Will the Confucian religion develop further in Indonesia?

The quiet support of the current administration for the tiny minority of Confucianists in Indonesia, who are mostly ethnic Chinese Indonesians, could speak volumes about not just religious but more worldly concerns.
A worshipper burns incense on the first day of the year of the Dragon, amid Lunar New Year celebrations, at Petak Sembilan temple in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 10 February 2024. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
A worshipper burns incense on the first day of the year of the Dragon, amid Lunar New Year celebrations, at Petak Sembilan temple in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 10 February 2024. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

On 31 January 2024, Susari, head of the Confucian Religion Guidance and Education Centre (Pusat Bimbingan dan Pendidikan Agama Khonghucu) in Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, announced that the preparation of the State University of Confucian Religion (Sekolah Tinggi Agama Khonghucu Negeri) was in progress.

Formerly designated as an “International College” (Perguruan Tinggi Negeri Internasional Agama Khonghucu), the institution is in Bangka-Belitung province (Babel), where Chinese Indonesians are the second largest ethnic group (after Malays). Susari noted that the construction was scheduled to commence by July 2024 and that all expenditure would be borne by the central government.

Susari also announced that Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas would grace the university’s groundbreaking ceremony in July. When ready, the university will introduce three programmes: public communications, religious counselling for the Confucian religious, and teacher training. For this year, the ministry will provide 80 scholarships for students who want to study the Confucian religion (Agama Khonghucu) as a major for a bachelor’s degree.

Moderate Muslims and non-Muslims supported it while conservative and hardline Muslims opposed it. The latter claimed that the establishment of this university would result in an influx of mainland Chinese migrants and students to Babel.

A fear of upsetting the ethnic balance

When the establishment of this university was first announced by Babel Governor Erzaldi in May 2022, the local community’s opinions were split. Moderate Muslims and non-Muslims supported it while conservative and hardline Muslims opposed it. The latter claimed that the establishment of this university would result in an influx of mainland Chinese migrants and students to Babel. They warned that this move could affect the ethnic balance in Babel and that they would launch a mass protest if the government insisted on establishing such a university. Due to this backlash, many observers thought the project would be scrapped.

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People light candles at the Toa Se Bio temple in Jakarta on 10 February 2024, the first day of the Lunar New Year of the Dragon. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)

However, the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) administration did not back down but changed the institution's designation from that of an international state university to a national one and announced the continued progress of the university. This perhaps reflects the president’s determination to uphold the principle of religious pluralism.

Question of Confucianism mired in politics over the years

He might also wish to send a message to China and other majority Chinese communities that Indonesia is not anti-Chinese. For Indonesia’s Chinese community in general, and Confucianists in particular, this is a sign that Jokowi continues to promote Confucianism.

In the context of last month’s elections, perhaps Jokowi wanted the support of this small minority for his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka’s vice-presidential campaign. Coincidentally, Babel is the hometown of Jokowi’s former deputy governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”).

Do the Confucianists warrant such attention? Three years after Suharto came to power, according to Indonesia’s 1971 Census, about 0.8% of the population were Confucianists while 0.9% were Buddhists. Buddhism attracts many ethnic Chinese-Indonesian followers and the Confucian religion’s followers are almost exclusively ethnic Chinese. Both religions were among the six officially recognised ones during President Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” period (1959-1966).

In this author’s view, the prohibition of blasphemy and recognition of these religions in a presidential regulation in January 1965 was mainly meant to demonstrate Sukarno’s power over religious discourse.

This policy towards organised religions persisted in the early Suharto years, as these religions were useful in combating Communist ideology and preventing the resurgence of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Indonesia had recognised the Confucian religion until 1977 but in 1978, it was derecognised due to its conflict with Suharto’s policy of “total assimilation”.

Suharto perceived Confucianism (as a religion) as having hindered the absorption of ethnic Chinese into an indigenous Indonesian society. Subsequently, the religion was no longer included as a departmental portfolio in the Ministry of Religious Affairs and no longer taught in any school.

Indonesia’s Confucianists could not register as such on their identity cards (KTP) and were prohibited from congregating and conducting religious activities. Some Confucianists resisted this towards the end of Suharto’s rule but failed to restore the religion to its pre-1978 status.

Within the Chinese-Indonesian community, the Suharto-era policies led to Christianity and Buddhism developing at the expense of Confucianism, even in the post-Suharto period.

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Kong Miao Confucian Temple in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Only after the fall of Suharto did Indonesia’s fourth President Abdurrahman Wahid (r.1999-2001; d.2009) recognise the Confucian religion. By then, the number of Confucian religious followers was drastically fewer: in the 2020 Census, only 0.03% stated that they were Confucianists. (Note: Within the Chinese-Indonesian community, the Suharto-era policies led to Christianity and Buddhism developing at the expense of Confucianism, even in the post-Suharto period.)

Seeking greater institutional recognition

Except for the Confucian religion, the other five of Indonesia’s six official religions (Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism) each have a directorate-general in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Confucianists wanted to instate a directorate-general for equal treatment; the ministry informed them in 2015 that there were two requirements. The first was a certain number of followers, and the second was that the directorate-general must have sufficient public servants knowledgeable about the religion. It appears that Indonesia’s Confucian believers have not yet fulfilled these requirements.

Maintaining good relations with Beijing for economic cooperation and his own relationships with Chinese-Indonesian business partners might be among his considerations.

Nevertheless, in 2015 the ministry established the Centre for Guidance and Education of the Confucian Religion to help preserve Confucianism. In 2016, it issued a regulation stating that this Centre was comparable to a directorate-general as it is directly under the minister’s purview and would receive equal treatment and benefits enjoyed by the other directorate generals. The ministry seems to support the eventual establishment of a Confucian directorate-general

If the ministry’s moves are seen as endorsed by President Jokowi, such regulations might have been intended to gain the support of Confucianists, notwithstanding their small number. He might be serious in ensuring the survival of the Confucian religion in Indonesia for a larger reason. During his presidency, Chinese investments and joint infrastructural projects in Indonesia have taken off significantly. Maintaining good relations with Beijing for economic cooperation and his own relationships with Chinese-Indonesian business partners might be among his considerations.

 This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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