Reflection: Ahok’s loss is not a defeat for Indonesia’s democracy

Although I am not from Jakarta, I was personally disappointed – but not too surprised – at the outcome of the second-round gubernatorial election in the capital of Indonesia, which was held this Wednesday, on April 19.

For a backgrounder, let me explain briefly about the electoral race.

On one side, there is the incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the city’s first ethnic Chinese – and second Christian – leader. Known by his Chinese nickname “Ahok” (as it is Hakka pronunciation for the last character of his Chinese name, 锺万学), he has taken over the position as the governor of this city of 10 million since November 2014 after his predecessor, Joko Widodo, also known as his political ally, undertook the position as the 7th President of Indonesia. On the other hand, there is his rival, Anies Baswedan, a Yemeni-descended US-educated technocrat and former Minister of Education who has been – very recently – pandering to the more hard-line Muslim organizations, all under full support by opposition parties led by the former 2014 presidential candidate, retired general Prabowo Subianto, who was also Widodo’s rival. Pairing with Baswedan is Sandiaga Uno, a US-educated businessman and billionaire investor, who has gained notoriety after his name was included in Panama Paper leaks. Pairing with Ahok, meanwhile, is Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the current deputy governor.

What made the 2017 gubernatorial election so unusual compared to other local elections in Indonesia was the massive scope – and also considerable controversy and polarization – related to the two candidates. The hype started in the aftermath of Ahok’s alleged blasphemy against Islam in June 2016, when he encouraged people of Jakarta not to be easily deceived by certain political forces using Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran (known as Surat Al-Maidah) to block him, the content by which contains restriction for Muslims to vote for non-Muslim leaders in Muslim countries. Somebody in YouTube intentionally revised his speech, subsequently editing it into “encouraging people not to be easily deceived by Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran”. Although the editor had been arrested himself and Ahok had repeatedly clarified his statement – and even issued multiple apologies, the snowball was just becoming too big to handle. It culminated in mass protests in November and December 2016 – many of which were led and supported by hard-line Muslim organizations, demanding Ahok’s dismissal as governor, his imprisonment, or even openly calling out to “kill Chinese”, referring to his ethnic Chinese origin. Simultaneously, he was immediately named a blasphemy suspect, and has since been attending weekly trials in one of Jakarta’s district courts. All this was happening at the same time he was running for gubernatorial race.

The controversy further took place when Baswedan – long known as a moderate-leaning Muslim, and even nominated by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals back in 2008 – met several times with the same hard-line Muslim leaders who had been leading mass protests against Ahok, oftentimes even showing open support for their action. He was subsequently supported by a coalition of parties led by Prabowo Subianto – a former general and presidential candidate in 2014 also associated with his own controversies, allegedly human rights abuses in the Suharto era. In the second round of the election, Baswedan – whose only governmental experience was being Minister of Education under Widodo administration – won decisively against Ahok; based on the ongoing tallies by the election commission, 57% of eligible votes went to Baswedan – as opposed to 43% to Ahok.

And all this was happening when Ahok’s approval rating as the governor was over 68%. That means although some people openly approved of Ahok’s achievements throughout his tenure, a considerable percentage of them actually decided – ironically – to vote him out of office.

Briefly speaking, his achievements – first as deputy governor (2012-2014) and later as governor (from 2014 onward) – had been his efforts at budget reforms (computerizing the budgeting system under joint supervision with Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency), infrastructure construction, bureaucracy reforms, public housing for the low-income and poor, public transportation, flood-control measures (due to Jakarta’s recurrent flood seasons), as well as social welfare, particularly in education and healthcare. What was significant, in particular, was his flood-control measures, which involved cleaning up rivers, and most controversially, evicting a large number of riverside communities to pave way for canal normalization, the alternative by which was their relocation to government-built apartments. This, actually, became a source of consternation and alienation for some of the affected people, many of whom had previously shown support for both Widodo and Ahok in the preceding 2012 gubernatorial election.

Despite his achievements, he had been barely short of controversies – even before the alleged blasphemy. He was known for his “Sumatran” talking style (a stereotypical way to describe outspoken, loud-talking, and perceivedly-rude people, but I’m from Sumatra too), and not infrequently his past statements had offended a significant number of individuals – mostly politicians and bureaucrats whom he accused of “manipulating taxpayers’ money”.  His shortcoming, in this regard, was his ill-temper. His controversies notwithstanding, he has remained largely popular among a substantial percentage of people in the city, given his informal and direct way of communication. He has several hotline numbers so that people can directly report to him for problems within the city, and has even personally attended wedding events of ordinary Jakarta people – as long as they extended invitation to the governor.

It is inevitable that the blasphemy charges against Ahok had cost him a considerable amount of political support. Indeed, the gubernatorial election has been extensively covered in international media, most of which has the theme of “an ethnic Chinese Christian governor pitted against an ethnic Arab Muslim candidate supported by hard-liners”. The New York Times called it “a referendum on pluralism versus Islamism”. Some observers even considered Anies’ electoral victory as “an omen to Indonesian democracy and respect for diversity”. And personally speaking, I was disappointed. But there are way more complicating explanations behind his victory. For some perspectives, I would rather use a half-glass-full than half-glass-empty approach.

First, to have secured over 43% of voters’ support despite the ongoing blasphemy trials has itself been a progress for Ahok. I admit that ethnic, racial, and religious overtones among supporters of both candidates had been particularly heated – and even at times nasty – especially when you look at social media posts (should you understand Indonesian), but we need to look at a bigger picture here: over 85% out of 10 million people living in Jakarta are Muslims. In this regard, over 1.5 million people in Jakarta are non-Muslims. As there are more than 7 million eligible voters in the city, if we referred to the 77% voter turnout in the first round of the election (close to 5.4 million people who went out and voted) – and if this turnout was sustained in the second round – that meant more than 2.3 million people actually voted for Ahok, a figure close to 2.36 million who voted for him in the first round. Obviously, a large proportion of his supporters are Muslims themselves, and not all non-Muslims necessarily showed their support to the incumbent. Therefore, this argument should defeat the overwhelming theme among international news stories as already mentioned in the prior paragraph. Also, many among Anies-Sandi supporters are non-Muslims, particularly ethnic Chinese local business elites who would opt for “business climate stability”. One of the pair’s most ardent supporters is Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnic Chinese tycoon who controls 4 out of 10 national TV stations, and oftentimes described as “Donald Trump of Indonesia” (because his most influential idol is Trump, and his presidential aspiration himself).

Second, to have an ethnic Chinese governor running Indonesia’s capital and most populous city less than two decades after deadly anti-Chinese riots is also another breakthrough. During the May 1998 riots that led to the ouster of Suharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime, most of the victims were middle- and lower-income ethnic Chinese whose shops and houses had been looted and burned, or who were themselves killed and brutally tortured. By November 2014, upon Widodo’s inauguration as President, Ahok – then his deputy – succeeded him. His appointment had been greeted by protests among hard-line organizations, but with his approval rating (by the end of 2016) remaining at 68% and with his governorship fairly smooth and stable (despite blasphemy charges), this has been itself a major achievement. All this happened within less than two decades, and to have this attained with minimum hurdles has never been an easy task.

Third, democracy in Indonesia is just barely as perfect as democracy in other countries. Sometimes, democracy is about choosing “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing”, with us oftentimes behaving ignorantly on who the heck that sheep is. And we have seen some of the worst examples of it: slightly above 50% of British voters opted for Brexit (only to search in Google on what on earth European Union is), many American voters went for Donald Trump despite having a relatively high (56%) approval rating of President Barack Obama (although Hillary Clinton secured nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but thanks to electoral college). With the presidential election taking place in France as of the day I am writing this post, I would be very curious to see whether the far-right Le Pen, inexperienced-but-last-hope Macron, no-job-but-highly-paid Republican Fillon, or the communist, hologram-loving Melenchon would advance to the second round. Democracy, dangerously, can become a tool to elect somebody who may opt to end democracy once and for all. This is the age of political bubble and extreme polarization that we will continue to live in for the remainder of this century, as economic inequality, social media, and technological disruption continue to reshape our lives and how we view and manifest the world in ourselves.

Fourth, ethnic, racial, and religious sentiment is hardly new for this country. Democracy is only less than 20 years old in Indonesia, and like a typical teenager, it is not yet close to mature and emotionally volatile. Candidates in local elections have often touted their religious credentials – or proudly espoused their ethnic identities – as their “major recipe” to get elected to public offices, and not infrequently, this has been used as a tool to weaponize their rivals. People don’t get to change their mindset in a short term; depending on a country’s level of development, the change may either happen, or things will stay flat. This nation still has a long road to go to learn from its past mistakes.

Fifth, and lastly, Ahok still has the remaining 6 months as the governor, before his tenure is over on October this year. I am confident he is able to make achievements within this time period. For any successor – Baswedan notwithstanding – to dismantle his legacies will not be as easy as flipping over a paper.

These are the reasons why I refuse to believe that Ahok’s loss is a defeat for Indonesian democracy. Ironically, it is a dynamic principle of democracy itself: either you gain confidence among voters and they will vote for you, or that you do something wrong and they will vote you out. The irony is that frequent leadership turnovers hardly sustains long-term policy-making, but for better or worse, we are now living in an age of popular vote. Look at elsewhere across the world, and the distress is also there: many people are becoming disillusioned with democracy, political establishment, and all this stuff. Life, after all, has to go on. Moreover, most leaders – in the end – will no longer talk and act like they were as candidates; they would – adhering to the “median-voter theorem” – be hard-pressed to end up in the “center”. They would be pressed to accommodate the interests of all people, even the interests of constituents who had sided with their electoral rivals. The question is whether Anies and Sandi would be able to accommodate the interests of all people in the capital city.

May 1998 in Jakarta: a personal account



A British expat blogger, under the pseudonym of ‘Jakartass’, recounted his haunting personal experiences – in a rather cynical, dark humor – of surviving in Indonesia’s capital during the May riots, from the beginning of Trisakti shootings, until the resignation of Suharto more than a week after.

Download his full story, a PDF file, in his blog.




Thursday May 14th 9 am
By the time you get this, you’ll know whether Suharto and his cronies have gone or whether they’ve shot a few more students. A mass people march is planned for the 20th and all the signs are that this revolution is now unstoppable.

Suharto has spoken from Cairo: “If I’m no longer trusted (to lead the country), I will become pandito (sage) and endeavor to get closer to God. I will spend my time to guide my children so they become good people … I will do tut wuri handayani (guide from behind).”

Is this enough?

I was in the middle of writing the last bit when I was rung by the office ~ we’re shut for today at least. The British Embassy’s advice is to take it day by day. And the news (almost) live on TV is that north and west Jakarta is burning. Are they attacking the Chinese? Fools if they are!

NB. They were.

Slightly later: they’ve attacked a cash ‘n’ carry, Goro, owned by Tommy Suharto which is just down the road from my office.

Chronology: Chinese in Indonesia

may 1998


16 years ago, one of Indonesia’s bloodiest tragedies swept across virtually the entire nation. What were initially student protests held against Suharto’s inability to curb corruption, handle economic crises and the following social and political tensions ended up with brutal repression led by security forces. What happened afterwards was a culmination of mass anger, all of which was expressed in savagery unspeakable to levels ever imagined, in particular towards Chinese Indonesians, the major economic and social scapegoats. Shops were looted, malls, and the thousands of masses entrapped inside, were burnt alive en masse, leaving their corpses in complete ashes. Dozens of women, all of whom are ethnic Chinese, were brutally gang-raped, while other thousands saw their properties, houses, and offices perish in flames. Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and also the country’s economic and political epicenter during Suharto’s rule, witnessed a brief period of lawlessness, chaos, insurmountable terror, and even societal collapse. And so were a few other major cities, in particular Medan and Surakarta, which were gravely affected by such occurrence.

Ever since Suharto’s resignation, few efforts have been made to bring those responsible to justice. And it even seems that much of the populace has become largely oblivious that this tragedy once happened.

What we need to know is this: when we fail to learn from history, we run high risks of repeating it. We may not forget what has happened in May, and as long as there is no justice brought to the victims, this will remain one of many humiliating points for Indonesia’s human rights record.


Read the complete chronology of Chinese Indonesians in University of Maryland’s Minorities at Risk (MAR), an intensive project covering approximately 283 ethnic minorities across the whole planets perceived to face ‘existential threats’, and how governments are actually failing to protect their rights.

Jakarta, a new perspective


Jakarta now emerges not only as Indonesia’s largest city, but also one of the world’s fastest growing megacities, now containing a population approximately 10 million strong in an area barely larger than Singapore (the latter by which has ‘merely’ 5.4 million). As the epicenter of the emerging market, with strong economic boom and vibrant dynamism, this metropolis is currently being faced with numerous challenges, ranging from yearly flooding seasons, en masse traffic breakdown in nearly all important highways stretching across the city, overpopulation, and a lackadaisical of sanitary and hygiene management, the main cause of many infectious, but easily curable, diseases. Worse, it is now being faced with threats resulting from global warming, with its surface level gradually decreasing, placing more areas around the capital at higher stakes.

Nevertheless, last year, Jakarta’s authorities, led by Joko Widodo and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, had eventually stricken a massive long-term joint investment deal with Dutch government, and some of the country’s major corporations, in order to build a series of megaprojects intended to support its so-called ‘Coastal Defense Strategy’, ranging from giant sea walls, new bridges and highways, and lastly, a wholly new planned city intended to house hundred thousands of people. These series of massive-scale public work projects are expected to significantly reduce the problems the capital is being faced at this moment.

Okay, despite Indonesia’s reputation as one of the world’s highly corrupt countries, let us put some assurance, at least, that this program will be implemented with complete transparency and public accountability.

Watch it, and support it in a new perspective.

Indonesia’s worsening gang wars




Question: how much have we been oblivious on our predecessors’ Sumpah Pemuda after reading this article?

Read this exclusively ‘humiliating’ report on Al Jazeera.




“I never used acid when I was fighting. But people are using it because of the police sweeps,” Jambrong, a 19-year-old alumnus of Muhammidiyah High School (SMA), central Jakarta, said.

“With a samurai sword or a machete – you need a big bag and the police will find it. But you can get acid easily. You can buy it in building supply stores or technical stores. No one will ask you what it’s for. You can even get it from the school lab.

“It’s hard to look for acid. You can just keep it in a plastic bottle – it’s small and it looks anonymous.”

But Jambrong said the most popular weapon in student brawls is a motor gear tied to the end of a karate belt. “You get someone in the head with that and it’ll rip it up pretty bad. There are no rules to tawuran, there’s no code. You just have to have the guts. If you dare to kill, then kill, if not you will be scarred. I got hurt a couple of times.”

The notoriety of ‘topeng monyet’




Once again, Indonesia grabs another international spotlight for this notorious street circus.

View the full slide show in Foreign Policy.

And here’s what the website says:

Now, Indonesian authorities are cracking down on masked monkey performances like these, denoucing them as a form of animal cruelty and an international embarrassment. “Have pity on the monkeys,” Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo said recently, “they are being exploited by their owners.” 

Widodo plans to unveil an anti-topeng monyet campaign next year, while authorities are working with animal rights groups to treat and relocate confiscated monkeys to a special enclosure at the local zoo. In the future, topeng monyet handlers could face up to seven years in prison for violating the animal abuse law.

Well, matter-of-factly speaking, there is ‘only’ one Joko Widodo who stands up to this issue.




We are as yet owing 18 underpass and flyover projects in Jakarta. That takes three years if all these are built simultaneously. Imagine 3 years of total traffic. Stay patchy, and we’ll end up jammed for 6 years. Exclude three busway corridors that we are held liable to as well. What’s the reason they’re held up? All these stuff are elevated. And this even makes the traffic more scatty than ever. Sum up Monorail and MRT projects, that’s gonna take time 5 years. How frantic the jam will be.

But politicians on the average never conduct this. What’s the reason? We may end up public-godforsaken, until the [gubernatorial] election. That’s why everything is put on hold. But I and Governor [Joko Widodo] have concluded, we won’t ever give a damn in case we’re not re-elected in 2017. We just want to start everything off. Anyhow you’re not gonna stop us once we get going. We’re just, in consequence, not gonna carry the day in 2017. Whatever it is. Devil may care!

Jakarta needs leaders carrying no behalf. Otherwise, everything’s not gonna come off. That’s for sure!

Whatever it is, either being despised, impeached, or even losing up our lives, only devil may care! We’re just gonna bump out everyone obstructing us, be they bureaucrats, technocrats, any governmental apparatus, or even conglomerates! That’s all because Jakarta is too contained with too many interests!

This statement was released by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed ‘Ahok’, Jakarta’s vice governor, on a meeting with officials from Jakarta’s transport council.

For further information, this is the main source providing the picture above.

Glodok, the day after the May 1998 riots




Chinese Indonesians are, resembling the patterns of most market-dominant minorities worldwide, merely another epitome of how vulnerable an ethnic minority, controlling a large stake of a nation’s sector either politically or economically, seems to be. They may not experience the nearly gory, unbearable, deeply inhumane persecution as Jews in Europe, or Tutsi in Rwanda, have encountered, but the May 1998 riots remind us about how, in some moments, ‘self-organized criticality’ could anywhere take place, where minor coincidences are accumulated into an unexpected maelstrom beyond our thoughts.

With numbers currently estimated at approximately 10 to 12.5 million, or 4 to 5 percent of Indonesia’s total population, Chinese Indonesians have a control of nearly two-thirds of Indonesian economy, a figure largely envied by some portions of indigenous population, known as pribumi. Exacerbated by Soeharto’s three-decade authoritarian and corrupt rule, where Chinese Indonesian populace had been largely ‘directed’ to control no more than economic, trading, and commercial sectors and have no legitimacy in politics and academic fields, the ‘financial success’ they enjoyed served as agent provocateur for certain political opponents to scapegoat ethnic Chinese in any racially motivated political incidents. Throughout mid-1990s, a multitudinous number of racist cases had occurred in numerous cities and towns in Indonesia. But the worst was yet to come; the 1997/1998 Asian financial crisis, bulk of which was blamed allegedly on ethnic Chinese running the economy unjustly, had the domino effect on the livelihood of this community.

With crisis worsening, social inequality deepening, and political strife widening throughout Indonesia, Chinese Indonesians were frequently objects of the masses’ dissatisfaction. Shops were ransacked and burned, girls raped and mutilated, men burnt alive, household items pillaged, cars and motorcycles set on fire, banks looted, and economy was dead. And all these ‘minor’ happenings accumulated in the bloody month of May 1998. Medan, Jakarta, and Solo, excluding countless cities and towns, suffered the most severe casualties as a consequence of the all-too-brief revolution. Death toll was estimated at 1000; several human rights groups even claimed as many as 5000. Some pointed out that security forces had orchestrated the attacks; some others accused of a ‘foreign intervention’ in the riots; some blamed government’s failure in realizing social equality among its highly diverse nation. Whatever the accusations, the May tragedy had left a dark chapter on our country’s epoch of history.


A journalist recalls the pictures a photographer took in Glodok, a predominantly Chinese district in West Jakarta, exactly one day after the area was worst hit by the swarms of thugs on 13 and 14 May (including one above).

Note: none of the pictures is graphic, but rather of silenced fear, misery, and uncertain hopes, largely reverberating on how we respond to the trepidation ourselves.


Minorities at Risk, a specialized research project from University of Maryland aimed at monitoring 283 of the planet’s most vulnerable ethnic minorities, releases a full chronology of notorious events largely related to Chinese Indonesians (other than 1998 May riots).


You may also read these articles for more ‘enlightenment’ : (an Indonesian author published a graphic novel, set in distant future, about a child, born out of wedlock during 1998 May riots, who retells her horrifying background after reaching the age of 40.)



Foreign Policy has 5 reasons to prove Indonesia’s miracle. Check it out.

(original article is available here.)



What myths do Indonesians, and the whole world, need to tackle about Indonesia themselves?

1. Indonesia’s economy is weak and unstable.

2. The growth is overtly concentrated in Jakarta.

3. Indonesia is no jewel without natural resources.

4. Indonesia is an Asian tiger (no longer!)

5. Rapid population growth drives Indonesian economy.

Click the link above to answer all your whys whirling in your mind.

N.B.: what’s another typical feature of Indonesia’s bustling economy? Its intolerable traffic jam taking place in major cities.

Solution for Jakarta: build forest skyscrapers


Entering the second decade of 21st century, Jakarta is nothing but one of the most populated megacities in the world, with population already exceeding 10 million, scattered in an area whose size is no larger than Singapore. The economy may continue to boom in recent years, but the problems facing the megalopolis are pacing up at an accelerating rate, as well. One of the most ravaging, matter-of-timely thorns in the flesh that continuously keep on penetrating Jakarta is flooding, whose occurrence stains the Big Durian once in 5 years. Add water pollution, as a result of excess in trashes being thrown into the rivers with minimum punishment, contamination of industrial, household wastes, and still a long list to go on.

Given such tremendous challenges, 4 university students, namely Rezza Rahdian, Erwin Setiawan, Ayu Diah Shanti, and Leonardus Chrisnantyo, considered an idea in which they held firm belief that this would help solving Jakarta’s overburdening problems. Titled ‘Ciliwung Recovery Program’, they propose that high-rise structures with forests and natural reserves contained inside be built in the river of the same name with that of the project, one of the main rivers which acts, as though they are the main blood veins of the big city. Being optimistic that this may help restoring water supply in an over-drained megacity, they deserved the second place in eVolo 2010 Skyscraper Competition, held by one of the most popular architectural magazines in United States.

For any future governors of Jakarta, do please consider this.


Read it more at eVolo.