Posted by: mel | November 21, 2009

‘Imlek’, the benefits of recognition for all

The presence of the language of discrimination in the article in Jakarta Post is summed up nicely in the sentence – ‘In this context, when the Chinese community celebrates its New Year festival openly, we hope they will do so with sensitivity and cultural taste, for example, avoiding over-the-top displays of wealth‘.  The use of ‘us and them’ (segregation instead of integration) is an indication that discrimination is still present. This can also be seen in the use of verb such as ‘avoiding…..’, which implies that Chinese Indonesian should be grateful that they are ‘allowed’ to celebrate Chinese New Year and the presence of ‘wrong’ assumption that ALL Chinese Indonesian are wealthy (stereotyping of Chinese Indonesian). Moreover, the use of past tense (eg. had, were) when illustrating ‘the problem’ and intensifying adverb such as ‘dramatically’ and statement such as ‘what a change this is’ when describing the so-called change implies that ‘the problem’ was in the past i.e. it does not exist anymore and that things are better now (discourse of toleration) rather than let’s do more (discourse of encouragement).

Jakarta Post | Choirul Mahfud ,  Surabaya | Opinion | 28 January 2009 

Imlek or Chinese New Year has come and the Chinese community in the world, including in Indonesia, is celebrating this big moment with several events. During the New Year celebrations Chinese people traditionally wish for mutual prosperity and luck in the coming year.

Chinese New Year, or Imlek as it is called in Indonesia, has a long history. It is nearly impossible to trace the beginning of the celebration, but scholars have said it may have started 3,000 years ago.

Chinese New Year traditions originate from a mix of celebration and fear that come with the end of winter, which help explain the symbols and rituals we see enacted.

The festival is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar. It also falls on the first day of spring and thus marks the passing of winter, which in the old days was harsh and even life-threatening.

The celebration is also based on an ancient myth involving a wild beast, Nian, who came down from the mountains on dark winter nights, entering homes and devouring the inhabitants.

The passing of winter is thus also linked to the passing of danger. Over time, villagers discovered that the beast was afraid of the color red and loud noises, hence the prevalence of red during the festival and the use of firecrackers.

What was a genuine cultural tradition has over time transformed into a system of beliefs infused with superstition.

In recent years, it has also become overly commercial, with malls, hotels and restaurants all getting in on the act. Be that as it may, Chinese New Year is an important festival and we should celebrate it with our Chinese friends, sharing the spirit of family and renewal.

For Indonesians of all ethnic backgrounds, Chinese New Year affords an opportunity to reaffirm the values of cultural openness, tolerance and pluralism.

The Chinese-Indonesian community in the past had to celebrate their festivals quietly behind closed doors and many had to endure years of discrimination.

Asvi Warman Adam wrote in 2007 that for more than 30 years during the New Order regime, ethnic Chinese were not mentioned in Indonesian history books. Any Chinese festivities or cultural performances were prohibited.

It was only after political reforms that conditions changed. Chinese New Year is now a public holiday and Chinese-Indonesians are free once again to celebrate it publicly.

Sidharta Adhimulya, my Tionghoa friend in Surabaya, has told me during the 300 years of Dutch colonial subjugation this event could be celebrated freely, whereas in an independent Indonesia under the Soeharto regime – ironically – basic cultural, religious and language rights were severely restricted.

Citizens of Chinese descent were even required to change their names and could not attend Chinese schools.

True, many of the cultural rights of the ethnic Chinese have been restored. In actuality, however, the government is still far from thorough in recognizing the human rights of the ethnic Chinese population. Many of their political rights are still limited and, as human rights are universal, to grant some cultural rights while denying others is simply wrong.

As we know, when Abdurrahman Wahid served as president of Indonesia between November 1999 and August 2001, he abolished Presidential Instruction 14 (signed in 1967 by Soeharto) which had restricted the practice of Chinese customs and religions to private domains.

Following this abolition, he signed Presidential Instruction 6, which allowed the public celebration of Chinese New Year from 2000 on. Megawati took a further step by declaring Chinese New Year a national holiday in 2003.

Other than the official recognition of Chinese New Year, the revival of Chinese culture may be seen in the establishment of schools offering Mandarin as the language of instruction and a proliferation of Chinese-language newspapers in Indonesia.

In 1999 one television station began broadcasting news in Chinese (Metro TV) as did a radio station (Cakrawala), joining the growing number of Chinese-language newspapers to form a media climate that is more open to Chinese language and culture.

Significant improvements have been made to the laws regulating citizenship and civil administration, though less progress has been made in the country’s official history.

Despite some lingering forms of discrimination against the Chinese, things have, in general, changed dramatically use of in the last 11 years. The 2006 law on citizenship was a watershed because it recognized Chinese-Indonesians as part of the country’s population.

What a change this is from the time when they were not able to celebrate their culture in public. Chinese-Indonesians are increasingly accepted in sectors they have often been barred from in the past, including the civil service, the military, government service and the entertainment industry.

In this context, when the Chinese community celebrates its New Year festival openly, we hope they will do so with sensitivity and cultural taste, for example, avoiding over-the-top displays of wealth

The wider Indonesian community can learn from Chinese tradition and rituals and be enriched by the experience. Celebrating a festival, understanding each other’s culture and having a sense of shared identity are critical for nation-building.

For those celebrating this worldwide festival, it is time to practice the values of humanity, love, empathy, sympathy, plurality, forgiveness and fellowship.

We must be careful not to allow mysticism, irrational superstition and exclusivity to dominate. May the Year of the Ox be filled with peace, harmony and prosperity. Gong Xi Fa Chai. Happy Chinese New Year 2560.

The writer is a lecturer at Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya currently researching Chinese-Indonesians

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