Sofyan Tan

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 1992
Yayasan Sultan Iskandar Muda


This profile was prepared when Sofyan Tan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.
The New Idea
Ethnic conflict has become so commonplace that mere mention of it conjures up images of places all over the globe: Bosnia and Serbia, Kashmir, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, among others. Indonesia belongs on the list as well. Typically, Indonesian children of Chinese descent and those with indigenous backgrounds are raised and taught in separate communities, although they may live in close proximity to one another. Without the chance to interact, negative stereotypes and mistrust of each other lead to hostility and prejudice-- traits which, when encountered in adults, are very difficult to reverse. While most of the world addresses the results of ethnic tension-- violence and discrimination, Dr. Sofyan Tan is reaching the root of the problem by creating opportunities for children to learn in a different kind of setting.Realizing the havoc that ethnic divisiveness in Indonesia has wreaked on individual lives and the country as a whole, Sofyan is setting up integrated schools with an even mixture of Chinese and indigenous (Malay) students. He is not the first to establish integrated schools but no other school can boast of such an even ethnic balance in the student body. These schools allow children to see each other as individuals, thereby setting a new pattern of openness and friendliness toward people of different ethnicities that will carry into adulthood and the larger society.
However, Sofyan contends that maintaining ethnic integration is insignificant without two complementary features: academic quality and access for those in financial need. Because integrated schools will earn credibility only if they provide a top notch education, Sofyan started an institute in 1988 in Medan, North Sumatra, to assist the government in extending and improving the quality of education. Parents who are skeptical of integrated schools are likely to be persuaded by their academic reputation. As a case in point, when Sofyan's first school started in 1987, only 162 students enrolled but as the reputation spread, enrollment reached 1,362 in 1997. Students now travel great distances to attend the school; some even travel from Jakarta.
Central to Sofyan's idea is that integrated schools must be an accessible and attractive option to people of all backgrounds, particularly poor uneducated Indonesians of Chinese descent. Some members of this population feel safer in the insular cocoon of their Chinese community, where they speak Hokkien instead of Indonesian. Sofyan explains, "People whose education is higher are more inclined to embrace integration, while people from lower classes find it more difficult." The exorbitant tuition fees of other integrated schools have always provided a good excuse for poor ethnic Chinese not to enroll. However, Sofyan has started a school that is so affordable that disadvantaged families have no reason not to enroll their children.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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