Jakarta, Indonesia — It is conventional wisdom that Indonesia’s education policy has traditionally discriminated against the Chinese minority living in the country. For a long time – especially before the 1998 downfall of President Suharto – the Chinese have not enjoyed equal educational opportunities.
For example, there would be a limited number of seats – or no seat at all – for Chinese on certain faculties; Chinese have had extreme difficulty in applying for scholarships; and they have faced impediments in seeking careers in state institutions such as the police, judiciary, legislature or government.
This phenomenon dates back to a post-1945 compromise in which Chinese were encouraged in economic activities while non-Chinese – especially the Javanese – had priority in running the country. A similar political compromise was made in Malaysia. Although in terms of its written laws discrimination has abated in Indonesia, in practice – with only trifling changes – discrimination is still rampant, particularly in Medan and cities far from Jakarta.
Given such circumstances, Chinese are inclined to seek better opportunities abroad if possible. Many Chinese do not want to stay in Indonesia to work, pay taxes and contribute their ideas and energy to the country.
It is a common secret, especially prior to 1998, that state universities have been exclusively reserved for non-Chinese. Since state universities are among the best schools, and it is expensive to study abroad, many young Chinese are denied access to the best education.
One outrageous story is that of a Chinese participant in the International Chemistry Olympics from my high school. Prior to qualifying for the international round, this student requested financial support and the use of school facilities from the Department of Education and his school. Both requests were declined. The department reasoned that he should seek such support from his own school, while his school reasoned that since he represented Indonesia he should seek support from the Department of Education.
In the end he had to raise funds on his own. Fortunately, he placed second in the competition. Noting his achievement, both the government and the school requested that his winner’s cup be placed in their “collection of achievements.” At the same time, a reputable university in Singapore offered him a full scholarship and financial support for his undergraduate degree under the condition that he register his cup under that university.
Some non-Chinese have faced a similar plight as the government simply does not fund such programs. But the reality is tougher for the Chinese.
Another story that may elicit similar outrage is the blatant discrimination in the faculty of medicine at one reputable university in North Sumatra. Many Chinese studying there have expressed outrage and discontent as to how placement tests were conducted. Out of 300, only 20 seats were available for Chinese until at least 2006. This limit was set before the test results were published. One non-Chinese student remarked, “Had the test results been transparantly disclosed, perhaps 70 to 80 percent of the seats would be assigned to Chinese.”
This is only a glimpse of the discrimination Chinese face with regard to access to education, either endorsed by law or condoned in practice.
Some people defend this reality, saying that discrimination is treating similar things differently; therefore it is not discrimination to treat Chinese differently from non-Chinese, as the two groups have unequal economic power. Second, even if there is discrimination, some argue that it aims to correct imbalances, hence it is justifiable. Third, it is the Chinese people’s fault if they are discriminated against, as they exhibit arrogance and ignorance toward the poor people.
The classic case for justifying discimination is that since the Chinese grew rich by stealing from others’ land – noting that they were originally immigrants and therefore not entitled to anything – it is fair to correct imbalances by discriminating in favor of the original inhabitants of the land.
There are generally two types of imbalance – one that is inherent or natural, and the other that is caused by certain actions. For example, men and women are innately different physically; therefore it is not discriminatory to establish separate divisions in sport for men and women. However, rich and poor are not innate conditions. If a person is poor because he or she is lazy, policies that favor such a person are discriminatory.
It is utterly unfair to punish hard workers for being rich and reward paupers for their sloth. Wealth is not given, it is achieved by hard work. Many Chinese came to Indonesia – as they did to many other countries – with little more than the clothes they were wearing. It is therefore a wrong assumption that all or even a substantial number of Chinese are rich.
Moreover, the Chinese have to pay the same taxes others do; in fact, in practice many bureaucrats blackmail the Chinese, who end up paying more than others due to lack of education and fear. How can this be construed as stealing when everyone pays the same tax and has equal opportunities? Simply some are more efficient in business than others.
If we assume that corrective measures should be taken with regard to economic imbalances, the government should tax the rich more and subsidize the poor. However, the government should tax the rich, not the Chinese, if the policy is aimed at correcting an imbalance in the distribution of wealth.
Before arguing that the Chinese are arrogant and ignorant, we must put ourselves in the Chinese people’s shoes. When almost every door to career development is closed, the only space the Chinese have to maneuver in is business. Given this restriction, the fact that some Chinese have built empires from scratch is a superb achievement. Without condoning or condemning, it is human to be arrogant to a certain extent. Arrogance is a characteristic of the rich, including non-Chinese. It is not justifiable to punish someone for arrogance.
The late U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Many Indonesians feel that the Chinese are only taking from the country. But you cannot possibly ask someone to do something for you if you do nothing in return – or even worse, discriminate against them.
(Harjo Winoto is a final-year law student at the University of Indonesia and a paralegal in a top Jakarta law firm. He writes on various legal and social issues. ©Copyright Harjo Winoto.)