Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Learning from Malaysia's mistakes

Learning from Malaysia's mistakes

Christianto Wibisono

    Christianto Wibisono
    Global Nexus Institute

Chinese Indonesians today enjoy social and political freedoms that can be compared with the earliest period of Indonesian independence, when they took on a prominent role in the governing of the nation. In the early 1950s, four Chinese Indonesians served as government ministers – including Dr Ong Eng Die, from the Indonesian Nationalist Party, who held the post of Minister for Finance, and Dr Lie Kiat Teng (alias Dr Mohamad Ali) from the Indonesian Islamic Union Party, who served as the Minister for Health. Things began to change first in the early 1950s with the government’s Benteng (Fortress) program of affirmative action to assist the growth of ‘indigenous’ business over ‘foreign’ – Dutch and ‘Chinese’ – business, then the passing of anti-Chinese legislation in 1959. It was only after race riots in Bandung on 10 May 1963 that Sukarno returned three Chinese ministers to the cabinet, one of whom was Oei Tjoe Tat, whose portfolio dealt specifically with the prevention of racism.

The trauma of the many years in between of repression of political expression means that Chinese Indonesians have been slow to take a greater role in politics. Divisions between Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians were strengthened when Suharto became president, as a result of the New Order policies under which Indonesians of Chinese descent were quarantined in (to) the economic sphere. Systemic discrimination against Chinese Indonesians continued throughout the New Order, as did ethnically-framed riots. It was not until the New Order government’s very last cabinet that a Chinese Indonesian again served as a minister, in this case Bob Hasan, who served as the Minister for Trade and Industry – and then only for seventy days.

When ethnic tensions reached a climax in May 1998, Chinese Indonesians were reminded of the events in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 13 May 1969 when violent riots targeting ethnic Chinese Malaysians broke out in the city. Some are now asking if Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese should look to their Malaysian neighbours for a model for how to bridge divisions. However, the Malaysian example serves more as a cautionary tale than as a guide to a better level of acceptance for Chinese Indonesians.

A cautionary lesson

The younger generation of Chinese Indonesians tends to forget that Malaysia was only formed on 16 September 1963. The Malay Peninsula (known as Malaya) achieved its independence on 31 August 1957. When Malaysia was formed in 1963, the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah were made part of Malaysia out of concern for racial ‘balance’ – for if the island of Singapore alone had been included, the majority of Malaysians would have been ethnically Chinese. As it was, less than two years later, Singapore left the new nation.

At this crucial time, Chinese Indonesians need to learn from the Malaysian experience

 Malaysia may have achieved a semblance of ethnic harmony in those early years, but it was only an illusion. On 13 May 1969 the largest riots in Malaysian history erupted. Kuala Lumpur burned, and Chinese and Malays attacked and killed each other. Inter-ethnic conflict resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency shortly thereafter. In response, the Malay ruling elite implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP) – a policy of affirmative action that, like the Indonesian Benteng policy, gave special treatment to the indigenous peoples, the Malays. As part of the policy, Malaysia’s governing political party UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) took control of the position of Minister of Finance, traditionally held by a Chinese. Since that time, Chinese Malaysians have only been given non-strategic portfolios like transport and communications, health or housing. Malaysia has been ruled by an ethnic coalition ever since, as Chinese elites, along with Indian Malaysians, have supported UMNO’s National Front out of fear of Islamist opposition party PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party). Politically, the ‘secular card’ has served UMNO well, as it has guaranteed minority support for Malay supremacy.

The Chinese and Indian elites may be satisfied with this arrangement, but at the grassroots it created segregation and oppression, leading in recent years to demonstrations calling on Queen Elizabeth II to repatriate Indian Malaysians and pay compensation for the discrimination they experienced in Malaysia. The Malaysian authorities reacted with violence and mass arrests to demonstrations held in November 2007, charging demonstrators with illegal assembly and destruction of property. The following month it accused the non-government organisation behind the demonstrations of being a militant organisation with links to terrorists groups and detained its leaders under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Not all Malaysian politicians are as blind to continuing discrimination. On 24 January 2008 Anwar Ibrahim commented that: ‘Malaysia’s ability to attract foreign investment had been compromised by keeping the country’s affirmative action policies in favour of the Malay majority. That policy is obsolete, we are losing our competitiveness. Malaysia is less competitive than the 1990s. Foreign investment, we have lost. Growth, we have lost. Attractiveness, which is key to an emerging market is lost. Not to China and India, but to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia because of our obsolete policies. If you persist in pursuing this agenda, you do it not only at the expense of the Chinese, and the Indians, but also the Malays.’

This statement may have just been a cynical ploy to attract the support of Chinese and Indian Malaysians – when Anwar was deputy prime minister he was a strong promoter of pro-Malay policy. But his comments were quite remarkable as they took aim at the very roots of the NEP. However, it will take more than statements if Malaysia is to deal with the challenges of integration after 50 years of ethnic apartheid. In the meantime, Malaysia risks a return to ethnic violence.

Challenges for a new generation

Since the end of the New Order the civil and human rights of Chinese Indonesians have slowly been reinstated. Indonesia has entered to a new ‘liberal’ era, in which all citizens can once again take public office. But Chinese Indonesians’ willingness and opportunity to do so is still limited by the legacies of 32 years of the New Order and the lingering trauma of Baperki, the Chinese Indonesian political party accused of links to the Indonesian Communist Party following the so-called coup attempt of 30 September 1965, and banned in 1966.

Many Indonesians of other backgrounds are yet to fully accept Chinese participation in public life

Many Indonesians of other backgrounds are yet to abandon their New Order prejudices and fully accept Chinese participation in public life. So it is up to the Chinese community to provide incentives for a new generation to enter the professions, politics and the civil service. This is not easy in an environment of partial reform, where business still offers a relatively easy road compared with public service.

At this crucial time, Chinese Indonesians need to take full advantage of their new-found opportunities to exercise their citizenship and engage in politics and learn from the Malaysian experience. We need a new generation of activists in the tradition of Soe Hok Gie, a student activist in the 1960s who crossed ethnic lines to become an inspiration for all Indonesians opposed to repression. Like Gie, we need people who are proactive in shaping a modern, moral meritocracy in which all Indonesians can prosper.     ii

Christianto Wibisono (cwibisono@aol.com) is one of Indonesia’s leading economists and commentators. He is founding director of Global Nexus Institute, a think-tank advising government on geopolitical and economic issues.

Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009

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