Indonesia and Malaysia have much in common: language; a border that slices across Borneo; overlapping ethnic groups. But the two countries are moving in opposite directions on the fundamental question of what it means to be a "native."
With a new citizenship law passed this year, Indonesia has redefined "indigenous" to include its ethnic Chinese population — a radical shift from centuries of policies, both during colonial times and after independence in the 1940s, that distinguished between natives and Indonesia's Chinese, Indians and Arabs.
Malaysia, meanwhile, is sticking to its longstanding policy that Malay Muslims, the largest ethnic group in the country, are "bumiputras," or sons of the soil, who have special rights above and beyond those of the country's Chinese and Indian minorities.
Maintaining this controversial policy has led to what one commentator calls a retribalization of Malaysian politics, with rising assertiveness on the part of the country's Malay Muslims — who constitute about 65 percent of the population — and a push back by the Chinese and Indians, who make up about 26 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
The Malaysian prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, warned last week that race relations had become "brittle."
"We must eliminate all negative feelings toward each other," he was quoted in the Star newspaper as saying.
Both Indonesia and Malaysia have suffered race riots in recent decades. Indonesia's were much bloodier and more far-flung. Yet today, ethnic tensions are more likely to make headlines in Malaysia than Indonesia.
Malaysia's Chinese community was angered by the recent demolition of a Taoist temple in Penang. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are upset about a series of disputes over whether Shariah or secular law should take precedence.
And a nationally televised meeting of the Malay governing party last month shocked many Malaysians for its communalism, including comments by one delegate who said the party was willing to "risk lives and bathe in blood in defense of race and religion." He was subsequently reprimanded, but only after an outcry from Chinese and Indians.
Early in November, the chief minister of the southern state of Johor, Ghani Othman, went as far as to question whether a Malaysian nation actually existed, describing it as a "rojak," or mish-mash of races, that was diluting the Malay identity.
The government's apparently indefinite extension of an affirmative action program for the Malays, a policy that has been in place since 1971, has stirred impatience among the country's Chinese and Indians. The policy, backed by a special clause in the Constitution guaranteeing preferential treatment for Malays, imposes a 30-percent bumiputra equity quota for publicly listed companies and gives bumiputras discounts on such things as houses and cars.
Terence Gomez, a Malaysian academic who has written widely about Malaysian politics and the ethnic Chinese, and who is now a research coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva, says the notion that one race should have supremacy is an anachronism in a country where ethnic identities are becoming less important in everyday life.
"The idea of being Malay or being Chinese or Indian is not something that is part of their daily thinking or discourse," Gomez said. The political elite, he said, "seems to be caught in a time warp."
Paradoxically, some in Malaysia, which has long been wealthier and more politically stable, are looking admiringly at developments in Indonesia.
Azly Rahman, a Malay commentator on the widely read Web site Malaysiakini, said poor Indians and Chinese are neglected under the current system.
"A new bumiputra should be created," he said. "Being a Malaysian means forgetting about the status of our fathers. We need affirmative action for all races."
The government says the affirmative action program, which was promulgated after race riots in 1969, is still needed to narrow the overall income gap between the Chinese and Malays, the original justification for the policy. But determining which race has the highest ownership levels in the country is also now a point of contention, involving disputes over how assets should be calculated.
It wasn't so long ago that Chinese writing was banned from public places here and Chinese schools and newspapers were prohibited. But walk into the former office of Suharto, the retired Indonesian strongman who maintained these laws in an attempt to integrate the ethnic Chinese community, and a large decorative poster of Chinese characters greets visitors.
"In the old days I would have been arrested for this," Dino Patti Djalal, an adviser to the government and now the occupant of Suharto's office, said as he glanced back at his poster. Djalal, who is not Chinese, added: "This shows the progression of Indonesia. We now take multiculturalism as a given (way) in life."
After centuries of segregation, periodic violence and tension over their higher levels of wealth, Indonesia's Chinese community, which makes up 1 to 2 percent of the population of 245 million, is now enjoying what many are calling a golden era.
"The situation of the Chinese has never been as good as today," said Benny Setiono, head of the Chinese Indonesian Association, a nonprofit group that represents the community. "We feel more free, more equal."
As someone whose forebears arrived here from China something like eight generations ago Setiono speaks with authority when he says the Chinese community is more secure than it has ever been, just eight years after anti-Chinese riots, part of the unraveling of Suharto's authoritarian rule, left scores of Chinese dead and many shops burned.
One of the main reasons for the optimism is a fundamental change in Indonesian law: The country has redefined what it means to be a "native."
A citizenship law passed this year proclaims that an indigenous Indonesian is someone who was born here to Indonesian citizens, a radical departure for a society that separated the Chinese in one way or another through colonial times and more recently during Suharto's 33-year reign that ended just after the riots in 1998.
Other laws have erased the preferential treatment for "pribumi," or indigenous groups, in bank lending and the awarding of government contracts, a policy that still exists in Malaysia, where racial tensions are creeping higher.
In the eight years since Suharto stepped down, Indonesia has dropped the draconian rules that banned expressions of Chinese culture and adopted Chinese New Year as a national holiday.
The horrors of the anti-Chinese violence in 1998 were the prime impetus for the legal overhaul. But Indonesians also realized that espousing the concept of a "native" could be explosive for everyone, not just the Chinese.
"The question of who was here first became very dangerous," said Andreas Harsono, a journalist who is researching a book on nationalism here. "The logic has been manipulated by many politicians."
The so-called transmigration policies of Suharto dispersed hundreds of thousands of families, mainly Javanese, across the archipelago, creating conflicts with other ethnic groups.
Today, instead of using the word "pribumi," some politicians claim they are "putra daerah," or local sons, and contrast that with "pendatang," or newcomers. A country that sometimes seems to have as many ethnic groups and dialects as inhabited islands (about 6,000) will probably never be clear of racial rivalries, but tensions are nowhere near the levels of a few years ago.
As late as last year, a U.S. court of appeal ruled that the threat of violence was enough to justify a Chinese Indonesian's plea for asylum.
In Glodok, a warren of warehouses not far from Jakarta's old port that was badly damaged during the 1998 riots, a consolidated peace now reigns. Chinese shop owners and their employees say they cannot recall any racial arguments breaking out in recent years.
"I don't feel any tension," said Phie Ching Huat, who runs an electronics shop. Phie, whose Indonesian name is Sukino, said many ethnic Chinese families now send their children to schools that teach Chinese dialects, mainly Mandarin.
With the rise of China as a world power, learning Chinese is becoming popular among Indonesians of all ethnicities. "You can hear Mandarin and Cantonese everywhere," said Phie, whose relatives' shop was burned in the riots.
Indonesians said mentalities are also changing here, especially the notion that all Indonesian Chinese are rapaciously rich, a common perception during the Suharto years, when a select group of Chinese cronies controlled large, high-profile businesses.
Tension involving overseas Chinese has been a recurring theme in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia, both before and after countries in the region became independent. Like Jews in Europe, the Chinese were often traders or financiers, and many, although far from all, achieved commercial success.
During the days of Mao Zedong's rule in China, overseas Chinese were looked upon with suspicion in Indonesia and tens of thousands were killed in anti-Communist massacres of the 1960s.
This is now all ancient history for some young people. "There are some very rich Chinese, but there are some very poor Chinese, too," said Sayidah Salim, a 20-year-old student at the Islamic State University, outside Jakarta. "If people want to work hard they will earn more money."
Djalal, the government adviser, credited the Chinese government for changing attitudes in Indonesia about the Chinese minority here. "They are projecting a very friendly, benevolent face," he said of Beijing. Like many other countries in the region, Indonesia is wooing tourists from China.
Setiono, of the Chinese Indonesian Association, said his organization was reaching out to poorer Indonesians of all ethnicities and providing food and medicines. Ethnic Chinese, he said, also need to be more mindful of the wealth gap and must work to reduce it if racial harmony is to be maintained.
Indonesian Chinese will live with the memory of the 1998 riots for many years. During an interview, Susanto, an ethnic Chinese wholesaler, projected a video of the violence onto his wall. "I'm not showing you this to scare you. It's to remember," he said. But ethnic relations have improved so much, Susanto said, that today he has no complaints. "Day to day there is no discrimination," he said. "I think we have a good future here."