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  • "We the (Chinese) People":Revisiting the 1945 Constitutional Debate on Citizenship
  • Elizabeth Chandra1 (bio)

On August 1, 2006, the Indonesian government passed a new nationality law to replace the 1958 edition, which was deemed outdated and particularly discriminatory. It took approximately a year for a special commission of lawmakers to draft the new law, with the support and active contribution of various civil-rights groups. As a minority group, Chinese-Indonesians are especially pleased with the new nationality law, as it redefines the legal framework of national belonging. It propounds a new definition of "citizen" (Warga Negara Indonesia, WNI) that no longer distinguishes ethnic Chinese—formerly known as citizens of foreign descent (WNI keturunan asing)— from citizens considered to be indigenous Indonesian (WNI asli), and, as such, promises to encode the very notion of equality that has long eluded the Chinese. The new law blurs the boundary between the supposedly "natural" Indonesians and those who have had to go through cultural naturalization (asimilasi) in order to become "Indonesian." More specifically, it no longer defines "indigenous Indonesians"—the natural citizens,2 so to speak—as those who are native to the state's territorial [End Page 85] jurisdiction, but, rather, as those who were born to Indonesian citizenship and have never held any other citizenship deliberately. So, rather than being based on a hereditary principle, the new definition of "indigenous" becomes strictly legal, in that it hinges on the history of one's national status.

Immediate reactions after the parliament passed the new law were, as expected, jubilant. News media cited tears of joy, plenty of cheers, and an impromptu rendition of the national anthem from the assembly's audience. It marks the "dawn of a new era" for the Chinese in Indonesia, proclaimed an article in Kompas;3 a monumental achievement, commended President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Media Indonesia;4 a new paradigm, wrote then-Minister of Law and Human Rights Hamid Awaludin in an op-ed article;5 a revolutionary law and a breakthrough, echoed others.6 The new nationality law, a Jakarta Post editorial concluded, "has effectively put an end to racial segregation as it recognizes Chinese-Indonesians as part of the country's indigenous people."7 The Banjarmasin Post went so far as to proclaim in its article title that "Ethnic Chinese Can Become President."8 A book published in January 2007, Jalan Panjang Menjadi WNI (Long Road to Becoming Indonesian Citizens), suggests a discursive obituary, as it recounts the protracted struggle for equality by the Chinese.9 Another book, published in February 2008, a compilation of newspaper articles written by young Chinese-Indonesian intellectuals, confidently titled Cokin? So What Gitu Loh! (Chinese? So What!), encourages a bolder assertion of the Chinese identity, which presumably has been buried for a long time in the racial closet.10

The book Cokin?, whose contributors teamed up under the name Jaringan Tionghoa Muda (Young Chinese-Indonesian Network), not only recommends a new mindset for the Chinese, but seeks to move away from worn-out discourses such as the totok versus peranakan (full-blooded vs. creolized Chinese) divide, the contentious designation "Cina" versus "Tionghoa" (the supposedly derogatory and neutral Indonesian terms for "Chinese"), and the so-called "three streams" of Chinese political [End Page 86] orientations during the colonial period.11 It invites the Chinese to look toward their future in Indonesia with an attitude of self-reliance, in that their collective self-definition should no longer be narrowly framed by the perpetual quest for approval from the national majority. The new Chinese identity is to be assertive, guilt-free, and unburdened by the perpetual need for any Chinese to prove her or his patriotism—that is to say, to be normal Indonesians.

All the enthusiastic responses and, indeed, daring propositions should rightly make the Chinese optimistic about their standing in the social and political landscape of Indonesia today. But retreats from talking about the past also open the way to historical amnesia. A closer look into past discourses on Indonesian citizenship suggests that the recent Chinese celebration of inclusive legislation is rather premature and, arguably, a corollary of selective memory. The long-held perception that previous nationality laws—specifically...


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