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Coronavirus exposes hidden struggles of poor Indonesian-Chinese families

South China Morning Post - September 7, 2020

Randy Mulyanto – Indonesian-Chinese mum Shinta Lie, 33, has been trying to make ends meet by selling fish crackers and facial tissues for about US$1 in Jakarta, with her husband and three young children in tow.

The sole breadwinner has no choice but to take them along. Her husband, 40, lost his sight four years ago, and there is no one to look after the family if she leaves them at home.

As the coronavirus ravages Indonesia – which has recorded some 194,100 cases and Southeast Asia's highest death toll of more than 8,000 – Lie's monthly income has taken a hit, making it harder to reach the 4.5 million rupiah (US$300) needed to cover rent, food, necessities and school fees.

The struggling family also often endured stares from people, Lie said, because of a perception in the country that ethnic Chinese tended to be wealthy.

Lie, whose children are 10, six and a year old, said it felt as if her family's circumstances were "embarrassing the Chinese" in Indonesia. Others have judged her as being "crazy" for travelling with her husband, children and goods all on one motorbike.

"In my heart, I think: 'God, I do not want to be like this either'," Lie said.

The street vendor is not alone in feeling pressure from the wider society in Indonesia, which links ethnic Chinese with the upper class, a bias the government has long endorsed, according to one analyst.

Since the coronavirus hit, various associations have been reaching out to support some struggling families across the country, a move that has thrown light on the diversity of backgrounds within the ethnic Chinese community.

Indonesian-Chinese are thought to make up less than 2 per cent of the 270-million population, but control many conglomerates and a large portion of wealth, leading to a widespread belief that they are rich, or middle class, and live mainly in the urban provinces.

Harryanto Aryodiguno, an international relations lecturer at President University in Bekasi near Jakarta, said major development projects launched by Indonesian-Chinese firms had fuelled that perception.

"As we can see, the developments in Indonesia's big cities can be said to be almost all done by ethnic Chinese," he said.

In reality, the community was a heterogeneous group of people who lived across all of Indonesia's 34 provinces, said Aryodiguno.

There were about 2.8 million ethnic Chinese people in Indonesia, according to the 2010 census, although experts believe that figure is under-reported as the community had been repressed during dictator Suharto's rule from 1967 to 1998.

Ali Karim Oei, chairman of the Haji Karim Oei Foundation, said his institution had given grocery packages to more than 500 Chinese-Muslim converts and other residents at its Jakarta mosque.

Oei's group also handed out about 300 rice boxes every week during the Islamic month of Ramadan from April to May. It had also disbursed cash donations of 500,000-1 million rupiah each to some Chinese-Muslim families.

"We tell people that many Tionghoa [Indonesian-Chinese] are struggling too," said Oei, whose father, Abdul Karim Oei, fought for the country's independence together with Indonesia's founding leader Sukarno.

"Many people see ethnic Chinese as conglomerates, even though there are still many [living] below the poverty line," the 64-year-old said.

Bambang Hermanto, 41, who works two jobs as an air-con repairman and a motorcycle taxi rider in central Jakarta, said his income had fallen significantly since March, when Indonesia's outbreak first started.

He said that from March to June, he could only deliver packages and other items as many people had stayed indoors and some offices were shut around the capital, which has the highest infection rates in the country.

Even then, he would receive just one delivery order every three to four hours, making only about 30,000 to 70,000 rupiah (US$2-5) a day.

In July, he started ferrying passengers again as Jakarta relaxed its large-scale social-distancing measures, although the demand has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Last month, Bambang was asked to repair air-con units at four offices in the city.

The father of a 10-year-old son said he felt the perception of all Indonesian-Chinese being rich was "wrong".

Aryodiguno, the lecturer at President University, said labels used by the government which described ethnic Chinese as "economic actors or movers" and "a very strong group from an economic standpoint" implied that the community was not likely to be struggling.

He said this perception began during Suharto's New Order era, when Indonesian-Chinese were banned from holding government jobs and running for public office as he feared they could have possible links to the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, many of them opened businesses to make a living.

"The stereotype of wealthy Chinese in Indonesia was indeed created by the New Order government, then continued into the next regime," Aryodiguno said. "Ethnic Chinese... were only allowed to trade. Like it or not, they had to work hard [to survive]."

Over the years, the success of several Indonesian-Chinese corporations, including the Agung Podomoro Group and Lippo Group, further led to a belief that they had developed "almost all" of Indonesia's private sector, from real estate to hospitals and service industries, Aryodiguno said.

Naga Kunadi, 44, a mattress seller who volunteers at the Haji Karim Oei Foundation, said it did not seem as if the perception would change any time soon.

He had seen many visitors asking the foundation for financial assistance during the pandemic, mistakenly believing that the Indonesian-Chinese Muslim community was in a strong position to help.

"The image still cannot thaw. The image is still like that," he said.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/people/article/3099986/coronavirus-exposes-hidden-struggles-poor-indonesian-chinese