The other day, I watched an Indonesian news about a state school in Medan (North Sumatra) boasting their value of multiculturalism. The school enrolled students from various races and religions, and had built a Church, a Mosque and a Synagogue in the same school complex.

I was both shocked and pleased. Shocked, because in a lot of ways, I still view my home town through the same lens I did when I was growing up in Indonesia. Back then, I knew of the following facts.
1. That state schools (at least in Jakarta) took enrolments mostly of native Indonesian students.
2. That if you weren’t native Indonesian students (i.e. you were Chinese Indonesians), you go to a private school.
3. Whilst the private schools also too enrolments from native Indonesian students, the reverse (state schools taking enrolments from Chinese Indonesians, or other races/backgrounds) happened in less occurrence and only at selected state schools.

I can’t speak for every non-native Indonesians in Indonesia, or even Jakarta; I can only speak for myself and what I’ve witnessed and been taught of. To me and my family back then, choosing to enrol in a private school was largely a matter of ‘survival’ rather than consciously dividing ourselves further from the native Indonesians. I have heard of some state schools in Jakarta that had a very robust, very good academic and curriculum offerings. I have even contemplated enrolling in one of them. But there was this belief/stigma that if you were a Chinese Indonesian, you don’t enrol yourself into a state school, where the majority of other students would be native Indonesians, unless you have some kind of a death wish.

Back then, the relations between Chinese Indonesians and native Indonesians were, to say the least, very turbulent. If you were of the latter, growing up in Indonesia, you learnt to keep your head down and your mouth shut. And even though for the most part, you feel somewhat protected, cocooned in the four walls of the private school, it didn’t mean you were completely untouchable. Around September-October every year, tension between muslim Indonesians and Catholic Chinese reached boiling point, with native Indonesians ‘targeting’ Catholic Chinese Indonesians more rigorously than they have been throughout the year. They attacked the private schools, throwing rocks at the buildings and abused the students, both verbally and physically. I remember one year, the altercations reached new heights when the native Indonesian students invading a neighbouring private school property stabbed a Chinese Indonesian student.

With this in mind, hearing that a Mosque and a Church had been built in the same school premises astounded me. Knowing what I have known, I thought this would be equivalent to handing the students in that school hand grenades. Back then, I could just see these places of worship being vandalised by the end of the first day of school, and casualties dropping like flies from both Chinese and native Indonesian students.

Perhaps, I shouldn’t be that surprised. Even though I’ve watched time and again how history has repeated itself, I’ve also witnessed progress over the years – the most significant being the government recognising Chinese New Year as a public holiday to harness harmony between Chinese and native Indonesians following the May 1998 riots (something I thought I would NEVER see in my lifetime). Watching this bit of news also filled me with warmth and hope that  a multicultural, multi-denominational school is another step forward in the right direction; a progress to be celebrated; a glimpse of what a more tolerant Indonesia look like, now and into the future.