Culture and Custom


Indonesia is a country full of diversity, home to numerous different ethnic groups, languages and religions. However a common language and the national motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’ help to bind the 17,500 islands and their inhabitants together.

The range of religions practised in Indonesia is diverse, although around 90% of Indonesians identify themselves as being Muslim, the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. There are six religions recognised by the government – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism – meaning citizens must identify themselves as belonging to one of these on official identity documents. The Indonesian constitution or state philosophy, Pancasila, provides freedom of religion, although religions other than the official six are considered beliefs and are not legally practised. Nor is atheism recognised, and blasphemy can lead to imprisonment.

The Islam practised in Indonesia is predominantly of the Sunni tradition, and is more concentrated in areas including Java and Sumatra. Those who adhere to the Shi’a tradition number around one million. Despite a large percentage of the population following Islam, Indonesia is not an Islamic state, although some groups have called for this over the decades.

Protestantism is more concentrated in the provinces of Papua and North Sulawesi, whilst most of the population of the island of Flores are Roman Catholic. Buddhism is mostly practised around Jakarta, by Chinese and some indigenous Javanese peoples. Hinduism meanwhile, known formally as Agama Hindu Dharma and followed by most of the population of Bali, differs somewhat from the Hinduism practised in other countries in that the caste system isn’t applied. The sixth religion mentioned, Confucianism, has had a changing position in Indonesian religions, losing its official status in 1978, to then have it reinstated from 2000 onwards.

Other religions in addition to those officially recognised are practised around Indonesia, but citizens must affiliate themselves to one of the six on identity cards etc. There is a small Jewish community, and Animism and Kebatinan are also practised. The constitution gives freedom of worship according to religious belief, although the first principle of Pancasila, the Indonesian state philosophy, is of the belief in one supreme God.

Diversity and values
Indonesia is made up of 17,500 islands, and thirty-three provinces, meaning that the cultural landscape is also a diverse one, mixing both foreign and indigenous customs.

Estimates put the number of different ethnic groups at three hundred or more, and these include indigenous populations such as the Asmat people of New Guinea, and the Mentawai tribe living in the rainforest of an island near Padang. They live a hunter/gatherer lifestyle that is a far cry from the city life of an expat in Jakarta.

The largest ethnic group within Indonesia is that of the Javanese people, estimated to make up around 45% of the country’s population. Native to Java, their populations can also be found all over the country, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia. The Javanese dialect is spoken, and has two forms – Ngoko, for speaking to familiars, and Krama, which is used when speaking among people who are unknown to each other, or of a higher social status. The Sundanese are another ethnic group, from the Western part of Java, and are the country’s second largest ethnic population. Other groups include Chinese and Malay Indonesians and the Madurese people, to name but a few.

With this broad range of populations comes just as broad a mix of cultures, languages, religions, traditions and histories. As a taster, Madurese bull-racing, Kerapan Sapi, is a festival that takes place annually on the island of Madura, whilst the traditional Sundanese marriage ceremony involves nine formal stages, and many Javanese people do not typically have surnames. People may identify themselves according to their ethnicity, birthplace or family, and hundreds of languages are spoken throughout the country, however most Indonesians are united through the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, as well as through the national philosophical foundation of Pancasila. These five principles come from age-old traditions and are said to define Indonesia’s nationhood:

  • Belief in the one and only God
  • Just and civilised humanity
  • The unity of Indonesia
  • Democracy guided by the wisdom of deliberations among representatives
  • Social justice for all the people of Indonesia

In addition to these national philosophical principles, social values play a role in Indonesian life. Family, for example, is given importance, with traditional structures and defined roles for family members. The experiences and advice of elders are meant to be respected, as is caring for parents in old age, and it’s not uncommon in areas outside the main cities for the nuclear family unit to be comprised of grandparents as well as parents & children. Marriage is seen as being how a person enters full adulthood, and the question of whether you are married may often be put as ‘Are you married yet?’

Value is also placed on social hierarchy, with positions of status, position and age respected and maintained. The use of ‘bapak’ and ‘ibu’ (‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’/‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’) may often be more commonly used in the workplace than you are accustomed to.

The cultural value of face is also important. It involves avoiding causing shame to others, meaning care should be taken to avoid criticism of others in public and in the workplace. ‘Forgive and forget’ may be an appropriate motto to bear in mind if wanting to avoid causing any cultural offence. Answers and communications may be more indirect than you are used to, for this same reason.

Though known as being friendly and open as a country and people, awareness of customs and traditions may ease any culture shock, and it’s always good to be shown making the effort. If coming from a western country, you may find that many everyday behaviours differ from those you are used to. To avoid any faux-pas or misunderstandings, have a look at the following examples to make sure that your actions won’t be misconstrued.

When meeting someone informally, as an expat a simple ‘hello’ will often suffice, although if you want to take your language abilities further, there are a myriad of ways to greet people, depending on time of day, and who you are meeting.

‘Selamat pagi’ is used as an equivalent to ‘Good morning’, although only before 10am, after which ‘selamat siang’ would be more appropriate. Before names, different titles or expressions can be used depending on the gender and status of the person. ‘Bu’ refers to married women, ‘mba’ to younger, unmarried women. ‘Pak’ is a formal way of greeting men, whilst ‘mas’ is more informal.

Most initial greetings involve a handshake, but don’t hurry it, as this can be seen as being disrespectful. In some situations you may notice Indonesians bow slightly as well, which should be seen as a sign of politeness. Taking the handshake further into one of the manly back-slaps common in Europe and America is not a good idea!

Body language
Indonesians are often taught from a young age to not get angry over little things and to avoid public disagreements. Body language and certain behaviours could be seen as representing anger, so you may need to make a conscious effort, at least at first, to keep yourself in check. Prolonging eye contact, for example, could be misconstrued as being a challenge or a form of aggression; best avoided!

Shouting or speaking loudly in public is another way in which offence could be caused, as Indonesians on the whole speak fairly quietly. Confrontations may often be counteracted with smiles, and offence-causing is avoided to the extent that there are more than ten ways of saying ‘no’, and even more of saying ‘yes’ but actually meaning ‘no’. In a similar vein, publicly blaming or criticising someone is a no-no, and it may take time to get used to a more indirect way of communicating certain things. Gestures and body language can prove useful in interpreting the real meaning of a conversation. A controlled and gentle public manner, avoiding strong gestures and displays of negative emotions, are the way forward.

Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon, and in some greeting situations it may be wise to allow women to initiate the handshake. Avoid touching someone’s head, as it is considered sacred by some Indonesians. However, you will likely see members of the same sex with their arms around each other or holding hands, as a sign of friendship.

The left hand is seen as being unclean, meaning you should avoid using it to eat or serve food, to give or accept gifts, to handle money or even to hand over a business card. Avoid pointing or calling someone over with one finger; this could be mistaken as an obscene gesture and it is better to indicate with an open hand.

Having a neat appearance and being well-groomed is seen favourably, and tailor-made suits are often much more reasonably priced in Indonesia than they are in other countries. Dressing appropriately for the weather is of course important, with an average temperature of 25-30°C and humidity of 82%. This doesn’t mean that typical holiday attire is appropriate, however. Women especially should bear modesty in mind, avoiding anything too tight, revealing, or sleeveless, as this may be considered inappropriate.

Business etiquette
There is a concept of ‘rubber time’ in Indonesia, and many social events are not expected to start punctually, however when it comes to business situations, it will likely be expected for expats to arrive on time. With this and other aspects of work-related social interactions, it’s best to know both what is expected of you as a foreigner, and what cultural customs you should be aware of.

Entry into the meeting room may sometimes be according to rank, and meetings earlier on can be more about getting to know each other than about the business itself – time doesn’t necessarily mean money. Don’t cross the line between bargaining and putting pressure on someone; bear in mind the culture of wanting to avoid disagreements, read into the answers you are given and remember the virtue that is patience, as some agreements will take longer to complete than you may be used to.

Standing out
Don’t let a call from across the street of ‘Hey, Mister!’ or ‘Bule!’ surprise or offend you, especially from children. The terms are often used in reference to anyone who looks Western or fairer-skinned and aren’t usually meant to cause offence. Similarly, you may find yourself the object of more stares than you are used to at home, and it’s best to not let this faze you in any way.