Eye witness

January 15, 1999

Indonesia's ethnic Chinese community was the target of brutal victimisation after the fall of President Suharto at the hands of last summer's student inspired democracy movement. An estimated 1,000 or more may have been killed.

There are now signs that the persecution may have had an effect on the pattern of student mobility in the region. Traditionally, very small numbers of Chinese-Indonesians have studied in Malaysia, but since the riots, they have been applying for Malaysian universities in their thousands.

Bill Watson, senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, doubts whether political anxiety is the sole factor: "The quality of education in fields such as business, management, economics and so on is perceived as being higher in Malaysia. The expanded numbers at the moment are probably attributable to the prohibitive cost of going to Australia, the United States and England now."

Many private business schools report Indonesians "arriving in busloads" and the Malaysian education ministry has allowed the colleges to take advantage of the huge influx.

Indonesians studying in local Malaysian colleges, like other foreign students, pay as much as 25 per cent more than local students, but they still find this competitive compared with other countries in the region.

Malaysia offers a similar linguistic and cultural environment to Indonesia.

Ethnic Chinese account for about 30 per cent of Malaysia's 22 million population, the second biggest Chinese grouping in Southeast Asia after Singapore. Many have gone to Sarawak, on the border of Indonesia's Kalimantan on Borneo Island. Inti College says 15 per cent of its 2,023 students at its Sarawak campus are Indonesians. Many of these students came from Jakarta as well as from neighbouring Kalimantan.

Dr Watson suspects the Indonesian government is quite happy to encourage the "exodus", since there are not enough university places in Indonesia and it is confident that the students will return - with skills and training that will benefit the ailing economy.

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