Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the target of frequent criticism by the City Council because of his plainspoken ways and penchant for getting things done, says he is undeterred by the latest call for an evaluation into his performance. (GA Photo/Mohammad Defrizal)

Johannes Nugroho: Two Ways to Confront Racism in Indonesia

APRIL 06, 2015

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his Chinese Hokkien short name Ahok, is no stranger to controversy. His latest row with the capital’s legislative body, or DPRD,  degenerated into name-calling at a meeting mediated by the Ministry of Home Affairs last month. The dissent started when both the executive and the legislative submitted their own versions of the 2015 budget to the ministry. The governor then told the press there were obvious “markups” in the DPRD version, which prompted a chorus of protests and threats from the latter.

Ahok’s in-your-face bravado ─ a novelty in Indonesian politics, unheard of coming from a Chinese Indonesian ─ has earned him both admirers and detractors. A recent high-profile critic of his style of leadership was Jaya Suprana, a tycoon, musician and founder of the local version of the Guinness book of world records, or MURI. He had his open letter to Ahok published by the Sinar Harapan daily. In the letter, Suprana, a Chinese Indonesian himself, urged Ahok to be more “courteous” in his conduct as governor, obviously alluding to the latter’s penchant for plain speaking.

Recalling that his own family members fell victim to ethnic violence in the past, he argued that Ahok’s “lack of refinement” would only serve to encourage racial hatred towards Chinese Indonesians. What is noteworthy, Suprana, disarmingly admitted he was afraid (takut) and that he wasn’t as brave as Ahok. But there was a sardonic tone to the way he expressed his fear, as if it was normal while Ahok’s courage was anything but.

His “admission” of fear was evidently intended to prompt Ahok to see the error of his way, at least in part. But his was probably genuine, too. Doubtless, both Ahok and Suprana are aware that racism against Chinese Indonesians is still very much alive in the country, despite the progress made in removing the old structural discrimination such as the ban on public celebration of Chinese New Year under Suharto.

However, both men obviously have chosen to tackle the issue in different ways. Growing up in the Central Javanese culture, Suprana may have adopted the Javanese non-confrontational approach, as opposed to the more outspoken Belitung culture in which Ahok was raised. Cultural values aside, the contrast in their attitudes towards racial bigotry may also stem from the generational gap that exists between the two.

For the almost 70-year-old Suprana, the trauma of witnessing and experiencing the raw expressions of racial hatred and violence for the past few decades must have been all too real. His was a different era, during which public expressions of anti-Chinese sentiments were not necessarily frowned upon by the state or the media. Since Reformasi in 1998, such blatant racism in public spaces has abated, even if the more private expressions endure.

The much younger Ahok, on the other hand, emboldened by the greater visibility of the ethnic Chinese in public life, is unwilling to tolerate — let alone accommodate — racism. In response to Suprana’s letter, he said he regretted that his critic “still thinks like a second-class citizen.”

Suprana is counseling for more circumspection and probably false modesty for all Chinese Indonesians, in a bid to keep the peace. By contrast Ahok, uncowed by discrimination, demands that he be treated and judged equally as any other Indonesian citizen regardless of race.

After all, last year Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini was also caught on camera cursing the representatives of ice cream producer Wall’s for failing to keep its public giveaway event organized, which ended up in a stampede, destroying much of the well-tended Bungkul Park. Despite her clearly audible expletives, Risma didn’t have her ethnic background insulted, a far cry from the moment when Ahok was berated by one of the Jakarta lawmakers — using an ethnic slur and calling the governor a "dog" — for “behaving rudely” when he told them to “use their brains.”

Both Suprana and Ahok are clearly at loggerheads as to how Chinese Indonesians should behave. But, amid their differences, fear is and has been the common denominator of Indonesian racism.

For Suprana, the fear lies in witnessing a high-profile Chinese Indonesian behave in a way which would not have amused the late President Suharto. For Ahok and other Indonesians fighting against discrimination, there’s palpable fear that racism might prevail against common sense.

Let’s hope that Indonesians today can disprove the dire diagnosis author Andre Vltchek once made of the country: "Fear is a very powerful force in Indonesia … There is the fear of admitting to the world one’s victimhood. There is the fear of belonging to a minority — racial, ethnic or religious — as in Indonesia the majority rules no matter what, often reasserting its dominance by brutalizing and oppressing minorities.”

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at