Channel NewsAsia

Indonesian capital set for first ethnic Chinese governor

Indonesia's small ethnic Chinese community faced severe discrimination for decades during the Suharto dictatorship. But the minority is now poised for a new milestone, with Jakarta soon to get its first ethnic Chinese governor.

JAKARTA: Indonesia's small ethnic Chinese community faced severe discrimination for decades during the Suharto dictatorship. But the minority is now poised for a new milestone, with Jakarta soon to get its first ethnic Chinese governor.

After Muslim-majority Indonesia threw off authoritarian rule, the minority group which had played little role in the country's political life began to win more freedoms and greater acceptance. Sixteen years after watching anti-Chinese rioters loot and burn Jakarta as Suharto's 32-year rule came to a chaotic end, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is now set to take over as the leader of the capital.

His ethnicity is not the only thing that sets him apart from the majority of Indonesians - Purnama, currently Jakarta's deputy governor, is also a Christian. The 48-year-old will become only the second Christian leader of the capital when he takes over from Joko Widodo, the current governor, who was elected president last month.

Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, will automatically become governor in the coming weeks when Widodo steps down. "Indonesia has undergone extraordinary progress since the Suharto days," Benny Setiono, co-founder of the Chinese-Indonesian Association, one of the main group's representing the minority, said. "Who ever thought that a Chinese and Christian man like Ahok could become Jakarta governor?"

His minority status makes him a political outsider like Widodo, a former furniture exporter who is Indonesia's first leader without deep roots in the autocratic Suharto era.

HARD-NOSED APPROACH

But the tall, bespectacled politician promises a starkly different style. While Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, took a gentle, persuasive approach, Purnama is famed for his angry outbursts at bumbling officials.

He makes no apologies for his hard-nosed attitude and his supporters believe he can shake up a notoriously bloated, inefficient bureaucracy. Despite some suspicion towards a non-Muslim figure when he was elected deputy governor in 2012, Purnama's tough style and his campaign for transparency in a graft-ridden nation has helped him win strong public support.

"This is how I have been for a long time," he said as he dashed past journalists at city hall early one morning, adding he would "let the public judge" whether his strategy was effective or not. Purnama was born into a wealthy family on Belitung island in western Indonesia, and studied geology at university in Jakarta, before returning to his village and going into business.

It is a common route for Indonesia's ethnic Chinese. Particularly during authoritarian rule, private enterprise was a sphere where they faced fewer restrictions, and many prominent tycoons in the Suharto era were from the minority.

When one of his projects ran into trouble with local officials, Purnama became so disillusioned that he almost moved abroad, and was only persuaded to stay by his father, who urged him to use his talents to help those less fortunate than himself. He entered local politics in 2004, and was elected to the national parliament in 2009, where he met Widodo.

While he may differ in style from Widodo, Purnama has pledged to continue his predecessor's programmes, including widening access to healthcare and education for the poor, and improving the traffic-choked city's public transport.

KILLING FRENZY

For Indonesia's ethnic Chinese, who make up just over one percent of a population of around 250 million, Purnama's rise shows just how far the country has come since the Suharto era, when they were targeted by discriminatory laws. 

They included closing Chinese schools and banning Chinese-language publications, and encouraging ethnic Chinese to change their names to ones that sounded more Indonesian. The start of Suharto's dictatorship in the 1960s did not bode well for the minority, with a bloody massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communist party members.

While the killing frenzy did not specifically target the community, the Suharto years were marked by paranoia about communism and frosty relations with communist China, for which Indonesia's ethnic Chinese paid dearly. They were on occasion targeted by violence, and the most notorious episode came in the run-up to the downfall of Suharto in 1998, which was sparked by the Asian financial crisis.

Chinese-owned shops in Jakarta were looted and hundreds of people killed when stores were set on fire. Purnama was living in the capital at the time and saw the violence first-hand.

Since then the situation is much improved - some discriminatory laws have been repealed and Purnama's rise to the top job in Jakarta is just the latest sign of the group's improving fortunes. "Nothing is impossible. Who knows, maybe Indonesia will one day have a president who is ethnic Chinese?" said Setiono from the Chinese-Indonesian Association.