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Cautiously promoting humanism

Cautiously promoting humanism
Published: Oct 04, 2010

Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn

   PaHoa proudly displays its name in Mandarin characters
   Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn

The new PaHoa School complex looks imposing against the flat and rather barren outer suburban landscape that surrounds it. Opened in 2008 and located within a new elite residential estate development in the Serpong area, about 30km outside of Jakarta, the private school already boasts more than 2400 students from kindergarten to high school.

At first glance, PaHoa School appears to be typical of exclusive multilingual schools that have sprung up around Jakarta and other major Indonesian cities in recent years. It offers a 'National Plus' curriculum taught in three languages (Indonesian, English and Mandarin), as well as state-of-the-art facilities like the latest computers, air-conditioned classrooms and a library that houses imported text books. Catering to the children of the very rich, these so-called 'global' schools have become popular among Indonesia's middle to upper class families who desire an internationally focused education, prestige and security for their children.

But one thing makes the PaHoa School unique: it teaches its students Confucian moral values. The trustees say that the Confucian principles of hard work, mutual respect and filial piety are 'universal', and can therefore be used to teach tolerance to both Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians.

Reviving a Chinese school

Just over a decade ago, the existence of a Mandarin-speaking, Confucian school like Pahoa would have been impossible. Although Chinese schools have existed in Indonesia since as early as the mid-nineteenth century, by 1966 around 2000 Chinese schools had been closed and their buildings confiscated for use by state-run schools. Over 270,000 ethnic Chinese students were left stranded, most of whom enrolled in private schools. During the New Order, Chinese language education in Indonesian schools virtually ceased to exist and a whole generation of Chinese Indonesians grew up without the ability to speak Chinese. But the situation changed dramatically when the bans were overturned in 1999, opening the way for Chinese schools to be resurrected. PaHoa was the first of the pre-1965 Chinese schools to be reopened.

The idea for reviving the school was proposed by former students of the Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan school in the Patekoan area of Jakarta, many of whom now sit on the board of trustees. Although they insist that PaHoa's goal is not to bring back the glory days of Chinese education, Chinese cultural influences are evident throughout the school. One cannot help but notice the giant Mandarin characters on the walls when walking past the main entry and into PaHoa's enormous hall. According to a school board member, the characters spell out the Confucian principles that underlie all of PaHoa's teachings and activities.

'You see that big one?' the board member asked as he pointed to the largest column of characters. 'That one says "Put in Practice What You Have Learnt," which is our school's motto.' This motto, he said, was derived from the basic Confucian principle of service to the community. He remarked that 'We want to educate the next generation of Indonesian children about the importance of service and living a moral life.' He added that if kids are taught the humanist values of hard work, respect and understanding, they will understand that these values can transcend ethnic or religious differences.

At PaHoa School, such Confucian-influenced teachings can be found everywhere. Colourful banners and posters written in Indonesian, English and Mandarin are hung around the school's buildings and grounds. They clearly state what is expected from PaHoa graduates, namely virtue, discipline, citizenship, respect for human life and a sense of filial responsibility.

   PaHoa's motto, displayed in the assembly hall
   Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn

Alongside compulsory religious instruction classes, PaHoa students are required to attend 'moral virtue' classes and 'character building' camps where they are taught Confucian philosophy through activities such as group work. PaHoa also hosts character-building classes for parents of the students, with weekend seminar events covering topics such as 'virtuous parenthood'.

A self-proclaimed secular school, PaHoa places a heavy emphasis on the celebration of all major religious, cultural and national events such as Christmas, Idul Fitri, Vesak, Chinese New Year, Kartini Day and Independence Day. On these occasions, the school holds commemorations and festivities to celebrate the nation's diversity. During events such as Chinese New Year and Kartini Day, students are encouraged to dress in traditional Chinese dress or in clothes representing Indonesia's many ethnic groups and regions.

Universal Confucianism?

According to members of the school board, these kinds of events are intended to remind students of the importance of the national motto, Unity in Diversity. Moreover, they contend that through the appreciation of all cultures, PaHoa makes an important statement that although the school may be Confucian and Mandarin speaking, Chinese culture is not privileged. The key, according to the school board, lies in the fact that, although Confucianism comes from China, its basic principles are applicable to everyone.

It is easy to see PaHoa as a post-Suharto success story. Indeed, the staff appear to be doing a good job of integrating Chinese Confucianism into the national curriculum taught at the school. But despite its rhetoric about Confucianism's universality, the school board admits that they also aim to popularise Chinese values and encourage greater acceptance of ethnic Chinese among the non-Chinese. One board member even stated that 'all of us agree that if only more non-Chinese Indonesians would realise the applicability of Confucianism, then Chineseness would not be so misunderstood.'

Here, two contradictory logics seem to be at play. On the one hand, the school is trying to portray an image of Confucian values as 'universal' in order to promote multicultural ideas about sameness. On the other hand, the same values are also regarded as very particular (Chinese) and serve the purpose of promoting the uniqueness of one particular group. Although the school board denies these contradictions, the ambiguity surrounding the school's basic principles is reflected in the problems it faces.

It is unclear how the school plans to promote its multicultural values beyond the superficial level, as many Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians equate Confucianism with Chinese culture, and more specifically, the Confucian religion. Not surprisingly, the school has been largely unable to attract non-Chinese students despite targeted marketing campaigns that focus on the school's trilingual curriculum and 'global' qualities. This means that although one of the school's goals is to advocate greater acceptance of Chinese culture in Indonesia, they are essentially preaching to the converted.

Hope and caution

The PaHoa School tries to implement Confucian values, which it perceives to have universal appeal. Although the success of this strategy is yet to be determined, the school's founders cautiously hope for the best.

Despite their optimism, board members are acutely aware of the challenges faced by the school. The board's greatest fear is that people who disagree with the school's approach might want to harm the students. All around the school grounds, high fences keep intruders out, while security guards watch the school day and night. The board also revealed that precautionary legal measures have been taken to safeguard the school's assets in case the government ever decides to again close down Chinese schools.

But they also realise that people might think of the school as being exclusive and Chinese. As one board member reflected, 'Worse still, we realise that some people might be suspicious that we are trying to spread Chinese political ideas among the children.' This observation points to a difficult fact about contemporary Indonesia: while more and more schools are embracing a multicultural approach to education, many in society are still suspicious of difference.

Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn ( is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Her dissertation looks at everyday forms of identity construction among young Chinese in post-Suharto Indonesia, especially in relation to historical memory, social spaces and cultural production.

This article is part of the Learning to Belong feature edition.

Inside Indonesia 102: Oct-Dec 2010

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