Wednesday, September 08, 2004

TEMPO's Special Report: Chinese Indonesians (12 of 14)

Schools without Boundaries

Sofyan Tan has cleared a path for integration through the world of education. His concept of `foster parents' is a valuable help in the process.

I used to think that all Chinese were rich!" said Mona, a grade five student in Medan, speaking to TEMPO two weeks ago. Classmate Maggie weighs in, "In the village, my older brother would often be asked for money. I was afraid of them," says this small girl with the slanted eyes, reminiscing.

But that's all in the past now. Since attending school together at the Sultan Iskandar Muda School in the area of Sunggal, Medan, these two girls of Batak and Chinese origin, have come to see that their traditional view of social relationships regarding the Chinese and other ethnic groups-always a thorny point-does not correspond to reality. These days they can play together; there is no feeling of awkwardness or fear. "What's more, is that here we can tease each other," jokes Maggie.

It was Sofyan Tan, a man of Chinese origin, who succeeded in building this togetherness in Sunggal. He was the trailblazer for integration in that school, finally culminating in teachers and students alike of different ethnic origins and religions sitting side by side, from kindergarten right up to secondary school-level. Javanese, Batak, Malays, as well as both Chinese and Tamil descendants have joined together as one and are forming intimate friendships.

Since childhood, Tan, 44, has united with other "indigenous" or local citizens in Sunggal, north of downtown Medan. It was his father, a mere tailor, who repeatedly pushed him to integrate with other ethnic groups as fellow citizens. This "sense of community" experience during childhood proved a great teacher in areas of human character and purpose in the forming of human relationships. "Integration is based on common feeling shared by two sides, rather than just one-sided," he asserts. He also believes that only with mutual respect, trust and common needs, can life go forward in a wholesome way, without negative sentiments of suspicion on both sides creeping in.

This father of four, who has long since aspired to build this integrated school, had already set his activities in motion in 1987, when he was still completing his own studies at the Medical Faculty of the Methodist University in Medan.

Upon graduating, Sofyan had no difficulty deciding not to open his own doctor's practice. Instead, together with his friend Soekirman, he longed to continue his previous project: an integrated school. Since then, in Medan, Sofyan has been known as an integrator between the different ethnic groups. In recognition of his efforts, he was honored in 1990 as the National Young Pioneer of the Year for Social Solidarity by the government, and was awarded the Fellowship Ashoka Award in 1989.

In the dirty township of Sunggal, the Sultan Iskandar Muda School stands united with a settlement comprising several ethnic groups. The school now boasts a main building of four floors, measuring 8,000 square meters. There are 32 classes: nine classes for senior high school, eight for junior high school, 12 for primary school, and three for vocational high school. Behind this building there is a mosque, a church, and a Buddhist temple. In the middle is a plaque, standing between two fruit trees, bearing an inscription symbolizing unity without differentiation between one another.

This school is now host to 1,017 indigenous pupils, as well as 483 students of Chinese and Tamil origins. Because there are also many Chinese pupils among students struggling to afford the cost of education, Sofyan has implemented a foster parent program. Parents of "indigenous" children who can afford to, are obliged to take on a foster child of Chinese descent and vice-versa. "This is one of the methods of integration we employ," says this former chairperson of the North Sumatran Gemabudhi.

The teachers, consisting of 93 locals and 16 of other ethnic origins are no different to the students. They all blend in freely and even mixed marriages also occur. Relationship between student and teacher provides the main role model for ethnic integration and visions of unity. Sofyan has also implemented this within his own family. His younger sibling's spouse is from Java, while his cousin has taken a Sundanese wife.

Sofyan admits that there are still many Chinese families who refuse to send their children to mixed schools for a variety of reasons. There are those who consider it better to send them to a school within a certain community, and those who experience trauma. "My task is to change thought processes of skepticism and stereotyping through this school," he states.

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