‘Cina’ or ‘Tionghoa’? Why it matters, and why now?
Dewi Anggraeni ; The author of Tragedi Mei 1998 dan Lahirnya Komnas Perempuan (The May 1998 Tragedy and the birth of the National Commission of Violence against Women), a book forthcoming in April, published by Penerbit Buku Kompas
JAKARTA POST, 25 Maret 2014
Take it from me, if you think something sounds trivial, but it hurts a large number of people, then it is not. Chances are, it sounds or looks trivial because you only see it from your own perspective, or you have never really experienced the hurt or something comparable to the hurt.
This is an issue idiosyncratically Indonesian. In other countries in the region where Malay is used, ethnic Chinese have always been referred to as Cina or China (pronounced the same).
The words Tionghoa and Tiongkok only began to be used at the turn of the 20th century in this country. Since then, though the terms Tionghoa and Tiongkok were preferred by many people of Chinese descent, to Cina, it was not such a serious issue until 47 years ago.
Presidential letter No. SE-06/Pred.Kab/6/1967 of 28 June 1967 was issued during Soeharto’s New Order regime, which specified that all things Chinese be called Cina instead of Tionghoa. Thus the People’s Republic of China was from then on officially translated in Indonesian as Republik Rakyat Cina, no longer Republik Rakyat Tiongkok.
Following the implementation of that presidential letter, a stream of policies were conceived and executed that effectively boxed Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese into an ever more limited space in terms of means of earning a living, as well as culture and expression.
Yet a relatively small number were also accorded patronage in a very public manner, for all — including those struggling to make a living — to see.
By choice and by default, ethnic Chinese became the business or enterprise class of Indonesian society, an inchoate group which transcended divisions of social class, as they inhabited the whole continuum, from the struggling to the very wealthy.
However, because the wealthier they were, the easier they were to tell apart, the lasting impression of the ethnic Chinese in the collective psyche of the general population was that they were all rich, and that they were rich because of their collusion with the elites in power.
The ethnic Chinese thus became vulnerable to being made political and social scapegoats. Though not an everyday occurrence, victimization on different scales did happen, and often.
And when they were attacked, bullied or met with verbal insults, they were told that they were fielding all this because they were Cina.
So ethnic Chinese had to live with the awareness that on occasions when they were attacked, they had no effective recourse apart from fleeing. And when those who could afford to, did flee, they were further accused of taking their money (obtained through collusion with someone powerful) out of the country.
They became a pathetic class of society, always cowering, often obsequious, to those in power, because they themselves had no political power.
In brief, this is the kind of memory the ethnic Chinese have of being named, called and dismissed, as Cina. It was far from trivial. So when on March 14 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono officially revoked the offending presidential letter of 1967, and thus reversed the use of the word Cina to Tionghoa, it was welcomed by the country’s ethnic-Chinese community.
In reality, after the terrible May riots of 1998 when ethnic Chinese were largely victimized, along with the summary sacrifice of many of the urban poor, most Indonesians, not only those of Chinese descent, began replacing Cina with Tionghoa when referring to ethnic Chinese.
This was done following the public acknowledgement accorded to Chinese culture by then-president Abdurrahman Wahid, and later on, then-president Megawati Soekarnoputri.
The May riots indeed jolted many people into pondering the state of affairs with regards to the country’s ethnic Chinese, among other issues.
So why the fuss about an official name change? What’s in a name? A great deal. Ethnic Chinese can now feel they have regained their self-respect vis-à-vis the authorities and the community.
The reversal represents a symbolic gesture on the part of the government that by shedding the name Cina they are no longer held in contempt, that they can hitherto shed the extraordinarily negative image attributed to them by the New Order government.
Are you, however, curious as to why President Yudhoyono took this step, and why now? Was it one of his last gestures for his ethnic-Chinese friends? Did he suddenly receive a kind of epiphany?
I have discovered that it was the fruit of sustained lobbying by Murdaya Poo, a former legislator, and Eddie Lembong, the founder of the Nabil Foundation, who persuaded the President to get rid of the last major impediment in the restoration of the country’s ethnic Chinese’s sense of self-worth in order for them to participate fully in the endeavors of nation-building. On the other hand, it may very well have been the President’s own initiative, merely spurred on by Murdaya Poo and Eddie Lembong. Who knows? ●