A Decree to end Discrimination

8 August 2014

Senin, 31 Maret 2014


Divergent opinions arise over the issuance of Presidential Decree 12/2004 that regulates the use of terminologies referring to the People’s Republic of China and Indonesians of Chinese descent. Those who strongly support the government decision argue that the decree indicates the Indonesian Government’s commitment to eradicate racial and ethnic discrimination and to provide protection to a minority group.

Others, while not rejecting the government’s move, believe such decree is unnecessary. They argue that contemporary Indonesian society already has the capacity to behave maturely in issue of intergroup relations.

It should be noted as well that a small minority is suspicious of the government’s move. They suspect the Decree is merely a political ploy, given the fact that it was only issued now when the general election is fast approaching, whereas the current administration has been in power for almost 10 years.

A decree is surely not enough

Mr. President argues that the Decree was issued to end the discriminative conducts within intergroup relations in Indonesia, illustrated by the use of the word “Cina” towards Indonesians of Chinese descent.

Linguistic as a science would then provides helpful insights, as it deals with such a matter. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a well-known linguist, a word can have a different meaning to different users, as it might signify dissimilar conceptions. The way a word is related to the concept it signifies is arbitrary, rather than given.

It is human agents that create signifier-signified relations that composed a word, while using the word in social interaction. “Democracy,” for example is understood differently, as it signifies dissimilar concepts, and thus, is practiced differently by various regimes in the world. Indonesia’s experience with democracy is illustrative. It seems that we have relentless commitment with democracy since 1945. However it is clear that democracy was practiced differently in different era, as the word was meant differently to each regime in power.

In this regards the Decree could then only regulate the use of a signifier, not the concept it is signified. We surely would see the absence of the word “Cina” in papers, but not necessarily the concept it has signified thus far.

Considering the arbitrary relation between signifier and signified that composes a word, the Decree cannot on its own prevent the conduct of using another signifier to signify the discriminative concept that the word “Cina” previously implied. In other words, this Decree clearly is incapable of guaranteeing that the use of the suggested preferable word “Tionghoa” will not be conducted in discriminative manners to perform discriminative actions.

Moreover, it is in public life, not in papers, that people could clearly see and directly feel discriminatory practices, through the use of words. The Decree plays only a limited role in regulating the use of words beyond governmental bureaucracies. Consequently, this Decree has limited capacity to play a role in eradicating discrimination within society.


What’s next to be done

It is true that in issuing the Decree, the state – not only President SBY’s regime – clearly declared its commitment to protect minority and to eradicate racial discrimination, although it still has so many things to proof. On this note, the government’s action should then be welcomed.

However, as argued above, the Decree only has limited capacity to affect the dynamics within society. It is therefore the mass itself that has to perform more. It is surely a challenge to Indonesian society. The strong upholders of the government’s move must manifest its support to relentlessly promote the ideal aim of this Decree, namely the end of racial discrimination in Indonesia. Those who are indecisive actually have more things to prove on how discrimination could be possibly ended without regulating the use of words.

Despite the disagreement, both groups have the same objective, namely the end of discrimination to the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Their efforts to achieve such aim could be converged on the movement to educate the human agents, as it is society who use the word and define the relations between the word and the concept it signify.

The Presidential Decree has done its part to show the state’s commitment to relentlessly preserve Indonesian unity, amidst its diversity. It is now Indonesian society’s turn to act to show its commitment to be united regardless racial and ethnic differences.

Theoretically saying, synergy between both state and society promise a better result. However, theoretical postulates can never be easily implemented. That is why this task is a lifetime duty of Indonesians, as long as we still hold our commitment to be united under the slogan “Bhineka Tunggal Ika,” which considers the ethnic Chinese as an inseparable part of this nation, right from the very beginning when our founding fathers imagined the concept of Indonesia.


Yeremia Lalisang, Dept. Litbang PPI Tiongkok

Pursuing PhD at Xiamen University, China, is a member of the teaching staff at the international relations department of the University of Indonesia.