Skin deep

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 12:00am

All of us in Hong Kong have been celebrating the Lunar New Year, along with Chinese around the world. But perhaps the arrival of the Year of the Goat is being celebrated nowhere more joyfully than in Indonesia, where, for the first time, the event has been declared a national holiday.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Amien Rais, chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly - the country's two top officials - attended a Lunar New Year reception wearing Chinese attire.

This was a great change from a few years ago, when lion dancing, drums and cymbals were illegal because Chinese were not allowed to publicly celebrate festivals in Indonesia.

Chinese newspapers and schools were banned. Chinese were barred from politics or a military career. Most had to adopt Indonesian names.

Much has changed since 1998, when a surge of racism swept the country. Many Chinese homes and shops were destroyed by mobs, and Chinese girls were raped. After the fall of president Suharto, the ban on such things as Chinese films and books was lifted.

Two years ago, for the first time in more than three decades, Chinese were finally allowed to celebrate the Lunar New Year in public.

Ironically, amid this festive atmosphere, many questions are being raised by members of the Chinese community - who make up less than 4 per cent of the 220 million people in the country - about the discrimination they still encounter every day in Indonesia.

An interview with Eddie Lembong, chairman of the Chinese-Indonesian Association and published in the Jakarta Post on January 31, showed that while there had been progress, much remained to be done.

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

'We don't want to blame anybody, but we have to acknowledge that they are real.'

Discrimination against the Chinese does not only occur in Indonesia. The Chinese Exclusion Acts in the United States were notorious, and even today one hears of discrimination against Chinese and other people of Asian descent. Only last week, a congressman, Howard Coble, of North Carolina, defended the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Much of the criticism of Indonesian legislation focuses on nationality issues. China and Indonesia agreed in 1965 that ethnic Chinese would be allowed to choose their nationality.

That may sound fine, but many Chinese who had been in Indonesia for generations, and who considered themselves Indonesians, resented being asked to choose, since it meant that the Indonesian government was unsure of their status.

The scholar Mely Tan, whose family had been in Indonesia for six generations, made it clear to me some years ago that she resented being asked to choose, because in her mind there was no question as to her nationality.

Yet even today, ethnic Chinese born in Indonesia, both of whose parents are Indonesian nationals, do not automatically qualify for Indonesian nationality.

They have to apply for a certificate, a costly and time-consuming process.

Only a few months ago, Hendrawan, an ethnic Chinese who won the 2000 Thomas Cup world badminton championship for Indonesia, had a hard time acquiring a citizenship certificate even though he and both his parents were born in Indonesia. It was not until Ms Megawati intervened that his application was approved.

Human rights activists say there are still dozens of laws, decrees and regulations that are discriminatory. For example, Article 3 of the constitution states that the president must be a 'native Indonesian', a term that excludes those of Chinese descent.

Anti-Chinese measures began to be toned down after Bacharuddin Habibie succeeded the fallen Suharto as president in 1998. Abdurrahman Wahid, who was president from 1999 to 2001, did much to remove anti-Chinese legislation, but there is a feeling that the current government does not share his political will to fight discrimination.

The Jakarta Post, in an editorial on Monday headlined 'Reform is only skin deep', commented on the presence of top government officials at the Lunar New Year reception this way: 'Both Megawati's and Amien's rise to the national leadership is owed, in large part, to the 1998 reformation movement. They have both failed to address the question of racial discrimination that still exists in this country.

'They could have used the reception to convey the message to those present, including many leading Chinese-Indonesian figures, of their commitment to wipe out all of the remaining discriminatory laws and regulations. Instead, they have chosen not to act or comment.'

A public holiday for the Lunar New Year is nice. But an end to official discrimination would provide a much better reason for celebration.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator