In 1998, during the riots that helped topple the New Order, Pak Sumartono Hadinoto (now 56), a Solo-based businessman, was forced to flee his workshop through a hole in the wall after a mob came to attack his premises, which was later looted and burnt.
Sumartono was just one of the many ethnic Chinese Indonesian victims from that troubled period in the Republic of Indonesia’s history.
While what happened to him was clearly traumatic, he did not let it define his life or wallow in self-pity and bitterness. Indeed, by the time I met him in 2009, he had rebuilt his life and business. He had also emerged as a community leader and a tireless advocate for strengthening his country’s battered race relations.
Besides his long-term involvement in the Indonesian Red Cross, he also founded another organization in 2010, Solo Bersama Selamanya, which was to provide relief for the victims of the Mount Merapi volcanic eruption.
Observing the ugliness of the rhetoric surrounding the second round of the Jakarta gubernatorial election, with all the references to so-called “SARA” issues ( suku, agama, ras dan antar golongan — i.e., the politicization of race and religion) reminded me of Pak Sumartono.
I wanted to get a sense from someone who’d suffered from the violence of the Reformasi Era and the last flaring up of SARA. Did he think such events were repeatable? Had Indonesia moved on? Were the divisions still as bitter and contested?
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Pak Sumartono was firm and upbeat, saying:
“Karim, 1998 was a very different time. People had little to hope for and look forward to back then. They were provoked and manipulated but ordinary Indonesians today have a lot more choices — both in terms of economic opportunity and politics.
“We also have to credit our mayor, Pak Joko Widodo [‘Jokowi’]. He masterminded much of Solo’s revival after the devastating riots and years of neglect.”
Speaking to Sumartono, who had suffered so much but was still so optimistic, I couldn’t help but feel that he was right in a way. The deliberate attempt to get people to think exclusively along racial and religious lines just doesn’t reflect the mood on the ground at all.
People want to know which candidate will listen to them and help change their lives for the better, with “what’s in it for me?” trumping issues of identity.
Indeed, the constant attempts to raise such issues appears to underline the inherent weaknesses of those who have nothing much else to talk about. They seem more like the desperate machinations of a political elite that has lost touch and sense of the great mass of ordinary Indonesians, most of whom just want to move on from the past.
As the respected intellectual Azyumardi Azra told me: “I don’t think that SARA will be effective in galvanizing Jakarta residents. People are smart. They know provocation when they see it. Besides, the city’s population is so mixed and the Betawi are no longer the majority.”
Nevertheless, we need to realize that managing race and religious relations — in any society — is a continuous process. SARA is not something, unfortunately, that we can finish off once and for all, but rather a challenge that will keep manifesting itself each generation or so and which needs new infusions of leadership, courage and vision to confront.
In many ways, it’s actually good that the SARA issue in Jakarta has emerged, as it reminds Indonesians that it’s something that the republic still has to address.
At the same time, people get the politicians they deserve, and if race- and religion-baiting truly has no place in Indonesia these days, then it falls on ordinary voters to reject those who espouse such activities. It takes two to tango, so to speak.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.