The Dutch colonists divided the population into Europeans, ‘foreign Orientals’ (which included Chinese, Indians and Arabs), and native Indonesians – inlanders, or pribumi.


Newly installed Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan sparked a fracas last week when he said in his inaugural speech that it was time for pribumi (‘native or indigenous Indonesians’) to be masters in their own land. Many were shocked that he was seemingly repeating and perpetuating the racist rhetoric of the Jakarta election campaign. How did this word end up having such racist connotations, and why does it continue to have so much power? To answer these questions one must look back at history.


The Indonesian archipelago has never been occupied by just one ethnicity or indigenous group. No single ethnicity in Indonesia could ever claim to be the original inhabitants of the archipelago now known as Indonesia. Rather than referring to a particular ethnic group, the notion of pribumi is an artificial construct that arose from the Dutch and their divide and rule strategy of colonisation.


Under the 1854 Netherlands East Indies ‘Constitution’, the Indonesian population was divided into three ‘castes’. The Europeans were at the top of the heap, followed by ‘foreign Orientals’, which included Chinese, Indians and Arabs. At the very bottom were the inlanders, or pribumi. This colonial policy was the birth of the segregation and legal discrimination that would continue to grow through the Dutch colonial period and beyond, into the independence era.


In the 1920s, the independence movement was gathering steam and nationalists were increasingly using the word ‘Indonesia’ to define their cause. One of the defining moments of the burgeoning nationalist movement was the Youth Pledge (Sumpah Pemuda) of 1928, where nationalists declared one motherland, one nation and one language, Bahasa Indonesia.


The colonial government therefore preferred to refer to the local population as inlanders or pribumi, rather than ‘Indonesians’, lest it lend further weight to the independence movement. While inlander was pejorative, using the word ‘Indonesian’ was subversive as it indicated resistance to the colonial government.


Strangely, during the independence struggle, the word pribumi began to catch on as it was somehow considered more Indonesian. This spirit was captured in the first draft of the 1945 Indonesian Constitution, Article 6(1) of which stated that “the president is an indigenous Indonesian” (orang Indonesia asli). In this context, ‘indigenous Indonesian’ had the same meaning as pribumi, that is, Indonesians from European or ‘foreign Oriental’ backgrounds could not become president. This provision also stated that the president must be Muslim. This requirement was eventually dropped, however, along with the seven words of the Jakarta Charter, which required Muslims to follow Islamic law.


Given these aspirations for greater adherence to Islamic law, the word pribumi has never been solely about ethnicity, it is also connected to Islam. The word is therefore similar in meaning to bumiputera, used in Malaysia, which refers to people who are both Malay and Muslim. Malaysians of Chinese or Indian descent are not considered bumiputera.


In Indonesia, the fact that people of Arab descent are generally also Muslim has allowed them to be more easily considered pribumi than people of Chinese descent, even though both were categorised as ‘foreign Orientals’ by the Dutch colonial government.


The strong association between China and communism resulted in a variety of policies (particularly under the New Order) that discriminated against the ethnic Chinese. These discriminatory policies meant that people of Chinese descent could not enjoy full citizenship rights, and their cultural, religious and social rights were also severely restricted. They could not celebrate Chinese New Year and Chinese schools and publications in Chinese text were banned. Many Chinese Indonesians were even encouraged to take on “local” sounding names.


The collapse of the New Order in 1998 saw the gradual lifting of most of these discriminatory policies. Early in his presidency, BJ Habibie issued Presidential Instruction No. 26 of 1998 which prohibited use of the phrases pribumi and non-pribumi in the design and implementation of all public programs and services, and sought to eradicate discrimination based on ethnicity, religion and race.


President Abdurrahman Wahid continued on this path, revoking Presidential Decree No. 14 of 1967, which had prohibited Chinese cultural and religious celebrations. Further, the requirement that the Indonesian president be an ‘indigenous Indonesian’ was dropped from the Indonesian Constitution. This means that all people born as Indonesian citizens, such as Anies Baswedan (who is of Arab descent) or Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama (who is ethnic Chinese), now have the same rights and opportunities to be Indonesian president.


The reform era has seen a variety of other human rights laws passed to reverse the discriminatory policies and practices of the New Order period. This has included the insertion of a new chapter on human rights into the Indonesian Constitution, and the passage of the 1999 Human Rights Law, the 2000 Law on the Human Rights Court, and the 2008 Law on the Elimination of Racial and Ethnic Discrimination. Towards the end of his tenure, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued Presidential Decree No. 12 of 2014 prohibiting use of the derogatory Cina in all government documentation and replacing it with Tionghoa or Tiongkok.


While pribumi originally only referred to inlanders, the meaning has changed over time. It should no longer be viewed in narrow terms to refer to people with ‘indigenous’ heritage, rather it should be used to mean all those who are Indonesian citizens from birth. Similarly, the discriminatory phrase non-pribumi, typically used to refer to ethnic Chinese, should be abandoned completely.


If the Jakarta gubernatorial election is any guide, approaching the 2019 elections there is a real danger that candidates will continue to seek to capitalise on religious sentiment, discrimination towards ethnic Chinese, and phobia about communism. These political strategies could have serious and dangerous consequences for Indonesia’s diverse society.


This is not to deny that a serious problem with inequality plays a role in societal attitudes towards ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. According to the World Bank, 1 per cent of the Indonesian population controls 50.3 per cent of all national assets. The top 10 per cent, meanwhile, controls more than three quarters. The fact that many of the country’s top conglomerates are controlled by Chinese Indonesians has often seen them targeted for resentment over this inequality, even though the vast majority of them are, of course, not tycoons. In any case, economic inequality must not be the basis for discriminatory policy. It is still possible to provide support for small businesses without differentiating between ethnic or religious groups.


Further, economic inequality is a result of a corrupt economic system, where tycoons benefit from inside relationships with power holders. In 2016, Indonesia ranked seventh in the world in the Economist’s crony capitalism index, because of the connections between businesspeople and politicians. The gaping economic inequality in Indonesia is a result of these relations, and has nothing to do with ethnicity. The battle against inequality must be fought against corrupt business practices, not against the ethnic Chinese or any other ethnic group.


Soekarno once questioned the worth of trying to define who was an indigenous Indonesian. Who could tell if he also had ethnic Chinese blood, he said, claiming that he almost certainly did, like many Indonesians. But unlike Soekarno, I know for sure that I have Chinese ancestry. My father was Sundanese, my mother was Banjar, and my father’s mother was from China. My children are also part Javanese, as my wife is from Pekalongan. If anyone asks about my ethnicity, there is only one way that I can respond – I’m Indonesian!


An earlier version of this article was published in Kompas on 20 October.



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