The Question of Minorities: A Hopeful View of a Present Problem



I WAS born in Indonesia, I live in Indonesia, and ultimately I shall be buried in Indonesia together with my ancestors — how many ancestors, I don’t know, for I have no pedigree and do not come from the aristocracy which keeps track of such things. My blood is Chinese, and I am one of the three million or so Chinese living in Indonesia, and again, one of the two million of these who were actually born here.

When I was still a child, I loved China, the land of my blood, upon which the fate of the Overseas Chinese seemed to depend. Even-year at the Feast of Lanterns I and my friends would go around the streets with collecting boxes, raising money for China. When, in 19£7, Chiang Kai-shek, in an effort to achieve unity, led an expedition against the war lords in North China, collecting money was very popular. We even acted in plays and theatricals to raise funds. At that time it was usual for everyone of Chinese descent to assist China and to be glad about any improvement in her situation.

This came about, I believe, as a reaction to Dutch colonial policy in Indonesia. Not only were we forbidden political activity, we were also subjected to social discrimination, quite as though the Chinese were an inferior people, for example, along with Indonesians and other Asians, the Chinese were forbidden entrance to the white people’s swimming |tools, and were denied membership in the swank Yacht and “Harmonic” Clubs in Jakarta, the capital. It was possible, to be sure, for a Chinese to ask for equal political rights with the whites, and be given the status of “Dutch subject,”but so sore were our hearts over the treatment given us, that we would brand an applicant as a “Ono-and-ahalf-rupiah Dutchman,” referring to the cost of the duty stamp necessary for the application form.

Because of such wounding and unjust treatment, the Overseas Chinese vested their hopes in China. They reasoned that if China became strong and a great power in international affairs their own social position in Indonesia would rise accordingly. But after Indonesia became free — and many of us Chinese took part in the liberation struggle — the attitude of the Overseas Chinese changed.

China had disappointed us. For it must be frankly acknowledged that the Overseas Chinese did more for China than China did for us. There were many Chinese, born in China, who came to Indonesia without capital, but, being perseveranl and industrious, won through to success. Usually they sent their money home to China to help their relatives there or provide for their own old age. In this way millions flowed from Indonesia to China. What did China ever do in return for us?

Those of us Chinese who were born in Indonesia now feel even less attachment. Take my own case. I was educated in a Western school. I do not understand the Chinese language at all, nor do I mix much with the Chinese born in China. The newspaper I edit is in the Indonesian language1. And so, although my features more closely resemble t hose of t he “Sons of Han ” t ban those of indigenous Indonesians, and, although in my veins there flows the same blood as that of Confucius, Chiang Kaishek, and Mao Tse-tung, my spirit is the same as that of Indonesia’s President Sukarno. Perhaps my outlook on political matters differs from his on occasion, yet surely my lov e for Indonesia is none the less for that. Most Chinese born in Indonesia feel as I do. They consider themselves to be children of Indonesia, and know that their living depends upon Indonesia and not upon China, a foreign country in every sense of the word.

The Round Table Conference at The Hague in November, 1949 not only provided for the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia but defined the position of the new nation’s various minorities. For the three million Chinese are not the only problem children. There are approximately a hundred thousand Arabs, some of them descended from the Arab traders who first brought Islam to Indonesia in the thirteenth century, and about the same number of “Indo-Europeans,” as we call Indonesians who have some Dutch or other European blood. (There are also about ninety thousand Dutch nationals still in Indonesia.) By the terms of the Hague Agreement, Indonesian-born Chinese and Arabs automatically became Indonesian citizens - unless they formally rejected this status — whereas Indo-Europeans retained Dutch citizenship unless they opted to become Indonesians.

In this way, simply by doing nothing about it, most of the Overseas Chinese have become Indonesian citizens. Exact figures are not yet available, but it is estimated that only about fifteen per cent of the Chinese rejected Indonesian citizenship. Among the Arabs there were practically no rejections at all, and about half of the Indo-Europeans elected the new status. So passive a procedure for changing nationality may at first thought seem rather strange, but there were reasons why, in the case of the Chinese and Arabs, it was particularly suitable in the situation.

The everyday relations between the Chinese and pure Indonesians are really very good indeed. As a result of intermarriages over centuries many people with Chinese name or blood cannot be distinguished in appearance from Indonesians. And the way they live is very little different from that of the indigenous population. This is especially true in the villages. Benteng and Tjibinong, both small places quite close to Jakarta, are good examples. In these villages there are families with Chinese names . . . but they cannot sign their names in Chinese characters. They may have a table for the ashes of the ancestors, before which prayers are said four times a year; or they may even have a coffin displayed before the house, as the villagers do in China; but if you talk w ith them, you realize how far from China they really are. They no longer even know how many generations they have lived in Indonesia. About all they know of China is the fact that their ancestors came from there.

Recently I asked several inhabitants of Benteng whether they thought of one day returning to China; without exception they said “No.” I asked them who Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung were. They didn’t know. One of them explained, “We here only know how to be farmers; we don’t know anything about the news. We never hear it.”

They did know, however, that the Father of the State is President Sukarno. And one of the farmers said wistfully, “I’ve heard the name of President Sukarno, but I’ve never seen his face.” When I asked what it meant to become an Indonesian citizen, one of them replied, “We are one with the Indonesian people. Where else could we live? In other places we would be abandoned and neglected.”

For such simple people the passive system of attaining citizenship was most appropriate. Nor need we worry about their being used by Red China as a fifth column. They do not understand politics and are happy if they can live and work undisturbed. In other Asian countries there is a suspicion lying over the Overseas Chinese, but in Indonesia I am sure that the Chinese would join in defending the country against any invader, even one from China.


LIKE all minorities, all over the world, we Chinese do have our grievances and feel sometimes that there is still some discrimination against us, even though the Dutch are no longer in power. Theoretically, of course, this is not so; in political mailers there is no discrimination whatsoever. The Constitution of the Republic even allows that an Indonesian citizen of foreign descent might become President. There were two Indonesian-born Chinese in the earlier Sastroamidjojo Cabinet, and parliamentary representation is guaranteed by a proportionate allocation of nine seats for the Chinese, six for Indo-Europeans, and three for citizens of Arab descent.

In day-to-day social contact s there is also no discrimination. Where bias emerges, or at least a feeling of it. is when a Chinese applies for something from a government agency — a passport or import license, for instance. He will almost certainly be asked to produce documents proving his citizenship, even though there is no law requiring such papers. Businessmen — and most of the Chinese minority group earn their living in trade or commerce — must continually have dealings with various government offices, and so they must go to the I rusan Peranakan dan Bangsa Asing (Office for Affairs of Foreigners and their Descendants) for a card proving citizenship. The politically minded among us strongly oppose these notorious “yellow cards,” feeling they stand for a rather humiliating discrepancy between law and practice.

What is even more disturbing, however, is the Draft Bill on Nationality which came before Parliament about a year ago. Though side-tracked by other political events, there is sufficient agitation for it in certain quarters to make it likely that it will be brought up again. It would make it obligatory for Chinese who have already become citizens through the passive system, to choose again between citizenship of Bed China and of Indonesia. Thus their present status as citizens would be declared null and void, and the passive attainment of citizenship abolished. Moreover, only those Indonesian-born Chinese who had either a father or mother also born in Indonesia would be eligible for immediate registration as citizens; the rest would have to apply like any foreigner. This bill was an attempt by the government to solve t he issue of double nationality. Until an agreement was reached with Chou En-Iai at the Bandung Conference, Red China regarded all Chinese, no matter where they were born, as its nationals. But we Indonesians of Chinese extraction feel it is not our fault that double nationality was heaped upon us.

We feel that serious dangers are hidden in this bill. Because of the passive attitude to all political affairs taken by most Indonesian Chinese, many might be likely, without realizing it, to become citizens of Red China. They would then be “foreigners” in Indonesia, and Indonesia would be faced by a widespread problem of what to do with so many foreigners. And if some were unemployed or represented competition to local workers, what would the government do about them?

It has been suggested, in fact, that tHis Draft Bill on Nationality was really aimed at the economic position of the Chinese in Indonesia. By and large, the Chinese are stronger economically than the Indonesians; they have entrenched themselves in many kinds of business and trade. Some think this bill would weed out some of the Chinese businessmen, so that steps towards a national economy favoring pure Indonesians could be taken more easily.


THE position of the Indo-Europeans is more diflicult now than it was before the war. They have lost the privileged position in society that their Dutch blood gave them, and they must now struggle to earn a living in a way they never had to before. Many of their youth were unable during the war to obtain the higher education which would have equipped them for the posts of greater responsibility and better pay which their parents enjoyed.

Unlike the Chinese group which engages in commerce, most of the Indo-Europeans are salaried workers. During the colonial period they were, in the main, government employees, but now many of them have moved over into private enterprise, because they find that the present wage scale of the civil service is insufficient for living in the Western style to which they have always been accustomed.

Some of them have remained, however, in their former positions with the government, notably in the Police and Air Force. As a matter of fact, the government needs their experience very badly, especially as technical personnel, but there is still some discrimination against them, and they hold few key positions in these fields.

Prewar condit ions had drawn the Indo-Europeans into the social and educational community of the Westerners; for instance, Dutch was, and often still is, their family language. This caused many of them to take the same or a very similar attitude to that of the Dutch about the struggle for independence. Thus, when sovereignty was transferred in 1949, tens of thousands left the country.

Right after Independence in 1945, most of the Indo-Europeans who had stayed on did not want to become Indonesian citizens at that time, and there were a number of incidents between those who remained loyal to the Dutch crown and those who changed their nationality. Those who are still Dutch subjects regard Indonesian citizens as inferiors, and have raised an outcry against them, calling them outcasts. Conversely, Indo-Europeans who are now citizens of the Republic regard their fellows as parasites for still living on in Indonesia when they regard political allegiance to the Republic as a mark of humiliation.

However, the attitude of many pro-Dutch IndoEuropeans is now changing. They find, for example, that many firms prefer to employ Indonesian citizens exclusively, and in order to hold their jobs, they are prepared to change their nationality. These Indo-Europeans, unlike the Indonesians of Chinese descent, desire to see a definitive Nationality Bill become law as soon as possible, in order to enable them to lake this step positively. The existence of such a law would clarify their position within the Indo-European community; those in favor of Indonesian citizenship hope to see those opposed leave the country immediately.

But, like the Chinese minority, the better element among the Indo-Europeans does not take a divisive political stand. The ideal of these Indonesians of Dutch descent is to see the development of a state in which all have equal rights. They recognize Indonesia as their motherland and want to be good, patriotic citizens.

The Dutch in Indonesia are leaving at the rate of about fourteen thousand a year, and, unless this trend is reversed, they are not likely to remain a serious minority problem. Some are carrying on in businesses, such as shipping or import-export, but most are operating the rubber plantations. Probably a billion dollars of Dutch capital are still privately invested in Indonesia, as against over twice that amount before the war.

For many of these Dutch people it is hard to leave Indonesia because their families have been here for several generations and it is much more “home” to them than Holland. But they realize there is little future for them in our country’s development. They are tolerated now because their managerial skills are so useful, but they feel the hostility that survives from the days when they were the colonial masters, and they know that their jobs will go to Indonesians when the present shortage of managers is relieved through education and training. So they must realize what they can on their holdings and return to Holland.

The economic position of the Arab minority is considerably weaker than that o! the Chinese, but somewhat stronger than that of the Indo-Europeans. Socially, however, they are the closest to the Indonesian population. Not only are the Arabs Muslims, but intermarriages have been more common. Those of Arab extraction whose families have lived in Indonesia for several general ions genuinely feel themselves to be Indonesian in even respect. Most of them work as small dealers, small businessmen, or as laborers, though quite a number own land and houses on a modest scale, from which they receive little financial return at present. These types of occupations have fallen to the Arabs chiefly because they have paid little attention to education, and, in consequence, the number of intellectuals among them is very small. For example, they have produced only four professors, two doctors, one lawyer, and one notary; and only about twenty people of higher rank in the civil service.

Yet the Arab minority is strong politically. In 1954 it held one extra seat in Parliament over and above the number guaranteed by the Hague Agreement. And among these four Members of Parliament, one became a v ice-chairman of one of the parliamentary factions, while the chairmen of the People’s Representative Councils of Lombok and of South Sumatra are nearly always of Arab descent.

Immediately after Independence a number of new political parties sprang up which were, at first, exclusively “ethnic.”But none of them built, up real power, probably because their adherents found that the broader platforms of the major “ideological” parties were more meaningful, and because the ethnic groups were successfully wooed by the major partics.

The prewar Arab Party joined in the struggle for Indonesia’s freedom, but, after Independence, was disbanded. The largest Indo-European organization before the war was 1 he I.E.Y., which later split into t wfact ions, one support mg I he N ationalist Movement, the other not. ‘The LEA . has now been converted into a social organization which works mainly in the field of education. Indo-European children are now being educated for citizenship in the new Indonesian community; in the lower grades they speak Dutch, but in the higher classes Indonesian is used for instruction. ‘These schools arc open to all and provide a solution lor children who are Indonesian nationals but whose Indonesian language is still rather weak,

A Chinese organization called Baperki is working to improve the citizenship situation so that, in practice as well as in theory, there will be no differences made between indigenous and nonindigenous Indonesian citizens. Although Baperki is, by intention, not a political party, its promoters put up their own candidates in the last elections, in which they won one seat, believing that direct representation in Parliament would enable Baperki belter to defend the rights of the minorities. ‘Tins step was opposed by some of the Overseas Chinese, who judge it wiser to participate in elections only through the existing major parties.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that the members of any one minority group hold different political ideologies, and, therefore, those who desire to be active in political affairs often find themselves more at home in the political parties of the community in general. There being no political discrimination in Indonesia, members of any minority group are welcomed by the major parties. This situation is indeed favorable to the minorities. It means that what discrimination still exists will gradually disappear, wiped out by the activities of the political parlies and the awakening political consciousness of these groups who, under the colonial system, left their destinies in the hands of others.

Translated by Molly Bondan