While ethnic and racial issues can be a touchy subject, especially in the lead-up to big political events like the upcoming presidential elections, analysts say in a more democratically mature Indonesia, there’s no more room to play the race card.

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12 Feb 2024 05:25PM (Updated: 13 Feb 2024 10:13AM)

SEMARANG,Indonesia: The busy port city of Semarang has the highest number of ethnic Chinese in Central Java.

Having lived there for many generations, they proudly call themselves Indonesians.

“I have a saying. I may have been born Chinese, but I am very Indonesian,” Ms Dewi Susilo Budiharjo, a council member of the Chinese-Indonesian Social Clan Association in Semarang told CNA.

However, Chinese-Indonesians – a minority community in the country – have long faced discrimination, stigma and even persecution. 

This often makes ethnic and racial issues a touchy subject, especially in the lead-up to big political events like the upcoming presidential elections.

Analysts, however, said that in a more democratically mature Indonesia, there is no more room to play the race card, or any other form of identity politics.

“Playing identity politics may not lead to success,” said Dr Leo Suryadinata, a visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, whose expertise includes Indonesian politics. He pegged the Chinese-Indonesian community as making up roughly 5 per cent of the nation's population.

“The three candidates discovered from past elections, perhaps, if you play (such) politics, it will be very dangerous, it's going to create political instability. I don’t think they want that.”

He was referring to the three presidential hopefuls Prabowo Subianto, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo who are contesting in the election on Wednesday (Feb 14).


Chinese-Indonesians now also have a bigger stake in the country’s future. Political participation is gaining traction among the community, with about 40 running to become lawmakers in this year’s legislative race.

Mr Antonius Simon, chairman of the Yogyakarta chapter of the Chinese-Indonesian Association, said that voters are deciding based on personal experience.

“As entrepreneurs, what we hope for is ease in doing business. This means good political stability (and) no social unrest because those factors are crucial. The communities from all walks of life are unanimous in their desire for a conducive socio-political situation ahead of the election,” he said.

As celebrations for Chinese New Year – which began on Saturday – continue, festivities across cities are no longer exclusive to just one ethnic community.

For instance, in Solo, also known as Surakarta, the occasion is no small affair, with public performances, flea markets and lion dance, where all can take part, regardless of race.

However, things were not always harmonious there, with those of Chinese ethnicity the target of violence, including during the May 1998 riots which saw the death of an estimated 1,000 people and remains a taboo topic in the country.

“I personally experienced three conflicts in Solo, prior to the era of Mr Jokowi as a mayor and Mr (F X Hadi Rudyatmo) as vice-mayor. Historians always say that Solo is a political barometer, and it has a short fuse,” said Mr Sumartono Hadinoto, vice-chair of the Surakarta Community Association.

Solo is the birthplace of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, who started his political career there as a mayor from 2005 to 2012. His son Gibran Rakabuming Raka is the current mayor of the city, and is the vice presidential candidate of frontrunner Mr Prabowo.

Indonesians hope that such unity lasts, no matter who becomes the next president.

“My wish is for all religious communities in Solo and even throughout Indonesia, to live in harmony, be at peace with each other, be good friends with each other, and celebrate each other's festivities” said one Solo resident Miftahul. 


Among the efforts to maintain harmony are Yogyakarta’s many social organisations and cultural activities deeply rooted in Chinese tradition and influence.

“Our spirit is to build a human kinship, to build integrity for the sake of the country and good manners in our social life,” said CEO of Yogya Chinese Art & Culture Centre Harry Setio.

Surakarta Community Association’s Mr Hadinoto said that the national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, which translates to “unity in diversity”, reflects Indonesia’s ethnic diversity.

“I always say we can't see what percentage of our DNA is Indonesian, or Javanese, or Chinese, but the important thing is that we must be 100 per cent Indonesian and make a real contribution, no matter how small, to the country,” he said, adding that he is a product of interracial marriages.

As the elections coincide with the ushering in of the Year of the Dragon, hopes are high for a more prosperous and united Indonesia.