Oleh: h4d1 | 27 Mei 2009

Why are Chinese Indonesian unable to speak Chinese?

A lot of Indonesian students in Singapore are Chinese descent. Before they came to Singapore, most of them expected an English speaking environment, which is true in academic world. But outside it, other languages are widespread, especially Mandarin Chinese. Many of Chinese Indonesian do not expect such a counter when some of the canteen aunties cannot speak English and only speak Chinese to them. Their Malaysian or Singaporean friends also mostly speaking Chinese among themselves. Chinese Indonesian feels alienated, although they are also considered as Chinese.

I remembered there was Malaysian girl asked me whether I could speak Chinese. I answered I only speak some basics, then she asked me whether my parents can speak Chinese, I said “yes, they can”. She asked me back, “Why don’t they teach you?”. That question made me think to myself. My father speaks Chinese not so fluent, at least not as fluent as my mother. And also my parent’s working environment is not in Chinese, not even Indonesian, but in Javanese. In fact, many of my Chinese friends in primary and secondary school, if not most of them, even their parents are not able to speak or only know a little Chinese.

One easy answer to Chinese Malaysian or Singaporean or Chinese mainlander is by stating that speaking Chinese is prohibited in Indonesia. But I encountered one China guy asked me if he comes to Indonesia, is it against law if he speaks in Chinese? Maybe he thought if someone speaks Chinese, there would be a fine or maybe even imprisonment. That question shocked me. In fact in the past, Chinese language was banned in formal situation. There was no radio, TV, or newspaper in Chinese language. Actually there was no law that if somebody speaks in Chinese then he/she will be jailed. It was just a kind of suggestion. Some officers/local people dislike it or make them difficult getting licenses or such if someone is caught up speaking Chinese. But it is not for the foreign tourist, just for local Chinese Indonesian.

Although having various nationality, Chinese overseas still consider themselves as Chinese. Do they have the same culture? Actually no! They have been living long enough in different countries to develop different custom and habit. In fact there are stereotypes about Singaporean, Malaysian, or Chinese Mainlander. There was one of my non-Chinese friend who told me that he surprised that many Chinese Indonesians dislike Mainland Chinese. He thought Mainland Chinese is ‘purer’ or ‘more genuine’, so Chinese Indonesian should accept them well or a kind of adore them. But the culture differences between them are big enough, make it wouldn’t happen. Another fact is that most of Chinese Indonesian or Chinese South-East Asian are from Southern provinces, mostly from 2 provinces: Guangdong and Fujian. Whereas most of Chinese mainlander are from other China provinces.

As far as I know, Chinese schools in South-East Asia are only available in Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam; only in countries where Chinese population have quite a big percentage, 75 % in Singapore and about 50% in Penang, the rest of Malaysia and Brunei is lower than that. In the rest of South-East Asian countries, Chinese is just a small minority and government tends to assimilate Chinese people to local population through for example, changing Chinese name to local name, a practice that also happens in Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar; closing Chinese speaking school; banning Chinese newspaper, etc. With the resurgence of China economy recently, some Chinese schools re-established in the past decade. Malaysia government doesn’t encourage assimilation like in Indonesia, that’s why Chinese Malaysians still retain their Chinese name.

Another reason Chinese Indonesian cannot speak Mandarin is because many of them have been living in Indonesia for generations or centuries, make them lose Chinese speaking ability. It’s called peranakan/baba in Indonesia/Malaysia/Singapore. Many Chinese overseas who live in Thailand, Australia, USA for generations (not recent/second generation immigrants) also cannot speak Chinese. Because Chinese is minority in that area, many of them don’t have much chance to speak Chinese in daily life. That case also happens in Indonesia. Chinese have arrived in Indonesia since 1000 years ago. In the past, in area where many Chinese are no longer speak Chinese, the recent immigrants from China tend to assimilate and intermarry with them, therefore their children cannot speak Chinese.

Until 1966, there were Chinese language schools in Indonesia. After its closure, there was no more Chinese school or Chinese newspaper until around year 2000. Many people become less accustomed to Chinese language because of that. But some people who previously studied in Dutch/Indonesian school had been less accustomed to Chinese language long before 1966. And also even if their family still maintain their ancestor’s language, the language would not be Mandarin, but Cantonese, Teochiu, Hakka, Hokkian, etc. Mandarin school was just started in early 20th century. In fact in China itself, Mandarin Chinese (bai hua) started to appear in books and official documents after May forth movement in 1919. National language was established from Beijing dialect pronunciation, and the grammar is based on mostly northern Mandarin Chinese.

There are still some Chinese Indonesian who are educated in Chinese language who still preserve Chinese language, but they are minority. In some parts of Indonesia, such as North and East Sumatra, as well as West Kalimantan, most of the Chinese over there are able to speak Chinese ‘dialect’ such as Hokkian, Teochiu, or Hakka. For the rest part of Indonesia, most of young generations unable to converse in Chinese. Although I know there are some families in Java/Sulawesi/East Kalimantan who still maintain speaking Chinese within their family. Based on 2010 census, 24.07% of Chinese Indonesian speak Chinese at home. It’s not a high percentage. source

In foreign country, Chinese Indonesian tends to form their own community and usually does not mingle with other Chinese from different nationality. Even from their name, people can tell whether they are from Indonesia, except for some of them whose names are undistinguishable to other Chinese or Western name. Some of the names can be easily identified as Indonesian Chinese name.

People tend to be classified into the certain race in Singapore. It does not happen in Indonesia. Or if it happens, it’s not stated clearly. Singapore application form is frequently ask about race, name in Chinese character, and even dialect. I’m sure it make some Chinese Indonesians think about themselves, “Why I don’t know anything about this?”, “Am I really Chinese?”. If they stated that they are ‘Indonesian’ race, it would be frowned by other people, since they have a Chinese-looking face.

Here some other writings about Indonesian Chinese:
and this


  1. gampang dong. race =chinese dialect= bahasa indonesia (mother tounge)

  2. Are there any indonesians that cannot speak bahasa?

    • What do you mean by bahasa? Bahasa means language in Indonesian. Maybe you mean Indonesian language or bahasa Indonesia. Yes, there are Indonesians who just can speak local language, mainly in remote area or uneducated people, because they must learn Indonesian language in school. There are other people who cannot speak Indonesian fluently because they study in international school and their parents speak to them in English, for example. But most of the time and place, you can easily find that Indonesian people can speak Indonesian language well.

      • Malaysian and Singaporean called bahasa Indonesia as Bahasa in shortcut. For bahasa melayu, they will name it as Melayu, not bahasa Melayu.

  3. hmmm, there is another reason why Indonesian chinese can not speak chinese. The political ones.

    • I thought I have written about it in paragraph 3, or do you have another insight or explanation about the “political ones”?

  4. Speaking, practicing, learning and teaching Chinese language, culture and having Chinese names were prohibited for the 32 years under Suharto’s reign of power, which ended in the bloodbath of 1998. Some of the discriminatory laws that specifically targeted the Chinese community were finally ended during Habibie’s and Gus Dur’s administrations. Although the practices for some, such as the SKBRI (Letter of Proof of Citizenship) are still asked by some local governments, usually to extort concessions from Chinese Indonesians (you know the drill). Additionally, not all the discriminatory laws had been eliminated, there should still be around 62 more laws and Presidential decrees persecuting Chinese Indonesians that are still untouched.

    Thankfully, those were much more minor than the laws and Presidential decrees that have been abolished. That said, laws can only do so much. The perception of the officialdom in Indonesia, and the general public for that matter, is still very much anti-Chinese. It is not easy for a Chinese to enter the civil service, almost certainly facing impossibly high barriers to entry. And on the other spectrum, the general populace hated the Chinese because we don’t “mingle”, pointing to the fact that there are few Chinese in the civil service, especially the police, the military and the legislative assemblies. Chinese Indonesians really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the establishment has put up high barriers to entry for the Chinese in the civil service, on the other hand, we are blamed as a community for being too visible in the private sector while invisible in the civil service.

  5. In my opinion, the government is the one who should be blamed. It started in the Soekarno’s era, when he came back from China. Then after Soeharto rule the government, he connected Chinese with the communist. He started to banned everything that connected with communist (China). He also the one who should be blame with everything that happened with Indonesian Chinese right now.

  6. hahaha lol every1s fighting about something tht happened a long time ago

  7. Quote from the above article:

    “Another answer why Indonesian Chinese cannot speak Mandarin is because many of them have been living in Indonesia for generations or centuries, make them lose Chinese speaking ability. The same case also happen with Chinese who live in USA, UK, Australia, and many other places. Because Chinese is minority, many of them cannot speak in Chinese in daily life. That case also happens in Indonesia. In area where many Chinese are no longer speak Chinese, the recent immigrant from China would also tend to assimilate with them, therefore their children cannot speak Chinese.”

    Most of them still speak Chinese. Stop misleading people. Only Indo Chinese who can’t speak Chinese nor write. Indon gov’t is one of the worst.

    • Right but not Malaysian Chinese. We’re also considered minority here. And just lately some stupid moron NGO’s wanted to follow Indonesian style to abolish mother tongue schools (Chinese and Tamil [Indian]) but never work.

  8. Lemme jump in on the conversation.

    I’m an Indonesian of Chinese origin whose first language is, obviously, Indonesian.

    I can speak Huayu (Mandarin Chinese, used as the substitute in this comment) and read/write hanzi. I mean, why can’t I?

    It doesn’t hurt to learn the language that was spoken by your great, great ancestors, does it?

    I mean, it’s weird to see peranakans who can’t converse in Huayu or its “dialects,” let alone read hanzi.

    Shouldn’t you respect your heritage, no matter how small it is?

    Like, your eyes are slanted, skin so white (some are pale yellow) like snow, you usually flock with your own people, and you give a strong ‘made in China” vibe. You guys, Huayu is way easier than French is!

    LOL, baoqian for my sentiment toward those people. >.<

    "Most of them still speak Chinese. Stop misleading people. Only Indo Chinese who can’t speak Chinese nor write. Indon gov’t is one of the worst."

    Hello, Anon. Actually, your comment is kind of yay and nay. Chinese people in Indonesia (be them immigrants, peranakans, or even look-alikes) are divided into those who (1) can speak and write Huayu, (2) can only speak Huayu, (3) can speak and write Chinese dialect(s), (4) can only speak Chinese dialect(s), and (5) can't speak nor write in Chinese.

    So yeah, albeit the previous (political) pressure not to use Chinese in daily life, it's always good to start learning it now, especially if you identify yourself as Chinese.

    It isn't a peer-pressure thing, really, even though it may look like it is.

    Lagian nggak rugi juga, kok, bisa Huayu. Seriusan.

    • I like, totally agree. Two thumbs up for that!

    • Memang nggak ada ruginya dan jika mereka mau, silakan saja. Tapi saya sendiri mungkin nggak akan, kecuali jika benar2 perlu. Soalnya saya gak merasa “attached” sama bahasa Mandarin.

      • Agreed. Even though I can speak Mandarin Chinese through family pressure, I accept the fact that most Chinese Descent teenagers (that I have met) in Indonesia has no more connection with their own Chinese heritage. Henceforth learning Chinese after you grow up is nothing near accepting one’s own heritage, rather it is more of an economical move (considering China’s power nowadays, giving opportunity to many Chinese speaking people).

        It is not their fault to have no more relation to their own heritage. That is just how society works.

        You have the right to not learn Chinese. In fact, as long as the law does not forbid you to or not to, you have your rights.

    • “It doesn’t hurt to learn the language that was spoken by your great, great ancestors, does it?”

      It’s true, but that was not the point of this article. The point was to give explanation why most of Chinese Indonesian are different from Chinese Singaporean or Chinese Malaysian. If you learn Chinese after you’ve grown up, everybody can do it.

    • I’m a Chinese descent too! Cheers.

      In my opinion, it is one’s right to choose to or not to honor his own heritage. Sometimes we can’t blame them for forgetting who they are and where did their ancestors come from. It is, in my opinion, normal for Chinese peranakans to not be able to Communicate in any of the Chinese dialects or Mandarin Chinese.

      To give an example of a similar condition (although rather biased, but this is the first thing that came to my mind) Africans were brought to America by the colonists. Be them British, Portuguese, Spanish, or French. Now let us take a look at the African descents in the US (or rather we may call them African Americans). Can they speak their ancestors’ language?

      It’s a fact that they were in the US for centuries, and it is understandable for them to forget (and of course the fact that they were brought there to be slaves). But again it reminds me of our condition. IF China today isn’t as strong as it is now, or is still crippled by Si Ren Bang (四人帮) or the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命), through an indirect cause, our next generations may have completely forgotten our heritage, or even learn Chinese as an economical move.

      Again, it is good to hear your thoughts regarding this matter. We should be happy for China (I am not a Communist) for it to grow so vastly and secured our position as a citizen of Indonesia. We can again, embrace our own ancestors’ heritage.


  9. They cannot speak mandarin, because before 1998 or so, any chinese language was not allowed to be taught in schools by government. It was the racial discrimination. It is a simple answer.

    • Well, it’s true, but not for all Chinese Indonesian. Some Chinese are already unable to speak Chinese long before 1966, whereas some Chinese still speak it until now. If the reason is due to racial discrimination, why currently there are Chinese who can speak Mandarin?

  10. Mungkin sebelom nulis artikel, coba pelajari dulu sejarahnya jadi yang membaca mendapat pengetahuan baru yang tepat dan benar.
    Isinya kok banyak asumsi sendiri.
    Bahasa inggrisnya seperti bahasa Indonesia yang diinggriskan.
    Ayo coba lagi! 😊

    • Hai, kasih tahu yang mana yg kurang tepat dan benar. Aku sudah baca2 sejarah kok.

  11. I think the most obvious case is the Chinese-born in Java, and their parents before that. If you say this is not right, let me ask, do your parents speak Chinese, if not then you cannot speak Chinese too, unless you learned it. It was because the matter of language acquisition when you were little. I read in the comment that Chinese Hua Yu it’s easier than French, but according to me French is way more easier and several eropean’s languages (because the facts that Indonesian language written in Latin characters), why? Because i’ve been exposed to it more than Chinese, so the brain have a tendency to understand and learning language that it has been exposed too early in the young age.

    Some linguistics already have some researchs about the language is easier to learn when you are young. So the only explanation is either you haven’t been exposed to Chinese when you were little or you learned it when you were young. I don’t say ‘older’ people cannot learn another language, but I will say that the ‘older’ have harder time to learn another language and dialects.

    The funny thing was I got exposed to basic Chinese when I was little. In fact I have been learning Chinese longer than I knew French, but every Chinese lesson I got was the most basic one and I have never had time to practice my Chinese. If I had some Chinese characters that I didn’t understand I cannot ask anyone even my grandmother, because my grandmother only know the traditional Chinese.

    When I asked my parents why don’t they speak Chinese, both of them say Soeharto banned all kind of Chinese language and it was the people who lived in Java got suppressed more that explains some Chinese-born outside Java still speak Chinese. But sometimes is really mistery for me, I do read and speak Chinese with better dialects than native Indonesian, maybe it’s in the gen, but who knows.

    If you have some circumstances regarding this, or you debate me with further ‘I cannot speak English even if I got exposed to English when I was little’, let me ask you did you really got exposed to English? Because the exposure of English for students usually have not yet reach intermediate level until you were in junior or senior high school (same as I did with Chinese). Regardless, your second language should be the one you learned second when you were young. If you learned Chinese OR Indonesia (for native Javanese) OR Japanese OR any other language, then you can deduced what is your second language yourself.

    P.S my third language is french and the fourth is Japanese, but still, I don’t speak Chinese (i do read several basic characters and speak really basic Chine like ‘I don’t understand Chinese’ and ‘I don’t speak Chinese’ though. LOL) 🙂

    • Why must the obvious case is in Java? What about other islands like Flores/Papua/Halmahera? From what I know, most of Chinese in those area also cannot speak Chinese.
      Just because parents can speak certain language, it doesn’t mean their children are able to speak that language. It depends on the exposure to that language. My grandparents are able to speak Hokchiu dialect, but my father cannot speak it.

    • Your case is understandable. Luckily (subjective to my view), I was able to speak, read and write in Chinese (mainly Mandarin) due to family conditions.

      In response of Soeharto’s regulations regarding the usage of the Chinese language in the past, my grandfather (mother’s father) passed a new regulation in his house. At home, the only two languages to be spoken are Hokkianese and Mandarin Chinese. Indonesian can only be spoken outside the house.

      He rented Chinese books secret Chinese bookstores in Indonesia so that his daughter can still preserve the ability to read Chinese.

      His daughter, my mom, always speak Mandarin Chinese with both of her sons, and gave us even better reading materials to further advance our skills. Her dream is that my Chinese skills can surpass hers.

      At my school, most of the students are Chinese descents, but unsurprisingly most of them can’t speak Chinese. It is nothing strange for me, but in fact I became the strangest being in the school year for being fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

      It was good to hear that you can communicate with French and Japanese. That was cool. In an academic point of view, you are more superior than many of other Chinese descents already. It is not wrong to not be able to speak Chinese as a Chinese descent.


  12. This situation is not strange, it really does depend on the family, school, friends and even the political scene of a country. As for me, I am a Malaysian and I can totally relate to you however, our situation in Malaysia, the Chinese language is not banned in the earlier years after or before Independence.

    Furthermore, until today, there is even a large number of Chinese who cannot speak the Malay language despite having living in Malaysia for most of their lives. We can practice it freely even until today the Hua Zhong students have been given scholarships by the private institutions or countries like China/ Taiwan to further their studies if they’re excellent in their studies.

    Hence, I totally get why most Indonesian Chinese have no command of the language because it has been restricted in the earlier years (not sure about now) and to add on the Chinese family names has already been integrated into Indonesian names which may denotes certain parts of culture has been lost. As to which Chinese accent/pronounciation is the most soothing to ears, maybe because I speak Hokkien, for me Taiwan’s Mandarin is the most accurate.

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