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INDONESIA: Higher education and ethnic Chinese

The Chinese form a huge diaspora around the globe with its biggest concentration in Southeast Asia. Sizeable Chinese minorities exist in Indonesia, the largest numerically in the region; Malaysia, where they form the biggest non-Malay cohort; Thailand, where they have generally assimilated and are often difficult to differentiate from the Thais; and the Philippines. Singapore, meanwhile, is a Chinese-majority state.

Chinese connections with Indonesia, where there are 5-6 million out of an estimated 230 million (last census 2000), go back many centuries. The Srivijayan empire of southern Sumatra, a regional power until the 11th century AD, attracted Chinese as it was also a major centre pre-Islam of Buddhist learning.

The coastal and other kingdoms of Java were long-time ports of call for the wandering Chinese seaborne merchants and adventurers, most famously the eunuch Admiral Chen Ho. A temple in Semarang and a mosque in Surabaya are dedicated to this extraordinary figure.

In Dutch colonial times, the Dutch East India Company, VOC, integrated the Chinese into the colonial economy. They were deployed as rent and tribute collectors, a fact that should be recalled when debating their position. In the 19th century this put them seriously at odds with the Javanese peasantry whose directed labour grew export crops that greatly enriched the Netherlands' economy. This is the historical source of the scapegoating of the Chinese.

Periodically, they have been the targets of ethnic violence, most recently in 1998 when rioting in Jakarta and other cities brought down the Suharto New Order dictatorship. Serious looting took place in the Jakarta Chinatown as well as gang rapes, which have been attributed to 'men with military haircuts' in many reports.

Despite their conspicuousness in the ranks of the wealthy, it is a myth that all Chinese Indonesians are rich. In West Kalimantan province (Borneo), where in some towns they outnumber the Malays, Dayaks and others, many are singularly poor and Chinese families there are known to offer their daughters as mail order brides for Taiwanese. Equally, in Java pockets of poor Chinese are to be found.

The New Order discriminated against the Chinese in many forms. Coming to power in the ferocious anti-Leftist bloodbath of 1965-66, Suharto sought, on the one hand, to stigmatise the Chinese as a 'fifth column' of Communist China while, on the other, to mobilise Chinese-Indonesian capital for development.

Mandarin was outlawed and the majority of the Chinese chose to adopt either Javanese or Christian names to blur their identity. Two of the best-known Chinese Indonesians are the great badminton players Susi Susanti, the first Indonesian to win Olympic gold (Barcelona 1992), and Rudy Hartono, arguably the finest shuttler ever, winner of eight All-England singles titles. International success in badminton brings on tremendous public enthusiasm and, as observers quickly see, the Chinese players are miraculously purely Indonesian in the public eye.

Meanwhile, a large number struggled for decades to acquire Indonesian citizenship documents. Their effective foreclosure from most areas of public life extended into higher education.

Paradoxically, the authoritarian New Order brought about a considerable expansion of the higher education sector, notably in the form of private universities. At the same time it policed the campuses in various ways.

The richer Chinese chose, where they could, to send their offspring overseas, particularly to neighbouring Singapore. That meant overcoming the twin obstacles of their not having either Mandarin or English.

One upshot of this through the late 1980s and the 1990s was a surge in the number of language courses in cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, Medan and Surabaya where most offered English. Many of the Chinese signing on were particularly keen to take TOEFL programs in the belief that this would facilitate entry into Singaporean, Australian and Canadian higher education institutions.

The quality offered in many of these language courses was seriously in question, however, as the schools sought to make quick bucks through employing unqualified or inexperienced expatriate instructors.

Those Chinese attending Indonesian universities have tended to favour either the Christian or the purely private ones. A good example is the Christian Atma Jaya University in central Jakarta's financial district. Hence, the better state university campuses still only have a small ethnic Chinese presence, if any at all.

If Chinese student figures have been generally low on the better-known campuses such as the University of Indonesia, so too have the numbers of ethnic Chinese Indonesian academics. Probably the best-known such academic was the dissident sociologist Arief Budiman, who went into exile in Australia during the New Order.

Arief is fondly remembered by Lucas Edward, an extrovert Chinese Indonesian assistant editor at Tempo, a current affairs weekly, who was a student at the private Satya Wacana University, a Christian campus in Salatiga, Central Java.

Currently, perhaps the best known Chinese Indonesian academic is Professor Meily Tan of the University of Indonesia which has a small but growing international student presence, including those from mainland China.

The post-Suharto decade has seen much of the incubus of anti-Chinese discrimination lifted in Indonesia with, for example, the ending of the ban on the use of Mandarin and the barongsai lion dance. Nonetheless, full integration in education, including the universities, seems a little way off.
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