Memories of Unbelonging: Ethnic Chinese Identity Politics in Post-Suharto Indonesia (book project)
This book is an ethnographic study of how collective memory and oral history shape contemporary ethnic Chinese identities in Indonesia. Over the decades, systemic discrimination towards Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority has attracted considerable scholarly attention. Known for their pariah political status, alleged economic dominance, and ‘erased’ Chinese identity during the thirty years of assimilation under Suharto’s New Order regime, the story of Chinese Indonesians is often cited as a prime example of the failed integration of ethnic Chinese into mainstream ‘native’ society in Southeast Asia. Scholarship on Chinese Indonesian studies intensified in the post-Suharto era when the abolition of the assimilation policy resulted in the ‘return’ of Chinese identity, language and culture. In their analyses, the majority of scholars and observers have focused on the prospects of ‘re-Sinification’ (a reorientation towards Chinese culture) and the future of Chinese Indonesian identity politics. However, no academic study to date has asked critical questions about how policy changes and broader socio-historical currents in the post-Suharto era has influenced how contemporary Chinese Indonesians view their ethnic identity and strategic position, both in Indonesia and within the global network of Overseas Chinese more broadly.
Focusing primarily on the post-Suharto reformasi era (from 1998-present), the book examines the significance of collective memory and trauma narratives in Chinese Indonesian identity politics. Key ethnographic chapters will demonstrate how, despite the formal abolition of anti-Chinese policies, bitter memories of racism and discrimination continue to shape the discourse and everyday practices of ethnic Chinese boundary making in contemporary Indonesia. This revelation is important because it provides scholars with a deeper insight into why the ‘Chinese problem’ of mutual native-Chinese exclusion still exists in the post-Suharto era. This book argues for the analytical importance of collective memory in scholarly studies about Chinese identity, belonging, and diasporic attachments to the homeland (Mainland China) among Overseas Chinese communities.
Ethnic Chinese identity politics in Southeast Asia in the time of China’s rise
The relationship between China and the 64-million strong ethnic Chinese communities worldwide is a growing and important area of research that will only gain in importance as China becomes even more dominant in the world stage. I explore this topic in the context of Southeast Asia (SEA), which has the highest concentration of ethnic Chinese communities in the world (with arguably the most complex identity politics). By examining contemporary diasporic Chinese politics within the contexts of local socio-political change and the rise of China, my research offers a fresh and multifaceted approach to the study of diaspora politics and ethnic identities. Furthermore, considering China’s increasing influence in the region, my research makes a significant contribution to current academic knowledge on Chinese soft-power and new power configurations in Asia and beyond.
Since 2020, I have been part of a multi-institution (with Professor Khong Yuen-Foong and Asst. Prof. Xi Lu from NUS’ Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Professor Joseph Liow and Assoc. Prof. Ang Cheng Guan from NTU’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies) Singapore Social Science Research Council-funded project titled ‘The Anatomy of Choice: Southeast Asia Between the Superpowers’. This three-year research project seeks to to examine the position of Southeast Asian countries in the geopolitical contestation between the US and China since the 1980s. The project seeks to answer four main questions:
- What does it mean to choose (between the US and China)?
- How can we track the shifts in alignments of the countries of Southeast Asia over time?
- What explains their alignment choices?
- What are the implications for Singapore, the superpowers, and the region?
My task in the project is to look at the role played by the SEA region’s influential ethnic Chinese communities in shaping how various SEA countries pivot between the US and China throughout different periods.
New Chinese migrations and their influences on established ethnic Chinese communities in Asia
As part of my research interest on the socio-cultural influences of the rise of China, I have also started a new research project on the waves of new Chinese migration into Southeast Asia over the last twenty years. At a time when China’s economic expansion brings many Chinese workers and economic migrants abroad, new Chinese migrants come from a vast array of socio-economic backgrounds and working in a variety of different occupations around the world. For Southeast Asian Chinese who for centuries have struggled for acceptance in the ‘host’ countries, the arrival of these new migrants could potentially disrupt the delicate inter-ethnic balance between ethnic Chinese and local ‘native’ populations. Many ethnic Chinese worry that the behaviour of new Chinese migrants will be used to perpetuate negative stereotypes of local Chinese communities. At the domestic and international levels, the social, cultural, economic and political implications of new Chinese migrants are still largely unknown.
Focusing on Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore, this research project looks at everyday interactions between newer and older Chinese migrants. I will also examine political and media narratives surrounding the arrival of new Chinese migrants in these Southeast Asian countries. Additionally, a comparative study of old and new patterns of Chinese diaspora politics will shed light to the changing meanings of Chineseness and contemporary Chinese identity.
An ethnographic study of the global Indonesian diaspora
There are more than 8 million overseas Indonesians globally, making them the 15th largest diaspora population in the world. The number of Indonesian migrants will only grow in the future as Indonesia’s educated middle-class population grows and becomes more transnationally mobile. The majority of Indonesian migrants work as domestic and low-skilled labourers, and over the years, much has been written about their employment conditions and transnational economic importance. However, while studies on this segment of the migrant population are important, missing from the current literature on Indonesians abroad is any serious attempt at understanding the country’s middle and upper-class emigrants. Also missing from the literature is an understanding of their political preferences and behaviour.
My research seeks to understand the transnational migration trajectories and political behaviour of the overseas Indonesian diaspora. Utilising ethnographic research methods, this long-term research is the first study of its kind to shed light onto the migration strategies and identity politics of Indonesian migrants. In particular, this project focuses on Indonesian diaspora communities in Malaysia, Singapore, the Netherlands, Australia, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia as the main receiving countries with large overseas Indonesian populations.