A decree to end discrimination
Yeremia Lalisang ; The writer, who is pursuing his PhD at Xiamen University, China, is a member of the teaching staff at the international relations department of
the University of Indonesia
JAKARTA POST, 26 Maret 2014
Various opinions arise over the issuance of Presidential Decree No. 12/2014 that regulates the use of terminology referring to the People’s Republic of China and Indonesians of Chinese descent.
Those who strongly support the policy say the decree indicates the Indonesian government’s commitment to the eradication of racial and ethnic discrimination and protection for minority groups. Others, while not rejecting the government’s move, believe such a decree is unnecessary because contemporary Indonesian society already has the capacity to behave maturely in the issue of intergroup relations.
It should be noted as well that certain small minority groups are suspicious of the government’s move. They suspect the decree is merely a political ploy, given the fact that it was issued only just ahead of the legislative election and the end of the current administration’s tenure.
The President claimed the decree was signed to put a halt to discriminative conduct targeting Chinese Indonesians, which are illustrated by the use of the word “Cina” in reference to the ethnic group.
Linguistics as a science provides helpful insights into such a matter. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a well-known linguist, a word can have a different meaning to different users, as it might signify dissimilar concepts. The way a word is related to the concept it signifies is arbitrary, rather than given.
It is human agents who create signifier-signified relations that compose a word, while using the word in social interaction. “Democracy”, for example is understood differently, as it signifies dissimilar concepts, and thus, is practiced differently by various regimes around the world. Indonesia’s experience in practicing democracy is illustrative. It seems that we have had a relentless commitment to democracy since 1945, but it is clear that democracy was practiced differently in different eras, as the meaning of the word was viewed differently by each regime in power.
In this regard the decree can therefore only regulate the use of a signifier, not the concept it signifies. We surely would note the absence of the word “Cina” on paper, but not necessarily the concept it has signified thus far.
Considering the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified that composes a word, the decree cannot on its own prevent the conduct of using another signifier to signify the discriminative concept that the word “Cina” previously implied. In other words, this decree clearly is incapable of guaranteeing that the use of the suggested preferable word “Tionghoa” will not be used in a discriminative manner to perform acts of discrimination.
Moreover, it is in public life, not on paper, that people can clearly see and directly feel discriminatory practices through the use of words. The decree plays only a limited role in regulating the use of words beyond governmental bureaucracies. Consequently, this decree has a limited capacity to eradicate discrimination within society.
It is true that in issuing the decree, the state — not only President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration — displays its commitment to the protection of minorities and the eradication of racial discrimination, although it still has so many things to do. In this regard, the government’s action should be welcomed.
However, as I said, the decree only has limited capacity to affect the dynamics within society. It is therefore the people themselves who must do more. This is surely the challenge for Indonesian society.
The upholders of the decree have to translate their support into relentless promotion of the ideal aim of the decree, namely an end to racial discrimination in Indonesia. Those who remain unconvinced actually have to prove how discrimination can possibly be ended without regulating the use of words.
Despite the disagreement, both groups have the same objective, which is the end of discrimination against the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Their efforts to achieve such an aim could converge into the movement to educate the people, as it is society that uses the word and defines the relationship between the word and the concept it signifies.
The presidential decree has done its part to show the state’s commitment to relentlessly preserving Indonesian unity, amid its diversity. It is now Indonesian society’s turn to act to show its commitment to unity regardless of racial and ethnic differences.
Theoretically the synergy between both the state and society can lead to a better result. However, theoretical postulates can never be easily implemented. That is why this task is the lifelong duty of all Indonesians. As long as we still uphold the commitment to national unity, which considers the ethnic Chinese as an inseparable part of this nation, no form of discrimination should materialize in the first place, as our founding fathers envisioned. ●