Jakarta's first ethnic Chinese governor, Ahok, a break with the past

The rise of man known as Ahok challenges Indonesian prejudices against ethnic Chinese, and the entrenched corruption in the capital

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 5:49am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 4:05pm

As Indonesia celebrates the victory of reformist ex-Jakarta governor Joko Widodo in the presidential elections, it also marks the rise of his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who takes over from him.

Purnama, 48, is the first ethnic Chinese to become the governor of Jakarta, the capital of the world's largest Muslim nation of 245 million people.

The rise of geologist and businessman Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, underscores how far Indonesia has come in the country's struggle to break from its authoritarian and racially charged past, where just 16 years ago ethnic Chinese were the target of mob violence when riots erupted across the country.

"With the advance of democracy, we have become less conscious of our differences. So the presence of Ahok and others like him in political positions has become natural," said former environment minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja.

"People are increasingly aware that people should be judged on merit," he added.

The Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s threw millions out of work, and fuelled anger against the Chinese, who make up about 2 per cent of the population but who are often perceived as controlling a disproportionate amount of the country's wealth.

The mayhem that started on May 13, 1998 occurred against a background of massive demonstrations, adding to the pressure that forced late president Suharto to resign after having ruled with an iron fist for 32 years.

A post-Suharto Indonesia became a democracy in the making as multi-party and direct presidential elections were held.

Despite the high voter turnout in every democratic election that has been held since 1999, the rise of democracy failed to uproot the country's corrupt bureaucracy and institutions.

When Ahok agreed to be the running mate of Widodo in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2012, racial slurs were thrown against him in a race which many did not expect them to win.

Ahok and Widodo had neither a huge war chest nor powerful connections. But for Jakarta residents fed up with decades-long cronyism and corrupt administrations, the pair represented a clean break from the past.

Ahok took over as governor earlier this year when Widodo entered the presidential race.

Since then, he has shaken up Jakarta and earned both praise and brickbats alike.

He threatened to fire the city's transport administration for corruption during a surprise visit to their office a few weeks ago. Video clips of him losing his temper on inefficient civil servants have gone viral, with viewers expressing support.

"I love Ahok," said Okki Soebagio, a Jakarta businessman.

"Now the civil service don't dare to be lazy or corrupt because Ahok will fire them," he said. "Him being Chinese is not an issue at all. We have long passed that. And as a Jakarta resident, I believe I represent many of the people here."

But Ahok's bluntness is seen as abrasive by some.

Human-rights lawyer Frans Winarta, who is also ethnic Chinese, cringed at some of Ahok's straight-talking and jokes.

"During a TV interview, when asked whether or not he is ready to be Jakarta governor, Ahok joked he was ready to be the vice-president," Winarta recalls. "Such bluntness could be perceived as arrogant. He needs to tone it down.

"But the young generation do love him."

Winarta has long called for ethnic Chinese to be sensitive at all times towards the feelings of the majority, as he is mindful of the stereotypes surrounding the community, long perceived as arrogant.

But progress has been made. The reform era saw discriminatory laws revoked, including the accordance of the title pribumi (sons of the land) to ethnic Chinese, instead of only to indigenous Indonesians.

Sarwono, on the other hand, said Ahok should continue to be straightforward.

"Ahok has a strong character. He is forthright, honest and effective at the same time.

"People appreciate that. He attracts crowds and they love him as he is."

The first of four children, Ahok was born in Manggar, East Belitung, in Sumatra island, on June 29, 1966.

In an interview with The Jakarta Post last year, he revealed that he inherited three islands from his late father, who was a tin and sand miner. The islands are registered under his mother's name.

He came to Jakarta to attend high school and earned a bachelor's degree in geology from Trisakti University, which is patronised by the country's upper-middle class.

Ahok said he entered politics to fight corruption, as bureaucrats had made it difficult for him to set up a quartz-sand company.

In his earlier days, frustrated with obstacles to his business venture by a corrupt bureaucracy, he wanted to give up and move abroad but his father, Kim Nam, asked him to stay, according to Ahok's personal website.

His personal experiences have made fighting corruption and battling for greater transparency and accountability a cornerstone of his administration. He gave out his personal mobile number to the public for them to contact him if they had any issues that needed to be addressed, and has been receiving some 5,000 text messages every week.

He also disclosed his personal wealth online, alongside Jakarta's budget details.

Ahok’s office staff said he would pick up the calls himself at night after he had finished dealing with official matters.

Still, Ahok will face many challenges in his term.

As Jakarta governor, he will be the symbolic head of at least eight Islamic organisations. A hardline Muslim group called the Islamic Defenders Front has already voiced its opposition to Ahok, who is a Christian.

But Sarwono is optimistic that Ahok's religious beliefs will not be a major problem.

"Most Indonesians will have no problem with a non-Muslim being the symbolic chairman of Islamic councils, since in the context of governance, these councils deal with social services, not with religious teachings," Sarwono said.

Ahok faces far greater challenges in tackling the city's traffic congestion and massive flooding during the rainy season, as well as managing disputes over the allocation of land.

His predecessor successfully pushed for a much-needed mass-rapid-transit system. Its groundbreaking was held in October 2013, and the first phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2018.

There is genuine hope among the people that for the first time, Jakarta's chronic problems stand a good chance of being resolved, because its governor will have the ear of new president Widodo.

"Widodo as the president can do a lot to assist Ahok, since he knows how difficult it is for the governor to deal with [problems] without central government intervention," Sarwono said.