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LOCATION: Indonesia
POPULATION: 238 million
LANGUAGE: Bahasa Indonesia (official language); otherwise, the languages spoken by the various ethnic groups
RELIGION: Islam (88%); Protestantism (5%); Catholicism (3%); Hinduism (2%); Buddhism (1%)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Achenese; Ambonese; Balinese; Banjarese; Batak; Bugis, Makassarese, and Mandarese; Javanese; Vol. Madurese; Malays in Indonesia; Minahasans; Minangkabaus; Ngaju Dayaks; Niasans; Sasak; Sumbanese; Sumbawans


Who are the Indonesians? This is no easier a question than "Who are the Americans?" Although administration and mass education have made all but the most isolated peoples of Indonesia aware of being "Indonesian," it is still true that as one moves outwards from the national capital, Jakarta, into the rural areas where almost 55% of Indonesians still live, an individual's ethnic group (suku bangsa in the national language) determines more and more his or her identity and way of life. By one estimate, there are more than 250 distinct cultural groups (sukus), speaking as many as 700 mutually unintelligible languages, and representing a wide range of physical types. Striving to maintain a delicate balance between preserving each suku's distinctive heritage and propagating a modern, development-oriented national culture, the republic takes as its motto, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika," an Old Javanese expression meaning "The Many Are One."

In addition to being crossed by the world's prime trade routes, the archipelago was itself the source of the world's most coveted commodities: spices. Beginning as early as the 2nd century AD, leaders who controlled the flow of trade goods and the production of rice (especially in Java and Bali) established kingdoms whose civilizations freely integrated foreign influences with indigenous traditions. For the antecedents of their nation, Indonesians look beyond Dutch colonialism to the greatest of those Hindu-Buddhist states, the empires of Srivijaya (South Sumatra, 7th–12th centuries) and Majapahit (East Java, late 13th–late 15th centuries), which stood as overlords of many lesser kingdoms in the archipelago.

In time, these same trade routes also introduced Islam and Arabo-Persian culture. From the late 13th century until the early 17th century, kingdom after kingdom converted to Islam. Beginning in the early 16th century, the spices of the Moluccas and the stranglehold the Malayan port of Malacca, Srivijaya's successor, held on international commerce attracted first the Portuguese and Spaniards and later the Dutch and English. The modern state of Indonesia had its beginnings in a scattering of fortified outposts established by the Holland-based VOC (Dutch East India Company) in the early 17th century. The VOC eventually succeeded in excluding European competitors from the spice trade and in dominating native rulers, but not without getting mired in a territorial expansion, which would bankrupt it by the end of the 18th century.

By the 1830s, the modern Dutch colonial state was founded, initially as a royal monopoly intent on squeezing as much profit as possible out of Java's peasants under the infamous Cultivation System. Over the next century, the power of this state and of a global capitalism hungry for the Indies' sugar, oil, rubber, and other natural riches expanded throughout the archipelago and penetrated deeper into the lives of more and more indigenes. It was within the framework of a common Dutch administration and European-style education that in the early years of the 20th century a small but rapidly growing group of "natives" began to imagine a community encompassing all the archipelago's peoples and to struggle to free an "Indonesian nation."

In early 1942, the Japanese, fresh from defeating the Americans and British elsewhere in Southeast Asia, took the Netherlands Indies with hardly any resistance from the Dutch; while brutally exploiting the colony for the resources needed by its own war effort, the new occupier gave Indonesian nationalist leaders, suppressed under the Dutch since the 1920s, opportunities to mobilize the population. On 17 August 1945, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two most prominent, Sukarno and Hatta, proclaimed Indonesian independence. It would take years of bloody struggle before the returned Dutch formally recognized the Indonesian republic on 17 December 1949.

In the 1950s, an experiment with parliamentary democracy failed amid the economic chaos produced in the previous two decades by world depression, world war, anti-colonial revolution, and post-revolutionary rebellions. President Sukarno attempted to restore stability through "Guided Democracy," a highly personalized style of rule wherein Sukarno's charisma was supposed to reconcile the differences among increasingly antagonistic political parties (Muslim, secular nationalist, and Communist) and a politicized army. As hyperinflation drove millions to the edge of starvation by the mid-1960s, this political competition intensified, sharpening rural conflicts over land. On the night of 30 September 1965, leftist junior officers abducted and killed six prominent generals. Major General Suharto stepped in to save the nation from what the military termed a "Communist coup," eventually forcing the left-leaning Sukarno to hand supreme power over to him on 11 March 1966. A nationwide bloodletting followed the coup and counter-coup, one of the 20th century's worst: local vigilantes under army sponsorship massacred as many as 400,000 Communists, leftist nationalists, and the victims of local mass "settling of scores."

By 1997, after more than 30 years of Suharto's "New Order," Indonesia had gone from being an economic "basket case" and diplomatic "renegade"/"pariah" to becoming a favored destination for foreign investment and a regional power whose voice carried ever more weight. However, social changes generated by rapid development were already threatening the stability of the very authoritarian system that had fostered economic growth. Despite massive corruption (most notoriously that of Suharto's own children) and pervasive repression of labor activism and other opposition, the general population seemed willing to recognize the regime's legitimacy as long as it delivered rising standards of living. When the Asian/global emerging markets financial crisis of 1997–98 threw millions of Indonesians into poverty, massive popular protests forced Suharto to resign. The sudden end of the New Order regime unleashed interethnic and interreligious conflicts that government suppression (as well as manipulation) had only intensified (riots against ethnic Chinese, including murder and rape, drove many to emigrate). In many parts of Indonesia, as the nation began experimenting with shifting more power into the hands of local governments, Christianized indigenous communities and Muslim transmigrants shed each other's blood, the latter often at the instigation of military factions and of international radical Islamist networks.

Since 1998, economic growth has resumed. The unemployment level, however, has not been substantially reduced and food and fuel prices are rising, making the lot of the poor even harder. Corruption, moreover, remains a massive problem: according to Transparency International, in 2007 Indonesia ranked 143 in a scale of 179, the same as Russia and only slightly better than Angola and Nigeria. Nonetheless, democracy has taken root, with free parliamentary elections held for the first time in almost four decades in 1999 and free direct presidential elections in 2004 (with an impeachment in between). The sequence of Indonesia's post-Suharto presidents represents the contemporary political spectrum: Muslim technocrats (B. J. Habibie), moderate Islamic parties (Abdurrahman Wahid), Sukarnoist secular nationalists (Megawati Sukarnoputri), and the military (ex-general Bambang Yudhoyono). Tensions persist, inherent in the discrepancies between Indonesia's realities and the ideals embodied in the Pancasila (the Five Principles), the state ideology: (1) belief in one Supreme God; (2) a noble and civilized humanity; (3) the unity of Indonesia; (4) democracy guided by the principles of consensus and representation; and (5) social justice for the entire Indonesian people.


In the Indonesian national language, the usual expression for the "homeland," Tanah Air Kita, translates as "Our Land and Water." This phrase expresses most succinctly the central fact of Indonesia's geography: the country consists of more than 17,000 islands, of which 6,000 are permanently inhabited (the total land area equals that of Mexico). The principal islands and island groups are Sumatra, Java, Bali, the Lesser Sundas (in Indonesian, Nusa Tenggara, the "Southeastern Islands," including Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Roti, and Timor), Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea), the Moluccas (including Ambon and Halmahera), Sulawesi, and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

The extraordinary fertility of much of the country's soil derives from the fact that the archipelago belongs to the "Ring of Fire," which circles the Pacific Ocean with a chain of insular and continental volcanoes. Indonesia's islands straddle the equator in a broad belt, which is actually longer than the east– west span of Europe or the continental United States. Proximity to warm water ensures that the overall climatic temperature varies little, remaining hot and humid all year round. Most of Indonesia experiences only two seasons: a dry season and a wet season. In January and February for western Indonesia, and April to July in the Moluccas, the monsoon winds bring torrential rains.

Indonesia, with its 238,000,000 inhabitants (September 2008 estimate), is the fourth–most populous country in the world (after China, India, and the United States). The most striking characteristic of Indonesia's population is its radically uneven distribution: Java, whose area (about that of New York State) amounts to no more than 7% of the Indonesian total, possesses nearly 60% of the population, and population densities overall vary from 980 people per sq km (1,550 per sq mi) in Central Java to less than 12 in Central Kalimantan and 6 in Papua. Because of the government's vigorous promotion of contraception over the past three decades, the population growth rate has been reduced to 1.18% per year. Nonetheless, the population (33.6% under age of 18) is still predicted to increase by nearly a quarter in the next four decades, reaching 294 million by the year 2050. The population, moreover, is becoming increasingly urbanized: the proportion of Indonesians living in cities rose from only 30% in 1990 to 45.6% in 2003 and is estimated to increase to 67.7% by 2030. Teeming with 15.1 million people (12,635 people per sq km [2000]) and sprawling over a vast stretch of coastal northwestern Java, the urban agglomeration centered on Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, ranks as the world's 14th most populous megacity, ahead of Beijing and London. Indonesia possesses seven other cities with populations of over a million; of these cities, Surabaya, Medan, and Makassar (Ujung Pandang) serve as regional centers for east Java/eastern Indonesia, Sumatra, and eastern Indonesia respectively.

Throughout Indonesia, rapid population growth has increased human demands on land and water, resulting in severe ecological problems: deforestation (with its inevitable companions, soil erosion, river siltation, reef death, and massive wildfires spewing heavy smog that affects not only western Indonesia but also Malaysia and Singapore); water pollution from sewage, pesticides, and offshore drilling; and depletion of fishing stocks. Ironically, "transmigration," the government-organized transfer of landless peasants from Java and Bali to sparsely peopled regions of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Indonesian (western) New Guinea (Papua, formerly Irian Jaya) has all too often introduced a method of agriculture that is ruinous of the local soils.


Although Indonesians speak between 250 and 700 distinct mother languages, there is only one official language of government, commerce, education, and mass media: Bahasa Indonesia (literally, the "Indonesian language"), a dialect of Malay. Although Malay is the mother tongue of less than 10% of the population, forms of Malay had long been in use throughout the archipelago as a medium of interethnic communication, a fact recognized by the Dutch colonial administration and by Indonesian nationalists' 1928 "Youth Oath" (Sumpah Pemuda).

For the majority of Indonesians, Bahasa Indonesia is the language of the public sphere, while a regional language is used for private, family, and local community life. Outside of Jakarta, where 90% of households report Bahasa Indonesia as the primary language of the home, monolingualism in Bahasa Indonesia is growing rapidly in the major multiethnic cities of the archipelago, such as Medan and Ujung Pandang, as well as in regions of traditionally great linguistic diversity, such as the Minahasa area of North Sulawesi and many islands in the Moluccas.

While Malay was and (to a limited extent) still is written in Arabic script, Bahasa Indonesia uses a Latin script. In 1972, a spelling reform was promulgated to unify the orthographies of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia.

Except for several separate families of Papuan languages spoken in Irian Jaya and some other eastern islands, the tongues spoken in Indonesia belong to several branches of the Austronesian language family. This language family includes the closely related languages of Madagascar, Malaysia, and the Philippines, as well as the more distant tongues of Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and aboriginal Taiwan. Austronesian languages were brought by Southern Mongoloid farming and seafaring peoples who entered Indonesia from the Philippines beginning 5,000 to 4,000 years ago. However, the farther east one travels in the Moluccas and the Lesser Sundas, the more pronounced becomes the Papuan genetic and linguistic legacy.

The major ethnolinguistic groups in Indonesia were as follows (population figures from the 2000 census, whose criterion for membership in an ethnicity was self-identification, supplemented by estimates from the 1990s if these are significantly different):

Java: Javanese (83.9 million people, in the center and east, 41.7% of the national population, the first largest ethnic group, western Java's 4.1 million Bantenese and 1.9 million Cirebonese, who speak dialects of Javanese, were counted as separate ethnicities in the 2000 census); Sundanese (31 million, in the west, 15.4% of the national population, the second largest ethnic group); Madurese (6.7–14 million in the east and on the nearby island of Madura); and Betawi (5 million), the "indigenous" people of Jakarta ("Batavia" under the Dutch), descended from slaves settled there by the VOC.

Sumatra: Acehnese (3 million, on the far northern tip); Gayo (in the highlands immediately south of the Acehnese); Toba Batak and Dairi Batak (respectively, 2 million and 1.2 million, in the highlands of the north, other Batak subgroups are the Karo, Mandailing, Angkola, and Simalungan, all groups total 6.1 million); Minangkabau (5.5–7.5 in the west); Nias and Mentawai (on islands off the west coast); Rejang and Lampung (respectively, 1 million and 1.5 million in southernmost Sumatra); and Malay (7–10 million, the third largest ethnic classification, scattered from the east coast of Sumatra through the Riau archipelago and on to the coasts of Kalimantan; also the dominant population of West Malaysia and present on the coasts of East Malaysia and in Brunei and Singapore; the Riau-Johor dialect is the basis of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia).

Kalimantan: Banjarese (3.9–5 million people in southeastern Kalimantan); and a great diversity of inland, animist peoples generally known as "Dayak" but who can be subdivided into such distinct groupings as the Ngaju, Maanyan, Ot Danum, Penan, and Kenyah.

Sulawesi: on the southwestern peninsula, Bugis (5 million in South Sulawesi), Makassarese (2 million), and Mandar; in the central highlands, a great diversity of groups, of which the best known are the Sa'dan Toraja and Pamona; on the northern peninsula, the Tomini, Gorontalo, Bolaang Mongondow, and the nationally prominent Minahasa; and in the east and on offshore islands, the Mori, Bungku, Muna, and Butonese.

The Lesser Sundas (only the better-known groups, names roughly corresponding to islands except as noted): Balinese (3–4 million people); Sasak (2.6 million, on Lombok); Sumbawans; Bimanese; Sumbanese; Savunese; on Flores, Manggarai, Ngada, Endenese, Sikanese; and on Timor, Tetum, Atoni, Helong; Rotinese.

The Moluccas: Non-Austronesian, Ternatans; Tidorese; and in northern Halmahera, Tobelorese, Galelarese, and other small groups; Austronesian, in southern Halmahera, small language groups such as Sawai; in the southern islands, Tanimbarese, Aru, and Kei; and the most important culture in the central islands, Ambonese.

Papua (Irian Jaya): although this province is home to less than 1% of the national population, the number of mutually unintelligible speech forms there may well approach the number in all the rest of the archipelago. Austronesian languages are spoken along the north and west coasts, while Papuan languages are spoken elsewhere (e.g., Asmat and Dani).

Chinese: numbering 1.7–7.5 million, they form the most important "nonindigenous" group (though most have resided in Indonesia for generations). The great majority are urban, although there are sizable rural populations in West Kalimantan and in the Riau Archipelago. Chinese-Indonesians are far from homogeneous, divided between the nonindigenized and the indigenized (i.e., acculturated to various local societies, the most prominent example being the peranakan of Java) as well as among home-region language groups (Hokkien, Teochiu, Cantonese, and Hakka). Under both colonial and post-colonial regimes, the Chinese have been set apart from the indigenous population. They are both granted privileges and subjected to discrimination and controls. Their economic prominence and cultural distinctiveness have long been the target of popular resentment; the 2000 census likely under-reports the number of Chinese because many Chinese were reluctant to identify themselves as such.


Practices of naming vary from ethnic group to ethnic group as well as across class and religious lines. The most commonly encountered type of name is an Arabic one associated with Islam. On Java, however, names of Sanskrit origin are favored, either alone or in combination with Arabic ones. Similarly, throughout the country, Christians add European names to names from their own ethnic languages. Outside of a few suku, such as the Batak and the Minahasa, family names are not used. In recent decades, Chinese have been under pressure to adopt "Indonesian" names for official purposes; in keeping with their own traditions, Chinese often pass on these adopted names as surnames to their children.

In general, Indonesians are fond of nicknames, usually based on the last syllable of the full name, e.g., the male name "Hermawan" becomes "Wawan," or the female name "Hermawati" becomes "Titi." On the other hand, etiquette requires that titles be used at all times to indicate respect. In Bahasa Indonesia, one addresses persons of greater age or status with the word "Bapak" for men and "Ibu" for women (literally, "Father" and "Mother," but meaning "Sir" and "Madam," and used instead of words for "you," which imply the speaker's equal or superior rank). The shortened forms "Pak" and "Bu" precede names and nicknames.


The nationalist movement and, later, the central government have honored a long list of "national heroes," who are commemorated not only in monuments but also in pictures hung in elementary school classrooms and in the names of streets, airports, universities, and other public institutions. Below are a few of the best-known figures:

Gajah Mada, the 14th-century Majapahit prime minister who is reputed to have prefigured Indonesian nationalism by vowing not to rest until he united the entire archipelago; the Javanese prince Diponegoro (1785–1855) and the Minangkabau cleric Imam Bonjol (1772–1864) who led an armed resistance to Dutch power; and Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879–1905), a Central Javanese noblewoman who advocated modern education and women's emancipation, and who is revered as a pioneer of Indonesian nationalism.


Religion plays a central role in defining individual identity and community life throughout Indonesia. One's religious affiliation is an essential fact noted on all official documents, including identity cards. All Indonesians must register as adherents of one of five recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Atheism, associated with the banned Communist movement, is not an option. An elaborate bureaucracy oversees the operations of each of the five religious communities. No Indonesian Muslim may leave for the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) without joining an official travel group (to avoid this constraint, some Indonesian Muslims depart for Mecca from other countries, such as Egypt). Legislation discourages marriage between members of different religious communities: one of the prospective partners must officially convert to the religion of the other. In the interests of confessional harmony, religious communities are forbidden to seek converts from each other's memberships, though they are welcome to proselytize among peoples "who do not yet have religion," e.g., animist tribespeople or many ethnic Chinese.

The vast majority (88%) of the population adheres to Islam, making Indonesia the largest Muslim nation on earth, with more Muslims than all the Arab countries put together. Practice ranges from "purist" (conforming to the standards of Middle Eastern orthodoxy) to "syncretist," including a wide range of pre-Islamic beliefs, especially characteristic of much Javanese Islam (for kebatinan, Javanese mystical sects, which often distinguish themselves from Islam, seeJavanese). Among purists, there is a further distinction between "traditionalists" and "modernists," the former supporting and the latter rejecting local Muslim practices, as well as being open to techniques of Western education and organization.

Protestantism claims 5% of the population. Although the VOC was by no means a missionary enterprise, some populations associated with the Dutch converted to Calvinism: Minahasa, Ambonese, and Indos (Eurasians). In the 19th century, the colonial government permitted Protestant proselytization among the remaining non-Muslim peoples, with the most significant successes among the Batak of North Sumatra and peoples of Central Sulawesi. Catholicism (3%) was first introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century; Flores and Timor are surviving enclaves. Missionary work in the 19th–20th century has propagated the religion in West Kalimantan and Papua. Especially in the last few decades, great numbers of Chinese have converted to either Protestantism or Catholicism.

Hinduism (2% of the population) in Indonesia means almost exclusively the religion of Bali, which is not a direct transplant of the Indian religion but rather a synthesis of indigenous and Indian elements. In addition, some ethnic groups have succeeded in legitimizing their own animist religions by having them reclassified as "Hinduism," e.g., the Aluk To Dolo of the Sa'dan Toraja, and the Kaharingan of the Dayak. Buddhism (no more than 1% of the population) claims mostly Chinese adherents, whose traditional practices combine Mahayana Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism.


The Department of Religion authorizes a list of 12 public holidays (on which government offices and schools are closed). Two are purely secular: New Year's Day and Independence Day (August 17). The others are feasts observed by the five recognized religions: Nyepi, the Hindu-Balinese New Year; Waisak, the birth of the Buddha; Christmas, Good Friday, and Ascension Thursday for Christians; and five Muslim holidays, including the Islamic New Year, the Birth of Muhammad, the Night of the Ascent (Muhammad's visit to heaven), Idul Fitri (the end of the fasting month of Ramadan), and Idul Adha (recalling Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God's command).

Every year, Independence Day is celebrated with great fanfare. Each village and city neighborhood is decorated with red and white national flags, ceremonial gateways, and colorful paintings commemorating the Revolution. Parades, speeches, and performances of traditional music, dance, and theater also mark the day.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims may not eat, drink, or smoke during the daylight hours. The end of these four weeks of self-denial is marked by a great celebration, called variously Idul Fitri, Lebaran, or Hari Raya. Throughout Indonesia, special feasts are prepared, heralded by the mass weaving of ketupat, small palm-leaf containers for rice cooked in the previous days. Idul Fitri is the occasion for family reunions: migrants return to their hometowns (all intercity roads and the buses on them are packed at this time) to clean ancestral graves and sprinkle them with flower petals. Even non-Muslims observe the custom of making calls on family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and superiors to ask forgiveness for the offenses of the past year.


Life cycle rituals differ greatly according to ethnic group, religion, and social class. Although for many, particularly the urban poor, modernization in everyday life has simplified the rites of passage, the trend, beginning during the New Order, has been for affluent families to display their status by holding traditional rituals as elaborately as they can afford, often reviving forgotten customs with the help of ritual experts. Celebrations are public affairs to which the extended family (who often assist the hosts), friends, workmates, professional associates, and local officials are invited; indeed, they are generally open to the entire neighborhood or village, all of whom must be fed. The most important celebrations accompany births, circumcisions (for Muslim boys), weddings, and funerals. Weddings usually consist of the legally required religious ceremony (usually Muslim or Christian) and rites following ethnic custom, followed by a large reception held in a family home, a hotel, or a rented hall. Among the Muslim majority, funerals tend to be somewhat more uniform from ethnic group to ethnic group, including washing and enshrouding of the body and burial within 24 hours. Mourners in truckloads accompany the body to the cemetery and, after collective prayer, each mourner tosses a handful of earth into the grave.


Although traditional codes of behavior differ considerably from ethnic group to ethnic group (and group stereotypes exaggerate these differences), interpersonal relations throughout Indonesia are governed by a concern to preserve social harmony and personal honor ("face"); respect for hierarchy is considered essential to both. In their interactions with others, Indonesians take great care to show deference to those of higher status, whether from greater age, nobler ancestry, superior educational attainment, or higher organizational rank.

In general, Indonesian life tends to be group, rather than individual oriented. In a society where individuals have little personal space, rarely having even a bed to themselves, privacy is largely an alien concept; solitude is most commonly associated with defenselessness. Subordinating one's interests to the group's interest is a village value that has been carried over into many aspects of modern urban life. Great care (more in some regions, like Java, than in others) is taken to avoid the overt expression of disagreement within the group. Fear of bringing shame upon one's family and other groups to which one belongs in the face of outsiders powerfully conditions personal decisions. Indonesian etiquette stresses the interdependence of individuals, not their independence of one another.

Greetings and body language

The Islamic greeting, "Wassalamu alaikum (warakhmatullahi wabarakatuh)," which means "Peace upon you (and God's blessings)," has become the standard greeting in public life, even for non-Muslims, often accompanied by the shaking of hands, concluded by bringing the right palm to one's own chest. The most common informal greeting is "Dari mana?" ("Where are you coming from?)" which is a question that is not felt to be intrusive and that no one is obliged to answer in specifics. Even in relatively informal situations, great importance is placed on asking leave to depart (a common phrase is the Dutch-derived "Permisi?").

In offering or receiving things, one extends the right hand, showing particular deference by placing the left hand under the right elbow while doing so. While passing in front of older or higher-status people, it is customary to bow low, extend the right hand in front of oneself, and walk forward slowly. The left hand, used with water for cleaning oneself after defecation, is taboo for the above purposes; when one is forced to use the left hand in front of others, one excuses oneself ("Ma'af kiri," "Forgive, the left."). Especially in Java, the index finger is taboo; pointing is done with the right thumb, and one beckons others to come with a downward, inward movement of the right palm. Similarly, it is offensive to point the soles of one's feet at others while sitting, a situation avoided by traditional modes of sitting cross-legged (bersila, men) or with legs folded to one side (bersimpuh, women). Folding one's arms over one's chest or holding them akimbo while speaking can appear to be aggressive.

Visiting and dating customs

Unannounced visits may be made in the late afternoon between siesta and dinnertime (4:00–6:00 pm). Visitors are served tea and snacks; one leaves a little food on the plate to show one wants no more. Indonesian attitudes toward punctuality are reflected in the expression "jam karet" ("rubber time"). Lateness to appointments is the norm; however, Indonesians tend to rise early, as well as retire early, perhaps as a function of the tropical climate.

Although there is considerable variation in this regard, interaction between members of the opposite sex tends to be closely monitored by elders and peers: dating and premarital sex are not condoned (early marriage is the traditional outlet). In many regions, the honor of the family is invested in its women's reputation for chastity (which may entail the women avoiding any eye contact with males who are not their relatives), and the family's men take quite seriously their responsibility to protect that honor. Public displays of affection between the sexes (such as holding hands or kissing) are taboo. Physical contact between members of the same sex, however, (such as walking arm in arm) is common, not being considered homosexual. One common way teenagers meet is for the boy to loiter by the front gate of the girl's house, hoping to be admitted by a servant or family member who will chaperone the ensuing conversation.


At US$3,843 per year, Indonesia's per capita GDP (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity, all figures are from 2005, unless otherwise noted) places it in the category of lower middle income nations. Its ranking in the United Nations Human Development Index is 107 (out of 177 countries ranked). Countries with similar HDIs are Vietnam, Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Turkmenistan, and Nicaragua. Its HDI ranking is six places higher than its ranking according to GNP per capita (PPP), indicating that its population is somewhat better off in terms of health and education than per capita income alone would provide for (South Africa's per capita GDP, adjusted for PPP, is almost three times that of Indonesia's, yet South Africa's HDI index is slightly lower).

More than half the population (52.4%) lives on less than two dollars equivalent a day, and 7.5% on less than a dollar a day. The proportion of the population living below the national poverty line (earning less than the amount needed to provide oneself a daily intake of 2,100 calories and other basic needs) has declined dramatically over the years, from 40.1% in 1976 to 16.58% in 2007. As measured by its Gini coefficient of 34.3, income inequality in Indonesia is not particularly severe by world standards. It is greater in the United States (40.8), far greater in Brazil (57), and not much less in Japan (29.9). Still, the richest 20% earns 5.2 times as much as the poorest 20%. (a slight improvement over seven times in the 1990s). Moreover, there is wide variation in the standard of living from region to region and between urban and rural areas. For instance, on average, rural people spend more of their income on food than urbanites do, despite higher food prices in cities (in 2005 residents of the national capital region spent 37.72% of their income on food, while residents of heavily rural Nusa Tenggara Timur spent 62.24% (the national average had been 54.59% in 2004).

Given the high average family size, Indonesian houses tend to be crowded; in 2006, 44.9% of houses were under 50 sq m in size, 21.3% under 9 sq m (1990s figures record 6% of houses as having no separate bedroom). Some 37.78% had walls of materials other than brick (down from 51.77% in 1990). Roofs are of tile (66% of all houses according to 1990s figures), zinc, or thatch (4.65%, down from 8.75% in 1990). About 16% of houses had an earthen floor in 2006 (down from 24% in 1990). The layout of a well-off family's house does not differ from that of Western houses, having separate rooms for receiving guests, eating dinner, etc. About 60% of houses had their own toilet in 2006, up from 47% in 1990. Most bathrooms, however, differ from Western ones in having squat toilets and an open tank to scoop water out of for bathing and flushing. Many poorer Indonesian homes lack such facilities, forcing their owners to use public areas such as riversides. While nearly all houses in Jakarta have electricity, the national figure is only 54% (47.3% in the 1990s). 28.5% of households use biomass (firewood, etc) or waste material for fuel. Overall, per capita carbon dioxide emissions are still low, at 1.7 tons in 2004 (up from 1.2 in 1990).

In the early 1990s, just over 11% of houses had their garbage picked up by sanitation workers. The rest disposed of it themselves by burning or piling it in their yards, or throwing it in public dumps, gutters, canals, or rivers. Only 13% of houses (mostly urban) enjoyed running water (not generally drinkable); most people obtained water from streams, canals, ponds, and wells that were usually polluted to some degree (in 1990, only 16.37% received piped or bottled water). By 2006, 46.6% had access to safe drinking water from pump, well, or spring.

Life expectancy (according to 2008 figures) has been rising: 67.98 years for men and 73.07 years for women; 58.4 years for men and 62 years for women in 1990, up from 51.1 years for men and 54.4 years for women in 1980. Infant mortality is also falling: 31.04 from 105 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1980 to 75.2 deaths in 1990. Modern pharmaceuticals and physicians are expensive, so most people use traditional herbal remedies (jamu, much of which are now mass-manufactured) and consult traditional healers (dukun) more frequently. As part of an extensive public clinic system stressing preventative care (immunization, contraception, and natal care), doctors make weekly visits to villages.

Ownership of an automobile (25 per 1,000 people in 2005) or motorcycle (130 per 1,000 people) is a luxury unavailable to all but upper class and some middle-class families (up from 1990s figures of 5 and 30 respectively). Most people rely on buses for travel within and between cities; Java also has a well-used rail network. Minivans run within cities and through the countryside (where horse-drawn carriages are still common). Except in Jakarta where bajaj (motorcycle cabs) are used instead, becak (tricycles with a seating carriage in front of the peddler) carry people and goods through side streets and roads. As an alternative to expensive airplanes, large passenger ships provide the principal means of interisland travel for most people; sailing ships are still in wide use for fishing and carrying merchandise.

Telephone access is spreading rapidly; the number of telephone landlines per 1,000 people rose from 6 in 1990 to 213 in 2005. More than 1 out of 5 people had a cell phone subscription in 2005. The number of Internet users is growing fast, tripling from 11.2 million in 2004 to 33.2 million in 2008 (UN figures estimated 73 Internet users for every 1000 people in 2005).


The family is the central institution of Indonesian society, and the model for other social relations. Although kinship patterns differ from ethnic group to ethnic group, some common features can be seen throughout the country. The family household includes not only parents and children but also grandparents, other unmarried relatives, and servants. Child care responsibilities are shared among mothers, grandmothers, older daughters, and others. The father is often the ultimate authority figure, though often a distant one, while the mother manages the family money. Remaining at home, children remain dependent on their parents until, and often well into, marriage. Children are duty-bound to take care of their parents in old age, and older siblings likewise help their juniors, even going as far as financing the latter's education.

Indonesians keep cats and dogs as well as songbirds as pets.


Context and class determine the choice between modern and traditional clothes. For instance, while a male office worker wears a Western-style shirt and trousers to work, he often relaxes at home, does his prayers, or is wed in some kind of sarong. Shorts are not worn by adults, except by becak drivers and other low-status laborers. In their everyday clothing, members of the elite follow Western fashions closely. For example, young people commonly wear jeans and t-shirts. For ceremonial purposes, however, they lavish great expense on traditional costumes. A small number of Muslim women wear a head covering in public (i.e., in the presence of men who are not their kin or very close friends): this may be either a more traditional scarf (kudung) or, the modernist preference, a full veil exposing only the face (jilbab) and often worn with items of Western-style clothing like jeans.

Under the New Order, a standard "national costume" came into vogue for use on formal occasions. For men, the black felt peci cap, originally associated with Muslims, was first popularized as a symbol of nationalism by Sukarno in the 1920s. In current practice, this is worn with a batik shirt (untucked) and trousers. Women wear a sarong and a kebaya (tight-sleeved, collarless shirt) and put their hair up into a bun (or tuck it under a wig of the required shape). For work, many jobs require a uniform: soldiers, elementary school students, and civil servants all wear uniforms.


Indonesian cuisine has been influenced by Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Portuguese, and even Dutch cooking.

Throughout the country (with the partial exception of dry eastern islands where maize, cassava, taro, and sago are important, if not esteemed, starch sources), rice is the staple, the definition of a "full meal" being "cooked rice (nasi) with side dishes (lauk-pauk)." Depending on one's budget, these side dishes can range from the most modest (some boiled vegetables with or without a piece of dried fish) to the most extravagant (several fried and stewed dishes including meat curries, heavily spiced, especially with chilies). Outside of well-off families, meat (goat, mutton, beef for Muslims, also pork and in some regions dog for non-Muslims) is consumed only on special occasions. Chicken, seafood, and soybean products provide a cheaper protein source acceptable to all.

The traditional mode of eating for all ethnic groups has been to scoop up food from flat dishes with the fingers of the right hand (the left hand being reserved exclusively for washing oneself after defecation). An alternative associated with sitting at a Western-style table is to use a spoon and fork (i.e., using the fork in the left hand to push food on to the spoon in the right hand). Individual portions are not separated; rather, everyone takes from common dishes laid out at once in the center of the table or dining mat. Ordinary meals are usually consumed quickly without conversation.

Most Indonesians do not eat a distinct breakfast, apart from leftovers of the previous evening's meal, should there be any. Middle-class people will eat bread with coffee or tea; this bread is usually bought from men sent around neighborhoods by bakeries at dawn. For lunch and dinner, upper- and middle-class people eat rice and side dishes prepared by their maids. For lunch, office workers and students will either go to warung or kedai (small food stalls) or buy dishes like bakso (meatball soup) from mobile street vendors. For those who can afford them, afternoon snacks (e.g., rujak, a fresh fruit salad) are also common. In city neighborhoods, a great variety of street vendors make the rounds well into the night. Especially popular are stalls that set up for the evening around plazas or along major thoroughfares, closing up after midnight. Throughout the country, Chinese restaurants can be found, as well as those serving Padang food (that of the far-migrating Minangkabau of West Sumatra).

Outside animist and Christian areas, because of Islamic strictures, the consumption of alcohol (mostly beer) is limited to some particularly Westernized members of the elite. As untreated water is usually unsafe, tea and coffee are drunk in great quantities, usually with sugar and sometimes milk. Soft drinks, including bottled tea and bottled water, are also popular. 58% of men and 3% of women smokes (up from 30% in the 1990s); Indonesians favor cigarettes (kretek) flavored with cloves.


Literacy (2004 estimate) stands at 90.4 % overall, 94% for males, and 86.8% for females, a substantial increase from 1990s figures of 77%, 84%, and 68% respectively. Schooling is free of charge and compulsory for ages 7 to 15. About 81% of the age-eligible students are enrolled in all levels of education; 94% of age-eligible students are enrolled in elementary education, and 61% in secondary education (2005). About 75% of students reach fifth grade (2004). Between 1980 and 1990, the proportion of the population that had graduated from senior high school doubled, reaching 13.7%.

Curriculum in primary and secondary schools is determined by the central government. Major goals of the educational system include teaching the national language, instilling the state ideology of Pancasila, and supplying religious instruction. Teaching methodology stresses rote memorization. For poorer families, sending a child to a public school is often a financial burden because of supplementary fees and other costs, such as textbooks and uniforms (a uniform costs Rp10,000 or US$9, almost one-eighth of the average monthly industrial wage).

Over 2.58 million were enrolled in tertiary education in 2007. Only one in five applicants to state institutions is admitted (a decrease from one in four in the 1990s). The requirement of a written thesis (skripsi) prevents most students from earning their degrees on time. Many must interrupt their study in order to work to support themselves and finance further coursework.

While only about 7.6% of students enrolled in primary education attends private (mostly Islamic schools), about 40% of students enrolled in secondary education does (2007). At pesantren (Islamic schools of the traditional type), students learn the Arabic language, scripture, and religious law but without specific graduation requirements; students who live at the usually rural schools may leave study at any time.


No dance styles can be said to be truly national, but three urban-based music genres have won nationwide popularity. Kroncong, a melancholy music for voice and strings, ultimately of Portuguese origin via the Eurasians of the VOC towns, is still widely heard though considered old-fashioned (during the Revolution, it was the medium for patriotic songs). Favored by the self-consciously "cosmopolitan" upper and middle classes is pop Indonesia, modeled on American-European pop music. Dangdut, characterized by high-pitch vocals and an insistent beat derived from Indian film music, on the other hand, has its base in the urban poor. Holiday fairs will feature large tents where hundreds of young people crush together gyrating to live dangdut singing.

Literature in Bahasa Indonesia (as distinct from writing in Classical Malay) had its beginnings in late 19th-century "penny dreadfuls" produced for the Sino-Indonesian and Eurasian urban market. More substantial novels, such as Marah Roesidi's Sitti Noerbaja (1922), as well as poetry, have been written since the early years of the 20th century, often published by Balai Pustaka, a still extant printing house established by the Dutch government in 1908. Indonesia's internationally famous writer has been Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006), a leftist author, imprisoned for years under the New Order, whose tetralogy, "This Earth of Mankind," "Child of All Nations," "Footsteps," and "House of Glass," explores the birth of Indonesian nationalism.


With more than 70% of the population living in rural areas, agriculture employed more than half of Indonesia's workforce. Only 13% of cultivated land belongs to large plantations, the rest divided among tens of millions of smallholders. Although the high economic growth of recent years has benefited many rural families, many peasants do not own enough land to survive, or have none at all and are forced to work others' land. One out of four rural families has at least one member working in the cities.

Rice grown in irrigated fields (sawah) is by far the most important food crop, particularly in Java and Bali, but maize, cassava, taro, sago, soybeans, peanuts, and coconuts are also widely grown. Sugar, coffee, tea, cloves (for domestic cigarettes), and rubber are important cash crops. Cattle, goats, chickens, and, in non-Muslim areas, pigs are the main livestock species. In the Outer Islands, a decreasing number of people still practice slash-and-burn agriculture (ladang). Fishing employed 1.5 million in the 1990s.

Official figures put the unemployment rate at 8.46% in 2008, but many of the "working" can be classified as "underemployed," engaged in small tasks for minimal pay. In 2005–2006, the nominal monthly wage in a manufacturing job ranged between RP 876,600 to RP1,029,200, in a hotel job between RP 723,900 and RP 931,700 (at an average of RP10,800 per US$1). Over 43% of the work force works in the "informal sector," at jobs requiring little skill or capital. In the 1990s, petty traders, including half of all non-farming women, make up most of the 16% of the work force then engaged in commerce. In 2005, 44% of the population was employed in agriculture. Industry employed 18% (up from 11% in the 1990s), including great numbers of young women who work in textile factories. 38% work in the service sector (compared to only 13% in the previous decade); these include those employed in the bureaucracy and the military. With only a little over 300,000 active duty personnel, this is a relatively low proportion by world standards. Indonesia, though the fourth largest country by population, only has the fourteenth largest military, approximately the same size as Thailand's, a country only one-fifth as populous.

According to government figures from 2006, 2.7 million Indonesians were working legally abroad (only 2.8% of the labor force), mostly in the Middle East but also increasingly in neighboring Asian countries with labor shortages, such as Singapore and Taiwan. The world's second largest flow of illegal workers (after that from Mexico into the United States) is from Indonesia into Malaysia.


Part of the Dutch colonial heritage, the most popular modern sport is soccer, which is played on large open spaces in towns throughout the country. In 1994, the whole nation stayed up night after night to watch live telecasts of the World Cup being played in Atlanta. The other two most widely played sports are basketball and badminton, the latter often played in the middle of the street without a net.

Martial arts are also widely practiced, be they the indigenous silat or imported East Asian forms, such as kung fu or taekwando. With the government stressing calisthenics, many people can be seen jogging or otherwise exercising in streets and public squares and parks, particularly on Sunday morning. A common excursion for young people is to go hiking in large groups through mountain areas.


There were 130 radios and 57 televisions for every 1,000 people. Numerous radio stations broadcast programs in the national and regional languages and play regional (traditional), national, and foreign music (Heavy Metal, for instance, appeals to a wide teenage audience). Until 1989, only one government-run channel was available, beamed in by Indonesia's own Palapa satellite, but at present there are 11 national broadcast channels (all but two are private) and many more local ones. Programming includes the government-produced news, comedies set in middle-class Jakarta homes, historical dramas, music concerts, and old movies; dubbed or subtitled foreign imports consist of American series, Japanese anime and melodramas, and Latin American soap operas. Many well-to-do households receive a wide selection of foreign channels through a satellite dish (parabola) or cable and often allow neighbors to pay to tap in. In the countryside, families wealthy enough to purchase a television set regularly invite fellow villagers to watch.

In cinemas, elite audiences prefer to watch subtitled American movies, or dubbed or subtitled Hong Kong kung fu films (all censored of sexually explicit footage). The masses watch Indonesian, Hong Kong, and Indian movies. Films produced by the declining Indonesian film industry resort to predictable plots, violence, and as much exposed flesh as the censors will allow.

Other popular urban pastimes include window-shopping in malls and department stores, browsing in night markets, and eating at evening-only food stalls.


A variety of crafts are practiced by individual Indonesian ethnic groups, including woodcarving, weaving textiles, baskets, and mats, metalworking (gold, silver, copper, and iron), pottery and stone carving, leatherworking, tie-dying and batiking, glass painting, boat building, and gardening.


Rapid development has not brought comparable benefits to all sectors of the population. Despite the success of contraception programs, the large and growing population continues to strain national resources. Although living standards have risen, economic growth has widened the gap between the rich and the poor, especially the rural landless. The security net provided by traditional social networks is weakening, exposing many people to exploitation. The conflict between traditional values and those of modernity, both as defined by the national state and by international consumer culture, is intensifying, leading many to espouse religious fundamentalism as an alternative.

Political liberalization since the end of the New Order has given an opening to groups seeking to impose Sharia (Islamic law) on many localities. In October 2008, a national anti-pornography bill was passed in the face of strong opposition, including from women's groups and from non-Muslim ethnic groups, such as the Balinese (who felt their religious images might be threatened); the legislation's targets include public displays of affection, such as kissing relatives in greeting and public performances that "excite sexual desire," as well as pop concerts where dangdut stars' dancing involve gyrating on stage. Many feared that the law would legitimize violent actions taken by radical Islamist vigilante groups against places deemed "immoral," such as brothels and pool halls.


The country's Gender Related Development Index (2005) is 0.721, slightly less than its Human Development Index of 0.728. In comparison with their counterparts in Middle Eastern Muslim societies, Indonesian women play a more prominent public role, from petty trading to the professions. Under bilateral kinship, the mother's line is potentially as important as the father's line in channeling inheritance and status. Women are active in organizations, such as those for the wives of civil servants or army officers. In Indonesian Islam, women are not segregated from men in the mosque. Indonesians are currently debating the legality of polygamy (allowed by Islam but not common and even forbidden to civil servants).

Life expectancy for women is higher (71.6 years) than for men (67.8). Adult literacy, however, is lower for women (86.8%) than for men (94%), as is enrollment in all levels of education (67% vs. 70%, there are about 8 women for every 10 men in university and other tertiary educational institutions). The country has had a woman president (Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's first president), and women hold 11.3% of the seats in parliament. On average, women earn 46% of the income that men do. 1 million women are employed as domestic workers overseas, most commonly in Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from their employers.

Abortion is prohibited except in the case of danger to the life of the mother. In 2000–2005, the fertility rate stood at 2.4 births per woman (down from 5.3 three decades earlier). 89% of women from the richest 20% of society were attended by a skilled health professional while giving birth; the proportion was only 21% for the poorest 20% of society. During 1990–2004, 310 women died in childbirth for every 100,000 live births. For the richest 20% of society, infant mortality ran to 23 per 1,000 live births and under five mortality to 29 per 1,000 live births; for the poorest 20 % of society, the figures were respectively 78 and 109 (population overall, 28 and 36).

The government's approach towards prostitution is ambivalent. On the one hand, prostitutes (officially termed "WTS," short for "wanita tuna susila," "women without morals") are concentrated in government-supervised "lokalisasi," brothel districts; on the other, these lokalisasi are subject to being shut down by the same government, and the prostitutes are subject to harassment. Enforcing anti-prostitution regulations, however, very often means that police detain non-prostitutes simply for being out on city streets at night. The trafficking of women and children within the country and to foreign countries is a major problem (entertainers and mail order brides often suffer abuse). Underage marriage is common (the legal age for marriage is 16 but exceptions can be made with parental consent, 33% of marriages in rural areas and 15% in urban areas are underage). High rates of underage marriage and of divorce leave many women with few options other than going into prostitution or falling prey to human traffickers holding forth promises of jobs in cities or abroad.

Human Rights Watch regards Indonesia as failing to back up fully its rhetoric in promoting women's rights.


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—by A. J. Abalahin