Of ‘pribumi’ pride, political posturing, and public policies

OCTOBER 29 — I had arrived — during my recent visit to Indonesia — on a particularly auspicious morning for Jakarta folks, and it was evident from the moment we drove out of the airport.

We were instantly greeted by a billboard congratulating Anies Baswedan, the newly-elected Jakarta governor and his deputy Sandiaga Uno who would both be inaugurated later that day.

I remember thinking how similar both of them looked and not only because they were pictured wearing the same all-white uniform.

Whether it was a quirk of Photoshop or not, both were depicted with fair skin and stylish thick-rimmed glasses, lending an air of youth to both 48-year-olds.

I left the TV in the hotel room on most of that day; both Anies and Sandi were feted and political analysts signalled their hope for the end of a divisive campaign that saw incumbent Basuki Tjahja Purnama, known to most as Ahok, losing the final run.

Later, Ahok found himself behind bars for alleged blasphemy.

Jakarta has a new governor who seems to be riding on a wave of ‘pribumi’ populism. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org
Jakarta has a new governor who seems to be riding on a wave of ‘pribumi’ populism. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org

The newspapers the next day echoed similar sentiments. “Jakarta greets the new boss,” said the front page of Jakarta Post, the country’s sole English daily.

It was only later the next day when I realised that Anies had made a huge gaffe during his swearing-in speech by mentioning the word “pribumi” — a word meaning “natives” in Indonesian, and also Malay.

“In other places, colonialism might feel far away but to Jakartans, colonialism is in front of their eyes and felt daily.

“We, the ‘pribumi’, have been conquered before. Now we have become independent. It’s time for us to be hosts in our own land,” Anies was quoted saying.

JakPost’s front page on Wednesday was less forgiving: “Pribumi comment mars Anies’ first day,” it said.

It explained that the term was a part of a three-tiered racial classification during the Dutch colonial era: “pribumi” at the bottom, “foreign orientals” above them, and the Europeans at the pinnacle.

On the second page, senior managing editor Kornelius Purba wrote in an op-ed expressing acceptance that Anies is his governor now, like it or not, but also cheekily reminded readers that Anies is not a “pribumi”, as he is of Arab descent.

To many observers, the use of “pribumi” was an obvious dig at Ahok, who is ethnically Chinese. But the word carried ominous meaning when Anies’ victory was largely a result of hardliners such as the Islamic Defenders Front backing a Muslim candidate over the Christian Ahok.

Adding fuel to the fire, there was a massive banner by supporters celebrating Anies’ inauguration which “symbolises the revival of ‘pribumi’ Muslims.”

It has been reported that ever since Anies’ use of the term, blatant racism has been displayed on Jakarta’s streets.

In one news report, activists were seen holding banners saying “Pribumi pride” while chanting “Bangkit pribumi!” (Rise up, pribumi!). To many Malaysians, this would be a familiar sight indeed.

I spent an evening chatting with a fellow journalist from Rappler Indonesia, explaining that yes, we in Malaysia too have a similar concept: “Bumiputera” (literally “sons of the soil”), which includes not only the Malays, but also the indigenous Orang Asal.

There were also questions about how Bumiputera is defined, considering a significant number of Malaysia’s leaders are not strictly “natives” themselves.

The difference is, we actually implemented affirmative action and preferential treatment policies around the concept, and it was evident from the responses among some Indonesian journalists that they were surprised that these privileges have been around for decades... and are still around.

Besides wooing the ethnic Chinese and Indians during his Budget 2018 speech on Friday, the prime minister dedicated a chunk for the Bumiputera through what he called Bumiputera Prosperity Transformation policy, to ensure that the Bumiputera agenda will continue to be a national agenda.

For next year, RM3.5 billion will be dedicated to the community, with a chunk of it (RM2.5 billion) going to higher education and training scholarships under the Bumiputera-empowering agency MARA — set to benefit 90,000 Bumiputera students in “critical fields” such as artifical intelligence, signalling, and rail.

This racial distinction is unlikely to go away in Malaysia, with Opposition pact Pakatan Harapan similarly designating “Bumiputera empowerment” as part of its socio-economic policies in the alternative Budget — admitting that it does not seek to “reinvent the wheel”, but to introduce better governance and remove political interference in Bumiputera institutions instead.

The Youth wing of Islamist party PAS surprisingly did not touch on any explicit Bumiputera issue in its own shadow Budget.

As Anies rides on a wave of native populism, Ahok’s name has not disappeared from Jakarta folks’ lips, although it remains to be seen whether he will return to politics.

Over the few days I was there, stories about Ahok were popular, especially on his magnanimity in prison as he counts the days without serving the Jakarta public. (The comparison to Nelson Mandela was made more than once).

As we drove round the Semanggi circular overpass — some called it a “clover”, others “butterfly” — I was reminded how a few journalists had admired Ahok’s boldness in completing the new landmark.

Faced with strict deadlines and the possibility that federal funding may be insufficient, Ahok pushed through by making a private company pay the 579 billion rupiah (RM180 million) cost; the money was compensation paid by PT Mitra Panca Persada to the Jakarta government, for allowing it to construct a building that exceeded standard maximum size.

It is not impossible for obvious good governance and sense to win over ethnic and nativist pride. The future will show whether Ahok can overcome the “pribumi” hurdle, and what lessons Malaysia can take from such a compromise.