jakarta is also unique, in which the governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, belongs to the Chinese-Indonesian minority. Although his ascent to the gubernatorial post was thanks to former governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s catapult to the presidential post, Ahok has started to win the faith of many Jakartans. The real test of diversity for Jakarta looks to come in 2017 should Ahok seek another term of office.
Many do not like him, but very few of them dislike him for his ethnic or his religious backgrounds. His critics oppose his policies, which they deem as failing to help all the people, but the same people are quick to jump to his defence against intolerant groups, such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), who have attacked him simply for his ethnicity and religion.
Ahok himself has never been shy about his ethnic identity. He invites the public to call him Ahok, a Chinese “peranakan” pet name from his father. And many people also call him Pak Ahok with respect, not in some derogatory manner as some did in the past toward Chinese Indonesians.
Sixteen years of cultural recognition is probably not a very long time. Many Chinese Indonesians still remember the dark past, when they had to hide their ethnic identity and when their phenotypical features gave them away and increased the risk of being harassed on the streets.
But a lot of progress has been achieved. Not only do Chinese-Indonesians get to celebrate it publicly, but they can also share the happiness with all their fellow citizens.
Happy Chinese New Year, and may you be blessed with strength to outsmart the Fire Monkey. And may diversity turn Jakarta into a joyful, colourful and vibrant city for all to live in. — Jakarta Post