Ester was born in Malang, East Java, where she was given the name Sim Ai Ling. Although she mixed with children of other backgrounds in her home neighborhood, she became aware, at a very young age, of racist attitudes and of being treated as “different.” In the 1980s, her family moved to Jakarta, where Ester attended senior high school and became involved in student activism. She chose to study law at the University of Indonesia with the blessings of her father, a progressive-minded teacher who encouraged her to work to defend the poor.
After completing her university studies, Ester joined the staff of Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (LBH) in Jakarta, the leading organization in Indonesia using the law and legal services to promote human rights. At LBH, she became deeply involved in a case concerning the brutal assault upon the headquarters of the opposition party in July 1997. The attack was believed to have been supported by the Soeharto regime. However, under the conditions that then prevailed, the state’s culpability could not be proven in court. As Ester pursued her work at LBH, it became increasingly clear to her that the laws themselves were unjust, and that her calling was to work for true legal reform resulting in an equitable legal framework.
When violent riots broke out in Jakarta and other cities in 1998 targeting the ethnic Chinese, Ester and her late husband, activist Arnold Purba, decided to devote their energy towards working to change the paradigm of racism and discrimination embedded in the legal, political, and social systems of Indonesia. They established the organization, Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa and began a wide range of activities. Arnold died suddenly in 2001, and Ester has continued the struggle. As Ester matured at the forefront of this struggle, she developed a strategy based upon working inclusively and reaching out across barriers to many communities. She has engaged a wide range of groups, from Indonesian legislators who once saw these issues as too sensitive to discuss, to Chinese business people who were wary of political activism, to Islamic leaders who once preached against interaction with other groups.
Ester’s courage to speak out against the injustice of discrimination has made her an icon among the young, ethnic Chinese who have traditionally been sheltered and steered far from activism and the political arena by their families. Ester has traveled throughout Indonesia giving seminars and workshops to socialize the draft legislation and gain input from a wide group of audiences. She has also traveled internationally for the same purpose, and has participated in several international conferences on racism. She is a prolific writer and has produced numerous articles and books on this topic. Her work and her personal commitment have been recognized with several awards including the prestigious Yap Thiam Hien Award for leading proponents of human rights.(Jandi)