When the Europeans came in the early 16th century, they found a multitude of small states. These were vulnerable to the Europeans, who were in pursuit of dominating the spice trade. In the 17th century, the Dutch emerged as the most powerful of the Europeans, ousting the Spanish and Portuguese (except for their colony of Portuguese Timor on the island of Timor). The Dutch influence started with trading by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a private enterprise, which gradually expanded its region of influence and its grip on political matters. Following the dissolution of the VOC in 1799, as well as the political instability from the Napoleonic Wars, the East Indies were awarded to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. From this time onward, the East Indies were officially ruled as colonies of the Dutch crown.
Under the nineteenth-century Cultivation System (Cultuurstelsel), large plantations and forced cultivation were established on Java, finally creating the profit for the Netherlands that the VOC was unable to produce. In a more liberal period of colonial rule after 1870 the Cultivation System was abolished, and after 1901 the Dutch introduced the Ethical Policy, which included limited political reform and increased investment in the colony.
During World War II, with the Netherlands under German occupation, in December 1941 Japan began a five pronged campaign towards Java and the vital fuel supplies of the Dutch East Indies. Though Japan captured Java by March 1942, it was unable to find any national leader willing to cooperate with the Japanese government against the Dutch. Eventually the Japanese commander ordered that Sukarno be released from his prison island and in July 1942 he arrived in Jakarta. Sukarno, with colleagues, cooperated with the Japanese occupiers. In 1945, with the war drawing to a close, Sukarno seized the opportunity to declare independence. Upon lobbying, Japan agreed that Sukarno established a committee to plan for independence. Sukarno, and Mohammad Hatta, declared independence on 17 August.
In an effort to regain control of their previously occupied colonies, the Allies sent in their armies, including the Netherlands' Army. Indonesia's war for independence lasted from 1945 until 27 December 1949, when, under heavy international pressure, the Netherlands acknowledged Indonesia's independence. Sukarno became the country's first president, with Mohammad Hatta as the first vice-president. See Indonesian National Revolution. It was not until 16 August 2005 that the Dutch government finally recognized 1945 as the country's year of independence and expressed its regrets over the Indonesian deaths caused by the Netherlands' Army.
The 1950s and 1960s saw Sukarno's government aligning itself first with the emerging non-aligned movement and later with the socialist bloc. The 1960s saw Indonesia in a military confrontation against neighboring Malaysia, and increasing frustration over domestic economic difficulties.
Army general Suharto became president in 1967, backed by the US and UK, with the excuse of securing the country against an alleged Communist coup attempt against a weakening Sukarno. In the aftermath of Suharto's rise, an estimated one million people were killed or imprisoned in a backlash against alleged communist supporters. Suharto's administration is commonly called the New Order era. Suharto invited major foreign investment into the country, which produced substantial, if uneven, economic growth. However, Suharto enriched himself and his family through widespread corruption and he was forced to step down amid massive popular demonstrations and a faltering economy by the Indonesian Revolution of 1998.
Since 1998 the country had presidents: Bacharuddin Jusuf (BJ) Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, and Megawati Sukarnoputri. In 2004 the largest one-day election in the world and Indonesia's first direct general elections were held, won by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, popularly known as SBY. After two consecutive terms Joko Widodo became Indonesia's seventh president in 2014.Parts of northern Sumatra, particularly Aceh, were devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami on 26 December 2004. See Impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake on Indonesia
This section contains part of the chapter "Refinement and
Topics" from our free culture and travel book Enjoying
A topic like culture is very wide and diverse and open for many different interpretations and definitions. For most of us, culture is often synonymous with art forms. For anthropologists however, culture is broadly the shared behavior and the worldview of a (large) group of persons.
For a country as large as the Indonesian archipelago it is easy to understand that there must be more than one culture. Indeed, while the exact number of cultures is not known, estimates vary from 300 to 600.
To give an easy example: even on the island of Java there are at least four different cultures: those of the very traditional Badui in West Java, the 'mainstream' West Javanese, Central Javanese and East Javanese cultures.
One could easily argue that Jakarta has a distinct popular culture too and that the culture of Yogyakarta is different from the rest of Central Java.
This discussion could continue forever. For the sake of brevity and to serve as a simple introduction to the topic of culture in Indonesia, we'd like to introduce a few recognizable concepts that are shared by most Indonesians, be they from Sumatra, Jakarta or Papua.
There are three major realms in our worldview, each with a number of characteristics. Without any particular order these are:
all have our place in the universe, not just during our lifespan in the
now, but also in the past and in the future. There is a purpose in
lives as human beings, subject to ups and downs. Although we are not
what the purpose is, we know that we must try and achieve a better
not primarily in a material sense, but in a spiritual meaning. This
the Buddhist or Hindu philosophy, which is not really surprising, as
the very first ‘official’ religions that came to
on earth the harshest form of human life can be found tilling the soil,
in the seas or doing other manual labor. It is not only a harsh life,
coarse (kasar). We need to aspire a more refined (halus)
life, as far removed from the dirt as possible.
It explains why in general, Indonesians have little regard for material possessions and why maintenance is not taken seriously. It also explains why children don’ t mind if their toys (cheap ones or expensive ones) break down soon. The disregard for the material also extends to animals and vegetation. Both are valued only for their contribution to help people sustain themselves, and are rarely enjoyed as pets or as nature. Maybe that is one reason why the environmental movement makes little progress.
patriarchies are the norm and also paternalism and something we call bapakisme,
a culture of accepting what adult men say, opine and decide. The word
the root word bapak, which means
father, Mr. and Sir at the same time. A bapak
is supposed to be a leader, a good father, the provider, the protector
one who knows everything and has the correct answer in all occasions.
children and subordinates are keen to listen to what bapak
says and to follow and to oblige immediately. Boss and bapak
are almost synonymous. Questioning bapak
is not the norm. A farmer is a bapak
for his family. The village head will be the bapak
for the entire village, including the farmers. Civil servants will be bapak for the municipality, the district
or the province. The
culture of bapakisme has gone so
that we are inclined to say only those things that please our bapak,
even if it means adjusting the truth. Westerners would say, in their
of speech: that is lying. To us, it is simply a matter of highlighting
aspects of reality.
The opposite of bapak is ibu, which means Mrs., Madam and mother. A person who is married, or over the age of say, 25 years is traditionally addressed as Ibu or Bapak. What you may guess is that being a father or a mother is an important social position in
Anyone who is too young to be married is addressed as brother (Mas, Bang etc.) uncle (
With the distinction between the role of bapak and ibu comes a clear distinction between their respective responsibilities. Bapak as the heads of everything are focused most with life outside the family circle, making a living and making decisions for the family, but rarely involving the family members, let alone the children in decision-making. The role and responsibilities of ibu include all that is related to the household and the education of the children. Ibu can be found in the kitchen, a domain that is completely off limits to most bapak.
The concept of ‘ladies first’ has its opposite in
Indonesians constantly look up to a Bapak and are keenly aware of who is ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ to oneself, who is ‘junior’ and who is ‘senior’.
We are also very conscious that our proper attitude should be one of being humble, modest, polite and pious. Arrogance has no place in our mental framework and we detest it. When we are very young and begin to talk, our parents teach us to use our name if we want to talk about ourselves. It is not modest to say ‘I’ or ‘you’. The only polite way to address someone, while we don’t know the person’s name is to use anda, which is a polite form of ‘you’. In French it would be Vous, in German Sie, in Dutch U, and in Spanish Usted.
A different aspect of modesty shows when you ask someone for his or her plans for the future or hopes and dreams. The sentence that will likely pop up is that the person hopes to be or to become useful for the people and the nation. In Indonesian: berguna bagi nusa dan bangsa. Personal ambitions, stepping out of the box, being creative, doing things differently are all concepts that do not fit with the traditional values of modesty, politeness and obedience. And yet, there is this other side of the coin. Observing Bapak in Indonesia, especially those who are well off, have a high position and supervise people you will definitely notice a high degree of arrogance in quite a few of them. Arrogance does not match the ideals of modesty and being humble. It’s probably not the fault of the arrogant bapak, they may not even be aware that they are arrogant. Maybe it is because so many people look up to them that makes that one eventually looses a sense of reality. High positions, being praised all the time, having power and easy access to resources, becoming arrogant, and becoming involved with corruption (in the name of obtaining resources for the members of the bapak’s group in order to redistribute them); it’s a vicious circle that is extremely hard to break.
A bit more on names; Indonesians generally have more than one name, but all of these are first names. The custom to have a family name has not been introduced to
The invisible world of the ancestors is a reality for a vast majority
Indonesians, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
The invisible world of the ancestors is a reality for a vast majority of Indonesians, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
In addition to the four acknowledged religions, ancient beliefs, such as mysticism and remnants of animism find fertile ground in the hearts and minds of Indonesians without causing conflicts with the official religion.
From an anthropological standpoint one could say that religions provide meaning and direction to life and an understanding of one’s duty, as ordained by the Creator.
In day to day interactions with Indonesians, be prepared to be asked a
questions repeatedly, that is; what is your name, where do you come
from and are
Common law is a concept that does not (officially) exist in
The urge to get married is so strong that traditionally children were married off at a very young age. Girls of 12 years old were considered to be of the correct age to become wives. Boys usually were a bit older, but not by much. Even in today’s
Poverty is one of the contributing factors today why parents (and grandparents) may push their children and grandchildren into an early marriage, relieving the economic burden for the family of the child bride.
The deeply ingrained fear that ‘something unfortunate’ might happen to the adolescent girl if she begins to interact with boys, or attracts the attention of boys is another driving factor to ensure that she finds herself a husband. In many rural communities an unmarried fifteen-year-old girl is considered an old spinster and every attempt will be made to marry her off.
Even if the marriage would break down after a few weeks or months, having already fulfilled one’s duty in life (especially if a child has been born during the brief marriage), it is far better to be a ‘widow’ (janda) than a spinster.
But despite many traditions that have survived many centuries, times are changing and with them have come new demands to survive. Old distinctions like the Javanese social class of priyayi (the scholars and administrators) and the low class of abangan no longer exist in modern
Especially from a Javanese perspective the higher one’s social status the more refined one is, the more removed from the coarse and the closer to the ethereal. Observing one’s religious duties fits perfectly in this pattern and in order to do so, one needs to be pure, inside and out. Purity is achieved by ritual cleansing as prescribed in one’s religion and through reading, discussing, understanding and interpreting the Holy Scriptures of the religion.
In day to day interactions with Indonesians, be prepared to be asked a
questions repeatedly, that is; what is your name, where do you come
from and are
problem with human life is that nothing is constant and that everything
directions that are not always favorable to the individual. Power too
tendency to shift.
Balance in life and balance of power is often as elusive as it is desired. In
We might say that history shows that the overwhelming majority of the people who lived in
Maintaining harmony in all aspects of life is an important objective, and to achieve it many Indonesians have developed a set of behaviors such as deference, modesty and forgiveness.
Accepting one’s fate and trying to maintain harmony is one thing, trying to acquire a little more power is what many people do in reality. Although lotteries and gambling are illegal practices, they still occur and can be seen as attempts to acquire additional financial means to make life a little more pleasant.
And obviously, the larger the sum the more power one will create.
There are other ways to increase one’s power. To practice mysticism or martial arts to develop the inner strength that lies dormant in each individual is increasingly popular. Walking through markets you will undoubtedly come across vendors selling stones, including gemstones. Their clientele are men who carefully select a stone set in a silver or gold ring. Each stone has particular characteristics and the art is to find one that matches one's personality. Almost all adult men in
While we struggle to maintain balance and harmony, we need markers at important milestones. These markers are the many ceremonies you may see, either a genuine ceremony or one transformed into a performance for tourists, such as traditional dances. All those ceremonies mark the passing from one stage in life to the next. In fact the stages of life begin even before birth, when the pregnant woman and her family (including the neighborhood) celebrate different stages of the pregnancy as they signify the development of the fetus. The ceremonies continue after the death of a person.
All these ceremonies, in any of the cultures in
Being modest or humble has its expression in that we don’t want to create problems. The other one is that we forgive easily.
Not wanting to create problems we (especially the Javanese) may say things that are not always truthful from a foreigners’ perspective. We have been said to be deferential: avoiding conflict and confrontation. From our side of the story, there is no harm at all to say that we agree, while in fact we don’t. We behave like this especially towards seniors. After all, it is ‘not done’ to challenge their opinion.
So, it is far better to pretend than to create an unpleasant atmosphere in the house or at work –and thus disrupt harmony. The unpleasant atmosphere will linger for weeks or years, but the pretense will be forgiven soon.
A long time ago, in the colonial days, the Dutch were puzzled about the Javanese rulers, so aloof that they almost completely seemed to ignore the colonizers and continued to live as usual. The Dutch also complained that those ‘natives’ couldn’t be trusted. When they said ‘yes’ they would do ‘no’. When they smiled in front of you, the next moment they would stab a dagger in your back.
From an Indonesian, or Javanese standpoint many westerners and, for that matter, also countrymen from Sumatra, Kalimantan, Madura and
Some of us wonder why foreigners can’t behave like we do. How nice it would be if foreigners took time to sit down and talk about things or talk about nothing. Even if the topic would be a difficult one, involving a refusal, it would be best to wrap the message into nice words and phrases, allowing the other person to catch the message indirectly, without being hurt or embarrassed in the presence of others.
Changing perspectives again, even today some foreigners are inclined to see Indonesians as dishonest and impossible to work with. Of course, among us there are dishonest people. However, what you might call dishonest can be classified in many instances as indirect behavior, aimed to avoid disappointing you and disturbing harmony. Let’s take an example. Suppose you would ask the receptionist of the hotel or an Indonesian colleague, neighbor or friend for a favor, to join you to go somewhere or something similar. The response usually is affirmative. It may happen that long after the confirmation nothing has happened. At some point you would certainly remind the person, only to hear that he is still working on it, or still trying to comply. Finally, after hours or days you may conclude that this is not going to work. In case you would reprimand or complain about the situation, your friend, neighbor or colleague would certainly be surprised. After all, the initial confirmation was meant to sound as a ‘maybe’. For Javanese at least, it is impossible to say ‘no’ or ‘can I get a rain check.’ That would be extremely rude and would, we know, hurt you.
The point is that we have a whole range of ‘yes’ answers. Only the intonation of the ‘yes’ and the corresponding body language or ‘eye language’ will reveal to the experienced observer if it is a real ‘yes’, a ‘maybe’ or a ‘forget it’.
Obviously, to the outsider, that must seem like a very confusing, inefficient and ineffective way of communicating. The simple solution if you indeed need to have a firm yes or no is to ask a little further. Give details of what you need, how you need it and when. Ask questions about how the person would go about and do it or get it and where. All of your asking will emphasize that you are serious about the request. Gradually, applying these filters the true answer will emerge, with a smile and nobody will feel offended or embarrassed.
Having said that, things are changing in
Some former Dutch soldiers, who fought in
While being direct or indirect depends on where you are in
There is a tremendous amount of small talk going on, both within the family, among business partners and especially in casual contacts. Indonesians love to talk and they can talk for hours raising lots of topics, without actually touching on the core and always taking care not to offend the other.
Small talk is related to being evasive while still maintaining a positive appearance and a pleasant atmosphere. Basa basi, if not well understood, may cause embarrassment and oftentimes foreigners fall into the trap of misunderstanding basa basi. If for example you will be casually invited to come over and visit, it is best to assume that the invitation is basa basi only.
With this observation the cycle is almost complete. We have seen that a sharp sense of hierarchy and seniority, being indirect (or direct), being evasive (such as comes with basa-basi), modest, and being careful to maintain the cosmic balance as well as harmonious relations between people are the most common and most recognizable character traits of Indonesians.
Indonesia is the birth place of batik and ikat cloth. Once on the brink of disappearing batik and later ikat found a new lease of life when former President Soeharto promoted wearing batik shirts on official occasions. In addition to the traditional patterns with their special meanings, used for particular occasions, batik designs have become creative and diverse over the last few years.At a crossroads between art and sports is Silat, one of the unique martial arts originating from the archipelago.