Jakarta, the sprawling Indonesian megacity of 10 million people, has a new governor with a difference.
It is not just Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s hard-charging style that sets him apart from his predecessors. It is also the fact that he is Christian and ethnic Chinese, and is improbably running the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Basuki, a 48-year-old Protestant whose grandfather was a tin miner from Guangzhou, China, was sworn in on Wednesday at the State Palace by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
None of Jakarta’s previous governors have been Christian or of Chinese ancestry, except for one who served briefly as an appointee half a century ago (like Basuki, he was both). And despite Indonesia’s history of discrimination — and, at times, savage violence — against ethnic Chinese, Basuki says he considers neither his faith nor his ethnicity to be a political handicap.
“When people told me ‘the Chinese are a minority,’ my father would say to tell them that we are more patriotic,” Basuki said in a recent interview. “If one day Indonesia is occupied by a foreign country, my father said he would be in front of the front line to fight for our independence again.”
Basuki was Jakarta’s deputy governor under Widodo, who was elected president in July, and he has run the city for much of this year in Widodo’s absence. Like Widodo, Basuki is one of a small, but growing group of political upstarts who gained national attention for running clean, effective local governments, in a country where corruption has long been a fact of life.
Known for being brash and speaking bluntly, Basuki — popularly known as Ahok — is very different from the soft-spoken Javanese politicians the capital is used to. He began turning heads just weeks after he and Widodo took office in 2012, when videos of Basuki berating civil servants for incompetence appeared on YouTube.
Since then, he has added to his confrontational reputation by closing the capital’s most notorious nightclub after an off-duty police officer died there of a drug overdose, and by evicting thousands of illegal street vendors who had been compounding Jakarta’s chronic traffic problems.
“If you want to live in comfort, you have to get everything in order,” Basuki said. “And if you want to put everything in order, you have to have law enforcement.”
Basuki’s rise is a mark of the gains made by ethnic Chinese politicians since Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1999 — particularly since direct elections were implemented at all levels of government, including local offices that were once filled by appointment.
“While there were no actual political restrictions, for all intent and purposes, Chinese were restricted from the public domain for decades,” said Kevin Evans, founder of Pemilu Asia, an Indonesian firm that collects political data. “With direct elections of district chiefs, mayors and lawmakers at the provincial level, ethnic Chinese are running and winning, and winning in districts where the Chinese population is a small minority.”
Though Chinese-Indonesians make up just over 1 percent of the vast Indonesian archipelago’s population, historically they have tended to wield economic clout beyond their numbers, which has often led to resentment. For decades, they were subjected to discriminatory laws and regulations.
Anti-Chinese sentiment exploded into rioting in cities across Indonesia in 1998, amid protests against then-president Suharto’s authoritarian rule. In Jakarta, more than 1,000 people were killed in the rioting, more than 150 women were raped and entire blocks in the Chinatown district were razed.
While some affluent Chinese families fled to Singapore after the riots, Basuki’s family stayed.
“We are descendants of China, but our motherland is Indonesia,” he said.
A former mining consultant, Basuki first ran for office in 2005, winning a local election on his native island of Belitung, off the southeast coast of Sumatra, in a district where 93 percent of the voters were Muslim.
“I asked them why they wanted me to run, because I am of Chinese descent and a Christian,” he recalled of the local residents who approached him. “They said: ‘We don’t care — we know who you are. We know your character.’”
Bambang Harymurti, founder of Tempo magazine, a leading Indonesian newsweekly, said some Indonesians, particularly in Jakarta’s more affluent circles, have a phobia about Chinese-Indonesians’ growing participation in high-level politics.
“The indigenous Indonesians may have the numbers, but Chinese dominate the economy,” Bambang said. “So these people are thinking, ‘Will they control the politics with Ahok as governor?’”
Opponents made Basuki’s ethnicity and religion an issue during Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial race, when he was Widodo’s running mate. And when Widodo, a Muslim, ran for president, he was subjected to to rumors that characterized him as an ethnic-Chinese Christian.
Still, the electorate has evolved, said Philips Vermonte, head of the department of politics and international relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, noting that the ethnicity-based attacks against Basuki and Widodo were unsuccessful.
Basuki’s “just get it done” attitude has been applauded by many Jakartans, but he has critics. Last month, members of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front clashed with the police outside the Jakarta City Council and City Hall buildings as they protested Basuki’s pending swearing-in, saying that a non-Muslim should not be governor.
Nonetheless, he is preparing to move into the colonial-style governor’s office on the southern end of Jakarta’s National Monument Park, opposite the State Palace. He is already thinking about what’s next.
“I think it’s easier to solve national problems like corruption if you are a president than as a governor,” Basuki said. “Who knows? I’d only need to move just across the park.”
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