Is Chinese language alive or dying in Indonesia?

In 1966, Indonesia banned the use of the Chinese language. The ban lasted 32 years, and led to up to two generations of Chinese Indonesians becoming completely assimilated. However, when the ban was lifted in 1998, there was an immediate rush to learn the Chinese language. But is that enthusiasm still there? Zaobao reporter Sim Tze Wei visits schools in Indonesia to find out more about the changes in Indonesia’s Chinese language education over the past 20 years.
Students in a Chinese language class in Indonesia.
Students in a Chinese language class in Indonesia.

(All photos by Sim Tze Wei unless otherwise stated.)

The following exchange ensues in Chinese:

A: Why were you chatting with my boyfriend on the phone?

B: He called me.

C: C'mon, we are besties. Stop arguing!

This is not a quarrel on the streets of Indonesia, but an improvised scene by second-year Chinese language students at Bunda Mulia University in Jakarta. Under the guidance of a Taiwanese teacher, the students learn about the use of the Chinese terms 劝解 (persuade) and 阻止 (prevent) through amusing dialogue that sets the room laughing.

Although the entire class is ethnic Chinese, their accents and use of terms show that they are not too familiar with the Chinese language. But to their teacher Duan Peifen, they are doing very well. The graduate of Chung Yuan Christian University in Taiwan says, “They are all very willing to participate and really enthusiastic about learning.”

The students are indeed serious. But interacting with them, it is apparent that Indonesia does not offer a conducive environment for learning the Chinese language. The Chinese language students converse among themselves and with their Chinese language teacher in Bahasa Indonesia, while all subjects except for languages are taught in Bahasa Indonesia.

20-year-old Chinese language student Christy Cuang of Binus University makes it clear to this reporter:

“We are in Indonesia. Of course we speak Bahasa Indonesia.”

The subtext is: the mother tongue of Chinese Indonesians is Bahasa Indonesia. Chinese is a foreign language.

Students learn Chinese vocabulary in class in Indonesia.

32 years of assimilation has led to a break in Chinese language education

The unique state of language and identity of younger Chinese Indonesians today goes back to 1966. The year before, Suharto overthrew the pro-Communist Sukarno regime and took power. Soon after, he implemented the policy of assimilation in 1966. The following year, China broke off diplomatic ties with Indonesia. Ties were only resumed in 1990.

Chinese language expert Pan Guowen gives a summary of the policy of assimilation: clamping down on Chinese language schools, Chinese language newspapers, and the Chinese community, and forcing naturalisation.

While the authorities did not announce a government order to naturalise ethnic Chinese, village heads and grassroots leaders pressured them, and ethnic Chinese were made to change their names to Indonesian names. During that period, ethnic Chinese could only learn the Chinese language in secret. If they were found using the language in public, the penalty could range from a warning to jail.

As a result of Suharto’s mandatory naturalisation policy, up to two generations of Chinese Indonesians are completely assimilated into Indonesian culture, and there is a break in Chinese language education.

Former Indonesian president Suharto (right) and wife, 1970. (Handout/SPH)

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the Black May riots in 1998 led to the downfall of Suharto. When Abdurrahman Wahid became Indonesia’s first elected president in 1999, he lifted the ban on the Chinese language and revived Chinese language education.

Ethnic Chinese make up 1.2% of Indonesia’s population, or about 3 million people. Other figures have it at 7.2 million. But whether it is 3 million or 7.2 million, there is a big market for the Chinese language.

When the ban was first lifted, there was an initial rush to learn the Chinese language. Private schools started Chinese language lessons, while trilingual schools (三语学校, meaning schools that teach using Bahasa Indonesia, English, and Chinese), as well as tuition classes, sprang up and became a major force in spreading and growing the Chinese language in Indonesia. According to a 2010 Asia Weekly report, when Chinese language schools were reinstated in Indonesia, there were over 200 Chinese language tuition centres in Jakarta alone.

liu wanni
Liu Wanni speaks Indonesian and Hakka with her parents.

Twenty years after the lifting of the ban, is that enthusiasm still there? The Chinese language teachers who spoke to Lianhe Zaobao all say yes to the enthusiasm, but teaching has moved at a snail’s pace.

Media personality Li Zhuohui (Bambang Suryono) estimates that there are about 80 trilingual schools in Indonesia now, a far cry from the 1,850 back in 1957, when Chinese language education was at its peak. “Chinese language education in Indonesia has not yet recovered,” he says.

Difficult to integrate Chinese language education into Indonesia’s education system

According to Indonesian Federation of Chinese Education (印尼华文教育联合总会, Perkumpulan Pendidikan Bahasa Tionghoa Indonesia) chairman Willy Berlian, after the ban was lifted, even though the authorities added Chinese language education into the formal school system and listed Chinese language under foreign language teaching, this was not done in practice.

He feels that it is difficult for Chinese language education to be fully integrated into the Indonesian education system, which is the main reason why Chinese language education has not made any headway.

He says, “Singapore has the National Institute of Education and you have built a very good teacher training system. It takes years of training to be a Chinese language teacher. In Indonesia, Chinese language teaching is conducted by the private sector. The government doesn’t object, but it doesn’t train teachers either. So the environment is lacking.”

China’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and the Office of Chinese Language Council International (or Hanban) sent teachers to Indonesia when the ban on Chinese language teaching was first lifted.

Graduates earn a monthly salary of about 9 to 10 million Indonesian rupiah/IDR (S$900 to S$1,000) at Chinese companies, which is double the salary of other professions.

Berlian says at one point there were 300 to 400 teachers coming in from China each year, but the authorities were wary of the high numbers and decided to tighten up. The threshold for foreign Chinese language teachers has also risen. Now, teachers have to be aged 25 and above with at least two years of teaching experience to qualify. Besides, schools have to pay for visa fees for hiring new teachers, and many schools cannot afford the cost. These led to a reduction in the numbers of Chinese language teachers.

Berlian says, “When there are not enough teachers, it is difficult to take in students. It is a tough situation.”

Lack of teachers an obstacle

Bunda Mulia University (BMU), with a well-reputed Chinese department, was set up by the wealthy Indonesian businessman Djoko Susanto. Since its Chinese department was started in 2008, the student intake has gone from 12 to 16 people each year to 250 people now, while the teaching staff has also increased from eight to 13, about half of whom are foreign teachers.

bunda mulia
Bunda Mulia University. (Bunda Mulia University website)

Hong Pingli, the 32-year-old head of BMU’s Chinese department, says that because Chinese-funded businesses pay better salaries, 60% of the department’s graduates join Chinese-funded companies, while the other 40% become teachers.

Chinese companies tossing out money to fight for talent is one reason for the lack of Chinese language teachers in Indonesia

Graduates earn a monthly salary of about 9 to 10 million Indonesian rupiah/IDR (S$900 to S$1,000) at Chinese companies, which is double the salary of other professions. Those with a better command of Chinese can earn up to about 15 million IDR a month. Chinese companies tossing out money to fight for talent is one reason for the lack of Chinese language teachers in Indonesia, especially given that at least 1,000 Chinese companies have established themselves in Indonesia with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Hanban provides scholarships for Indonesian students to study in China, on condition that they have to teach Chinese language on their return. But those in the teaching sector reveal that many students do not fulfil the contract and choose to join China companies instead.

However, Binus University Chinese department teacher Liem Yi Ying observes that some graduates do return to teach after one or two years with China companies because of its work culture. “There is a lot of pressure, and frequent overtime [in China companies],” she says.

binus JWC
Binus University, JWC campus. (Binus University website)

While there are no official figures on the teacher shortage per se, Berlian estimates, “Another 20,000 or 30,000 people would not be too many. Right now, there are probably about 4,000 to 5,000 Chinese language teachers in Indonesia. Schools and tuition centres are all looking for teachers. There are really not enough teachers to go around.”

"Indonesia’s minority groups have their own language and culture, but the Chinese people do not know their own language and cannot speak it." - Chinese language expert Pan Guowen

Former head of Bunda Mulia’s Chinese department Guan Nan observes that the problem with Chinese language teaching in Indonesia is that there are no rules. Standards are inconsistent and everyone is just muddling through. From kindergarten to university, there is no standard system or syllabus, while those in the industry are scattered. “It’s one step at a time,” he says.

Guan Nan is originally from Dalian in China. She studied the Indonesian language at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and became an Indonesian citizen after marrying an Indonesian. She says, “How to run a class is up to the teacher. Teaching materials are not standardised. There are editions from Singapore, mainland China and Taiwan. You can set your own tests as well, there is no national standard.”

guan nan
Guan Nan notes the lack of a national standard in Chinese language teaching in Indonesia.

A conversation between this reporter and a communications department teacher at Binus University bears this out. This young teacher says his Chinese is poor, and so his Chinese teacher wanted to help him pass his high school Chinese test. The teacher asked him to sing 《老鼠爱大米》 (As Mice Love Rice), a simple Chinese pop song during the test. He sang it and — voilà! — he passed.

Is he joking? He shakes his head. “I’m not kidding.”

Is the Chinese language dying in Indonesia?

Guan Nan says that English is the most popular foreign language in Indonesia. Young people are more likely to see Chinese as a tool for work, unlike the older generation who have a deep connection to Chinese culture.

When the older generation of Chinese are gone, can the younger generation keep the torch of Chinese language teaching burning and alive in Indonesia?

Chinese language expert Pan Guowen is not optimistic. Pan told Indonesia’s Sin Po (《新报》) that he spent over a month in Java in 2017, and he was shocked to find that the young Chinese he met practically did not speak Chinese. In 2018, at a forum in Beijing, he gave a critical speech, in which he claimed that Chinese as a language for ethnic Chinese in Indonesia was “nearly dead”.

Pan says firmly, “Chinese has a strong foundation as an ethnic language, but in just one or two generations, it’s dying. The Chinese language now does not even compare to any of Indonesia’s minority languages. Indonesia’s minority groups have their own language and culture, but the Chinese people do not know their own language and cannot speak it. And without the language, there is no culture.”

Bambang Suryono does not agree. He says that Chinese language teaching in Java, including Jakarta, may not be vibrant, but it is faring well in Medan, in North Sumatra, and in Pontianak in West Kalimantan, and "we cannot generalise."

His optimistic assessment is based on the fact that China’s growing strength will prompt the Chinese in Indonesia to learn the language well, but the revival of Chinese language teaching in Indonesia will probably take another 40 years.

The 83-year-old says, “Our generation won’t get to see it, but it will come. Five thousand years of Chinese civilisation will not fall.”

bambang suryono
Media personality Bambang Suryono is optimistic about Chinese language teaching in Indonesia.

Chinese Indonesians must decide the direction of Chinese language education

Looking to the future, Berlian feels that while external support is important, Chinese language teaching in Indonesia has to be driven by Chinese Indonesians, because “nobody knows better than us Indonesia’s complex political and social situation”.

“Promoting the Chinese language is not something for the Chinese Indonesians only, it is for every Indonesian." - Indonesian Federation of Chinese Education chairman Willy Berlian

Berlian hopes that the business and education sectors can join forces to systematically nurture Chinese Indonesian talents with critical thinking skills and an open mindset. These young people should have the abilities to influence Indonesia’s traditional political elites, to gradually raise the status of the Chinese language so that non-Chinese can also have more contact with the language and its culture, so as to build better mutual understanding between communities.

He feels that this is the best way for the Chinese to find their place in Indonesia. He says, “Promoting the Chinese language is not something for the Chinese Indonesians only, it is for every Indonesian. We should let other communities come into contact with Chinese culture so that they understand the Chinese and accept them as Indonesians. Then if anyone fans anti-Chinese sentiment in future, they will not respond."

Chinese Indonesians at a market in Jakarta ahead of Chinese New Year. Chinese Indonesians were not allowed to speak Chinese for a long time, until 1999. (Adek Berry/AFP)

More enthusiasm for learning Chinese language among non-Chinese

In fact, Chinese language teachers observe that in recent years, non-Chinese are more enthusiastic than Chinese in learning the Chinese language. The Chinese are generally more Westernised and many resist the language, while non-Chinese are not Westernised due to their family teachings and religion.

Liong Siak Tjhie, secretary of the alumni of Sekolah Terpadu Pahoa, says that study groups in East Java have nurtured non-Chinese students with a good grasp of the Chinese language, while in Central Java, there are “non-Chinese in hijabs teaching Chinese language to Chinese”.

“Chinese is not hard to learn. You’ll learn it if you want to.” - student Lyan Callista

About 100 years ago, Terpadu Pahoa in western Jakarta was a well-known Chinese school, and the first school established during the Dutch colonial period. It was a victim of the anti-Chinese movement in 1966 and disappeared for over 30 years. After the ban on the Chinese language was lifted, the school was revived through the efforts of the alumni.

terpadu pahoa
Terpadu Pahoa was revived by its alumni after disappearing for about 30 years. (Terpadu Pahoa website)

Sixth-year student Lyan Callista (李昂, Li Ang) is a “part-Chinese” student who loves the language. Her ambition is to be a diplomat. She says, “Chinese is not hard to learn. You’ll learn it if you want to.”

Lyan does not consider herself Chinese because her parents are both not "pure" Chinese. But her paternal grandfather was a Chinese surnamed Guo (郭) — he passed away before she was born. Lyan’s Chinese name was given to her by her teacher based on the pronunciation of her Indonesian name, and so her surname changed from Guo to Li.

Pahoa board consultant Waruna Sokohardjo says that such assimilation where people do not know that they are Chinese or have Chinese ancestry is common in Indonesia.

lyan callista
Lyan Callista's parents are both not Chinese, but her paternal grandfather was.

Singapore textbooks in Indonesia

On the desks of all the third-grade Chinese language students of Sekolah Terpadu Pahoa is a copy of Happy Friends 《快乐伙伴》, a Singapore publication by Marshall Cavendish. General manager and publisher Lim Geok Leng says Singapore’s Chinese language textbooks made it to the Indonesian market around 2001.

She says the unique thing about Singapore textbooks is that the materials are relevant to real life, with attractive illustrations and non-political content. “For example: ‘After school, I went home with my sister. She swept the floor while I wiped the table.’ These sentences are relevant, and can be used once they are learned.”

Generally, Chinese language materials from Singapore or China are used in Indonesia. Lim feels that students find China textbooks more difficult, and Singapore textbooks more suitable for students who are learning Chinese from scratch. Some Indonesian students who have studied in Singapore schools may also find it easier to relate to Singapore textbooks.

Learning Chinese through TV shows from Singapore and Taiwan

Chinese Indonesian students with a better grasp of Chinese have one thing in common — they speak dialects with their parents or grandparents at home, watch foreign TV shows in Chinese, and enjoy Chinese pop culture.

Haris Elsie, a 21-year-old third-year student at Binus University who grew up on Bintan, is a classic example. She speaks Teochew with her parents at home, started learning Chinese at age five, and learned the 300 Tang poems 《唐诗三百首》 in her tuition class. She tells this reporter, “I often watch TV shows from Singapore and Taiwan, and a lot of Taiwanese and Korean dramas.”

haris elsie
Haris Elsie speaks Teochew, and watches Taiwanese and Korean dramas.

Second-year Bunda Mulia University student Liu Wanni, 19, comes from a Chinese community in Pontianak. As a child, she spoke Indonesian and Hakka with her parents and listened to Hong Kong and Taiwan pop music. She laughs, “It was all old people’s music like Teresa Teng's Tian Mi Mi (Sweetness, 甜蜜蜜) and Andy Lau’s Thank You For Your Love 《谢谢你的爱》. Dad likes Andy Lau.”

Two young local teachers — 32-year-old Julita Wangi of Binus University and 31-year-old Thea Eka Rahmani of Sekolah Terpadu Pahoa — both approve of using pop culture as supplementary teaching material as they are more interesting to students. They also recommend mainland China drama serials and entertainment programmes to students.

Thanks to her Shanghai husband and mainland China drama serials, Thea speaks Chinese with a hint of mainland accent. She laughs, “I used to watch My Fair Princess 《还珠格格》.”

Thea Eka Rahmani believes in using pop culture to teach Chinese language.

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