When one thinks of Southeast Asia, rarely do images of war, famine and abject poverty come to mind. However, upon closer inspection, the region — famed for its pristine beaches, rich cultural heritage and delicious cuisine — is in fact blighted by racial and religious tensions that often escalate into violence. Myanmar is an example that most easily comes to mind, but Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have also had their share of struggles over the years.
The case of the Chinese population in Indonesia is an interesting one. During Suharto’s New Order era, he introduced a political system that discriminated against the minority Chinese population. Suharto declared that the solution to the “Chinese problem” was assimilation, not integration. Many laws were passed that compelled Indonesian Chinese to adopt Indonesian-sounding names, Chinese characters, culture and literature were banned, and Chinese schools and newspapers prohibited. The Indonesian Chinese community, making up merely 1.2% of the population, became scapegoats during the economic meltdown in 1998 that contributed to Suharto’s downfall.
Some of the richest men in Indonesia today are Chinese, and a large part of the anti-Chinese sentiment stemmed from the perception that they were dominating business circles and accumulating wealth at the expense of the pribumi or native Indonesians. This perception contributed to the riots and violence that swept Indonesia in 1998, during which factories and shops belonging to the community were looted and burnt, and they were targeted in violent crimes such as rape and murder.
Yet, whilst implementing these discriminatory policies, it was well-known that Suharto enriched many Indonesian Chinese tycoons through an extensive patronage system that served his own interests as well as those of his family. Thankfully, during the administrations of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri post-1998, many of the discriminatory laws enacted by the Suharto regime were abolished. Nearly 20 years after the 1998 Reformasi, the demonstrations that broke out as a result of Chinese former Jakarta governor Ahok’s blasphemy trial reveal that not all is well after all in Indonesia today.
Some clear parallels can be drawn between Indonesia and Malaysia in this regard. The Chinese population in Malaysia has always been perceived to be richer than the Malays. They have been accused of controlling the nation’s wealth, and stereotypes of the Chinese being manipulative and “kiasu” are common. These assumptions are easy to make when a glance at Forbes’ “Malaysia’s 50 Richest” list shows that 8 out of the top 10 are Chinese. Furthermore, data from the Department of Statistics show that the median household income of the Chinese is 1.2 times higher than that of the bumiputeras.
Inequality statistics, however, paint a different picture. The “rich Chinese” and “poor Malay” myth breaks down when one takes into account the fact that the gap between rural and urban incomes is the highest among the Chinese community compared with the rest. While New Economic Policy (NEP) era policies exist to protect ethnic Malays, there are relatively few policies that protect poor non-Malays. Couple this with the scarce research done on the Chinese poor and the real problems faced by the community are easily overlooked.
Yet, a major difference can be seen in the way Malaysian and Indonesian societies react to these anti-Chinese policies and sentiments. Indonesians have a history of going down to the streets and reacting violently. The recent demonstrations against Ahok reveal that long-held prejudices and beliefs about the Indonesian Chinese community continue to persist, although many of the discriminatory policies put in place by Suharto no longer exist. The absence of state-sanctioned racial discrimination did not erase Indonesians’ deeply entrenched suspicions and mistrust of their fellow citizens.
Malaysia faced its own violent racial riots on May 13, 1969, whose significance lies beyond the fact that many lives were lost on that fateful day. The Rukun Negara and the NEP came into being as a direct result of it and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad published his infamous book, The Malay Dilemma, the following year. While the ramifications of the NEP are felt to this day, thankfully, no riots on the scale of May 13 has happened since. In the nearly 50 years since the tragedy, Malaysia has grown to become one of the fastest developing economies in the world, built skyscrapers and hosted world-class sporting events, all while maintaining the peaceful co-existence between its different ethnicities, much to the envy and wonder of the rest of the world.
The prosperity we have enjoyed throughout the decades is something our politicians love reminding us about. Every now and again, we will get politicians asking us to be thankful for being Malaysian, to cherish the peace and development that we enjoy, and to maintain harmony between the races. Many a politician have used May 13 as the bogeyman to strike fear in the hearts of the people, citing it as an example of what will happen if the Malays are threatened. Attempts to have a public discourse on race, religion, identity and human rights are often curtailed in the name of “maintaining peace and harmony”.
While I would never wish for Malaysia to descend into violent riots like many of our Southeast Asian neighbours, I cannot help but wonder what is the price we pay for this peace that we enjoy? If every little attempt at questioning the status quo is held to be disruptive and ungrateful, how do we change for the better and move forward as a nation?
While cherishing our peace is important, it is also crucial for us to realise that an outward display of harmony and stability can hide many unresolved tensions underneath. Until these difficult conversations are brought to the surface, discussed and debated, the peace that blankets this nation will remain fragile, at risk of breaking under the slightest touch.
Aira Azhari is coordinator of the Democracy and Governance Unit at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)