Jakarta welcomes first ethnic Chinese governor

Jakarta welcomes first ethnic Chinese governor
Senior citizens pose for a picture with Jakarta acting governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama during an event to celebrate National Day for the Elderly on June 18, 2014.

As Indonesia celebrates reformist Jakarta governor Joko Widodo winning the presidential election, it also marks the rise of his deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who takes over from him.

Purnama, 48, is the first ethnic Chinese to become the governor of Indonesia's capital Jakarta, a teeming metropolitan in the world's largest Muslim nation of 245 million people.

The ascent of geologist and businessman Purnama, nicknamed Ahok (pronounced as Ah Hock), underscores how far Indonesia has come in the country's struggle to break from its authoritarian and racially charged past where, just 16 years ago, ethnic Chinese were targets of mob violence in an orgy of burning, looting, rape and murder when riots erupted across the country.

"With the advance of democracy, we have become less conscious of differences so that the presence of Ahok and others like him in political positions has become natural," says well-respected former environment minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja.

"People are increasingly aware that people should be judged on merit."

A Hakka and Protestant, Ahok was born in Manggar, East Belitung in Sumatra island, on June 29, 1966. He is the first of four children. His late father, Kim Nam, was a tin and sand miner who was known for his philanthropy.

In an interview with the Jakarta Post last year, Ahok revealed that he inherited three islands from his late father. The islands are registered under his mother's name.

Ahok came to Jakarta to attend high school and earned a bachelor's degree in Geology from the Trisakti University, which is patronised by the country's upper-middle class.

In his personal website, he says he entered politics to fight corruption as bureaucrats had made it difficult for him to set up a quartz sand company.

In his earlier days, frustrated with obstacles to his business venture by a corrupt bureaucracy, he wanted to give up and move abroad but his father asked him to stay, according to Ahok's personal website.

His father told Ahok that one day, the people would vote for him to fight for them, which he found difficult to believe at that time.

Ahok's personal experience with corruption has made fighting corruption, transparency and accountability a cornerstone of his administration.

He gave out his personal mobile phone number to the public for them to contact him if they had any issues that needed to be addressed.

In the first few months, his phone received at least 5,000 text messages every week.

Ahok would pick up the calls himself at night after he had finished dealing with official matters, according to his office staff.

He also disclosed his personal wealth online along with details on how Jakarta's budget is spent for greater transparency and accountability to taxpayers.

"Since Ahok came to the public eye, I feel there is a more positive perception of ethnic Chinese," says Syafik Alielha, a social activist and book publisher.

The deepening economic crisis of 1998, which threw millions out of work, fuelled anger against the Chinese who make up about 2 per cent of the population but who were often perceived as controlling a disproportionate amount of the country's wealth.

The mayhem that started on May 13, 1998, occurred against a background of massive anti-government demonstrations, adding to the pressure that forced the late President Soeharto to resign a week later on May 21 after having ruled with an iron fist for 32 years.

But, as Indonesians learnt the hard way, the ousting of a long-running autocratic leader is only the first step in the long march to reforms.

A post-Soeharto Indonesia became a democracy in the making as multi-party and direct presidential elections were held.

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