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A growing number of Chinese Indonesians are winning political offices

 Daniel Johan at a march in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on Feb. 5, 2023. [Courtesy, VOA]

This October, 45-year-old Kevin Wu will serve in the Jakarta House of Regional Representatives for the first time, becoming part of a minority of ethnic Chinese elected officials in the Indonesian legislative body. Wu has been a staunch advocate for Chinese-Indonesian rights since 2008 and helped to establish a Buddhist house of worship in the predominantly Muslim country. Now, he is an entrepreneur who advocates for small businesses.

“If we witness injustice, we have two choices — to accept our fate or to strive and hope for change. I chose to do the latter,” he said.

Wu said he was inspired to fight for Chinese-Indonesian rights by late President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was known for his support for ethnic and religious tolerance.

In February, nearly 205 million Indonesians were eligible to cast their votes in the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections. According to the last census in 2010, 1.2% of Indonesia’s total population is of Chinese ethnicity, at over 2.8 million people.

Johanes Herlijanto, chairman of the Indonesian Sinology Forum, a group that seeks to promote Indonesia-China relations, said that in this election he saw more names of Chinese-Indonesian politicians vying for the 500 seats in the national Parliament as well as in the District Representative Council, Provincial Council and Local Council than there were during the parliamentary elections in 2019.

Herlijanto said that political activism among the Chinese-Indonesian community strengthened in the last 26 years, since the Jakarta riots in May 1998 that saw many Chinese Indonesians being persecuted. He said he has seen more Chinese Indonesians serving in public offices ranging from regent, mayoral and legislative.

Herlijanto explained that there have been organizations that provided political education to Chinese Indonesians since the late 1990s.

“This allowed Chinese Indonesians who previously were uncomfortable, to be involved in politics, to now being elected and actively improving public welfare as politicians,” he said.

For decades, under President Suharto, many Chinese Indonesians faced discrimination, persecution and social restrictions, such as being banned from using their Chinese names, practicing their traditional beliefs, showcasing Chinese culture and having their full citizenship recognized.

It was only after former President Wahid came into power in October 1999 that government discrimination against Chinese Indonesians was abolished with the issuance of Presidential Decree No. 6, which protected minority rights. Wahid – commonly known as “Gus Dur” – was the former head of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, and had Chinese, Arab and Javanese ancestry.

Wu joined the Indonesian Solidarity Party, or PSI, in 2024, founded by a Chinese Indonesian TV news anchor-turned-politician, and said he was attracted to the party’s dynamic “start-up”-like work environment and idealistic approach to politics. Wu is also a member of the Young Entrepreneurs Association and the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“I am keen to support industries that open up more job opportunities, offer quality human resources development programs and ease the application process for business permits and industries,” he told VOA.

Daniel Johan, 52, a Buddhist, has been a legislator for the past decade and will serve his third five-year term for the Indonesian Renaissance Party, PKB, in October 2024. He said Gus Dur, and another PKB leader, Muhaimin Iskandar, both inspired him.

Johan is active in the Chinese Clans Association of Indonesia and shared with VOA that it took months of working in the community for his constituents, who are mostly Muslims in West Kalimantan, to trust and vote for a Chinese Indonesian politician.

“This term, I will be working on issues regarding food security, food independence and how to improve the management of natural resources and better monitor the implementation of the Mineral and Coal Production Law,” he said.

Although political activism and involvement is on the rise in the Chinese Indonesian community, politicians and leaders of Chinese associations in Indonesia are still aware that stereotypes remain, especially in rural areas.

Herlijanto said that the campaign teams for all three presidential candidates in the recent elections had Chinese Indonesian supporters, “so taking on divisive identity politics is not a prudent political strategy.”

However, the tides could turn against ethnic and religious minorities if divisive identity politics were to be used again in future elections. Herlijanto noted the case of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese-Christian governor known as “Ahok,” who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2017 under Indonesia’s blasphemy law, based on claims he insulted the Quran during his campaign for reelection. Ahok denied wrongdoing.

“Although radicalism based on religious beliefs, or a narrowed interpretation of nationalism, has faded in recent years, its re-emergence is possible and is an issue Chinese Indonesians are cautious about. That’s why it’s important for Chinese Indonesians to be inclusive, strive for equality and welfare and show that we stand for all Indonesians,” said Herlijanto.

I Wayan Suparmin, head of the Indonesian Chinese Association in Jakarta, said Chinese Indonesians must strive to be more inclusive in their surroundings and better understand that in a community everyone’s lives are truly intertwined. A notion that Johan agrees with, “Moving forward, Chinese-Indonesian politicians need to be more sincere, humble and avoid being deceitful or scandalous. The majority of people can sense politicians’ sincerity and intentions.”

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