INDONESIA: Discrimination against foreign students

A series of un-neighbourly spats that has gone on between Indonesia and Malaysia this year has extended into Indonesian higher education. A leading Indonesian university has talked openly of excluding Malaysian students from its campus in protest against an unrelated move by a Malaysian government ministry.

Quarrels between the two cultural cousins - the Malay language is the bedrock of the Indonesian language, one differing from the other only in small ways - have gone on over possession of islands, demarcation of maritime boundaries, of dance and music, and the origin of certain culinary items. The latest controversy has to do with the use of a Balinese dance by the Discovery Channel as part of a Visit Malaysia tourism campaign.

Notwithstanding the fact that the religious majorities in both countries are Muslim, that the Balinese are Hindu, or the fact that Discovery accepted it made a mistake in using the dance, Diponegoro University in Semarang, provincial capital of Central Java, has threatened to exclude its Malaysian students from campus.

Diponegoro is regarded as one of the best Indonesian state universities yet it has now put a small number of foreign students at risk of harassment by nationalist hotheads. Such hotheads took to the streets in Jakarta recently to conduct 'sweeps' in which they stopped vehicles to demand of drivers and passengers whether they were Malaysian or not.

A small group called Bendera or flag even declared 'war' on Malaysia and claimed to have already sent a small number of volunteers to the Malaysian peninsula to conduct it.

All the more regrettable then were incendiary statements issued by the Semarang university while the Ministry of National Education has remained notably passive on the matter. In trying to justify its stance, Diponegoro admitted its foreign students, including the Malaysians, had paid higher fees than their Indonesian counterparts.

Although small contingents of foreign students of various nationalities, some on bilateral exchange programmes, remain in Indonesia, the essentially demagogic stance of one university may have given them pause for thought. At the same time, Indonesian universities with Malaysian contingents need to be clear about where they stand in terms of their welfare.

One Malaysian student, an ethnic Malay, told the English-language daily The Jakarta Globe that lecturers would address her as 'Malay' and not by her given name. Even UI, the country's leading university, needs to be setting clear guidelines about the treatment of foreign students.