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Cultural Sensitivity Notes



Population and Ethnicity
Official figures for 2002 give Indonesia’s population as 214.2 million.

The population is unevenly distributed. For example, despite comprising only seven per
cent of the total land area, Java accounts for 60 per cent of Indonesia’s total population.

The population comprises an estimated 365 ethnic and tribal groups. The main ethnic
groups are Acehnese and Minangkabaus (from Sumatra), Javanese and Sundanese
(from Java), Balinese (from Bali), Sasaks (from Lombok) and the Dani (from West

The official language is Indonesian. In addition, there are some 500 other languages and
dialects belonging to the various ethnic groups. English is also widely spoken in the big

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country – 87 per cent of Indonesians
embrace the Islamic faith. However, Indonesia is a secular state. Christianity (nine per
cent), and Hinduism and Buddhism (two per cent) are also practised.

Rupiah (Rp). A$1 = approximately Rp.6,643 (Oct 2004).


Indonesia operates under three different time zones:

Sumatra, Java, and West and Central Kalimantan are WST – 1 hour;

Bali, Nusa Tenggara, South and East Kalimantan, and Sulawesi are the same as
WST; and

West Papua and Maluku are WST + 1 hour.

Physical Features and Climate
Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands, of which 6000 are inhabited. It
is bordered by Malaysia, the Philippines, East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Two-thirds
of Indonesia’s terrain is made up of mangrove swamp, woodlands and forest, with the
remainder incorporating farmland and volcanoes.

Indonesia’s year-round hot climate is due to its proximity to the equator. The wet season
is from October to April and the dry season is between May and September.

Major Cities
Indonesia’s capital is Jakarta. Other major economic and tourist centres are Yogyakarta,
Lombok, Sumatra and Bali.

Political System
President Soeharto’s New Order regime ended in May 1998 when public unrest and
disapproval culminated in his resignation after 32 years in power. General elections were
held a year later with the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), led by Megawati
Soekarnoputri, winning the greatest number of seats in the House of Representatives;
153 of a possible 462. Despite winning more seats than any other party, a coalition
excluding Megawati’s party formed a voting majority to appoint Abdurrahman Wahid
President in October 1999.

Megawati replaced Abdurrahman Wahid following his impeachment in July 2001. Since
then, Megawati has had the difficult task of dealing with a range of political, economic,
ethnic and environmental challenges, many of which have evolved over decades.
Megawati’s administration has overseen a range of reforms to deal with issues including
official corruption, separatist movements in Aceh and Papua, and bureaucratic
mismanagement. In addition, the administration has had to manage the fallout from
terrorist attacks that targeted Western tourists in Bali in October 2002.

In July 2004, Indonesians voted for the first time for a directly-elected President, as
opposed to one being appointed by the parliament. The results of this poll were
inconclusive, and a second round of voting was held in September 2004 to determine a
clear winner. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won this election by a clear margin, becoming
Indonesia’s first democratically elected President in October 2004.

Indonesia’s major industries include oil, gas, coal, tin, copper, timber, textiles, rice,
coffee, pepper and palm oil. Major trading partners include Japan, the United States and

For the past few years, Indonesia has experienced an economic growth rate of about
four per cent per annum.

Some of the oldest human remains were found on the island of Java in the Nineteenth
Century. These remains, known as the Java Man, date back four million years, when the
western part of Indonesia (Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Bali) was connected with
mainland Asia.

Migration from mainland Asia took place between 3000 and 500 BC. Indonesian Hindu-
Buddhist kingdoms constructed the Hindu-Buddhist Prambanan and Borobudur temples
in Central Java in the seventh and eighth Centuries. The Arabs introduced Islam to
Indonesia, prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth
century followed by the Dutch. By the early twentieth century, the entire Indonesian
archipelago was under Dutch colonial administration. This lasted until the occupation of
Indonesia by the Japanese in 1942.

The Republic of Indonesia declared its independence on 17 August 1945. After World
War II, the Dutch returned to occupy Indonesia. It was not until 1949 that the Dutch
transferred sovereignty to the Republic of Indonesia. Soekarno was Indonesia’s first
president. Soeharto replaced Soekarno in 1967 with his New Order government, which
was in power until 1998.


Adat is the term used to describe the code of behaviour deemed acceptable by
Indonesians under traditional law. While Islam is the main religion in Indonesia,
behaviour standards have been gradually modified by the influence of other religions
and cultures.

Indonesian is the national language of Indonesia. While English is widely used in a
business, tourism or study context, it is advisable and will be considered favourably to be
familiar with some basic Indonesian phrases to communicate with mainstream

Topics of Conversation
Indonesians will attempt to establish the status of the person they are conversing with
prior to engaging in any meaningful conversation. To this end, they may ask very
personal questions in order to establish whether a person is a subordinate, superior or
equal. A person’s status will influence the dynamics of the conversation.

Welcome topics of conversation in Indonesia include the family, travel, sports and food.
Topics to avoid include Indonesia’s policies on human rights, politics, corruption, religion,
sex and gender bias, and self-praise. In addition, it is considered uncouth in Indonesia to
discuss business outside of the work environment. Conversation during meals is also
discouraged and meals will often be had in silence.

Names and Titles
In Indonesia, names are considered to be sacred and every effort should be made to
pronounce names correctly. If a name is difficult to pronounce, it is advisable to ask a
person whether you are pronouncing their name correctly upon being introduced.

Furthermore, an Indonesian may have a single name or more, and may have a
preference for being referred to by either their first or family name (or both). Again, if in
doubt, it is advisable to ask at the time of introduction.

A person with an official title should be addressed as such, for example: “Doctor” or
“Vice President”. If a person does not have an official title, “Mr” or “Madam” or “Miss” are


Selamat Pagi


Selamat siang


Selamat malam


If you are leaving

Selamat tinggal

If someone is leaving you
Selamat jalan

Terima kasih

You’re welcome

Kembali or sama-sama

How are you?

Apa kabar?

Permisi or ma’af

Basic Needs

Do you speak English?

Bisa bicara bahasa Inggris?

I don’t speak Indonesian

Saya tidak bisa bicara bahasa Indonesia

I don’t understand

Saya tidak mengerti

Can you help me?

Bisa bantu saya?

Can I help you? Bisa

Where is the bathroom?

Di mana kamar kecil?

Di mana…?

How much is this?

Berapa harganya ini?

I want this

Saya mau ini

I want to eat

Saya mau makan

Please take me to…

Tolong, antar saya ke…


Business Cards
If you routinely deal with Indonesian counterparts, having your business card translated
into Indonesian on the reverse side will be well received. Your card should emphasise
your name and your position and should be exchanged as soon as possible after being
introduced. Ornate designs are appreciated.

Appointments should be made with as much notice as possible; one week’s notice is
advisable. Business hours are 8.00am to 4.00pm, Monday to Thursday, with some hours
on Friday and Saturday mornings. Some organisations operate all day on Friday,
although Muslim employees will pray for at least an hour on Fridays.

Some Indonesians have a very different approach to punctuality and timekeeping, which
is referred to as “rubber time” (jam karet).

Hierarchy is important in determining the arrival sequence for appointments in Indonesia.
Subordinates are expected to arrive before their superiors, who will often intentionally
arrive late as a means of asserting their position of authority. Foreigners are advised to
be punctual for appointments.

Negotiation in Indonesia is a long and involved process, often built on solid, friendly
relationships that have been developed over time. Hierarchy is extremely important and
negotiation is usually limited to individuals of equal status.

Some Indonesian dishes are influenced by Chinese cooking, but there are many distinct
local dishes, especially in regional areas. A typical meal includes rice, the Indonesian
staple, which is served with every meal either in soup, or with side dishes, salads and
pickles. Indonesian food tends to be hot and spicy – nasi goreng is an Indonesian
version of fried rice, sate consists of kebab-style meats with a peanut sauce, and gado
is a dish of mixed vegetables in peanut sauce. Seafood is popular in Indonesian

Some exotic tropical fruits such as jackfruits, mangoes, durians and rambutans are
grown in Indonesia.

Dining Etiquette
Forks and spoons are the utensils used in Indonesian dining. The fork should be held in
the left hand, the spoon in the right. Dishes should be passed with the right hand only as
the left hand is considered unclean.

Behaviour in Public
Handshakes are a standard formality when being introduced to both males and females
in Indonesia. They can be quite limp and often last longer than handshakes in Western

Other than a polite handshake, physical contact between members of the opposite sex
in public is unacceptable in Indonesia and should be avoided. However, physical
displays of friendship between members of the same sex are commonplace.

Both the left hand and the feet are considered unclean and these parts of the body
should be kept to oneself, away from others and furniture.

Gift Giving
Gift giving is customary in Indonesian business and social situations. It is considered
polite to present an Indonesian counterpart with a small gift upon your first meeting. Gifts
are also given to mark special occasions or visits, and as a gesture of appreciation for
hospitality. Indonesians will refuse a gift three times before accepting, so as not to
appear greedy and recipients are advised to do the same. Gifts will generally not be
opened in front of the giver.

To be appropriate gifts to Indonesians should be modest and representative of the
giver’s background, for example, their home country or the organisation they work for.
Gifts of food are welcomed, except if the occasion is an invitation to a meal (although it
is acceptable to send food as a gesture of thanks after the event).

The intense humidity and heat in Indonesia influence styles of dress in both business
and social situations. In keeping with the conservative Muslim culture, modest,
conservative clothes are advisable.

For business, it is preferable to dress formally as a rule, and then adapt your attire to suit
your Indonesian colleagues. Women should take care to dress conservatively for
business, with the upper arms and legs covered.


Avoid consuming alcohol in the presence of observant Muslims.

Chewing gum in public should be avoided. Eating while walking in the street should be


February – March

Mock battles to observe the era of internecine warfare are held during these months.

March – April

Balinese Saka New Year
Temple idols are ritually bathed in the sea while drummers drive evil spirits away.

August and October
Torajan Funeral Feasts
Held in central Sulawesi.

There are many festivals and cultural events in the various regions within Indonesia
throughout the year. As most Indonesians are Muslim, these events are affected by the
Muslim lunar calendar, which is 11 days shorter than the Western calendar.

Ramadan, held in the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, is strictly observed.
During this period, Muslims fast between dawn and sunset, and abstain from any sexual
activity. Ramadan is observed by Muslims for self-purification.


Australians can obtain a short-stay visa for three or 30 days on arrival. This visa is not
extendable, nor is it convertible into other types of visa. Payment must be made in
United States dollars on arrival. It is recommended that travellers carry the exact amount
of US dollars in cash as not all entry points will have full bank facilities.

There are other types of visas: single entry visas (for 60 days), multiple entry business
visas and temporary stay visas, all of which are available on application prior to
departure at the Embassy or Consulate of the Republic of Indonesia.

Indonesia requires travellers to have at least six months validity remaining on their
passport at the time of entry to Indonesia.


Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia
8 Darwin Avenue
Yarralumla ACT 2600
Tel: (02) 6250 8600
Email: [email protected]

Consulate of the Republic of Indonesia
134 Adelaide Terrace
East Perth WA 6004
Tel: (08) 9221 5858

Australians should register with the Australian Embassy when visiting Indonesia. In
addition, they may be able to obtain Consular assistance from the Embassy:

Australian Embassy
Jalan H R Rasuna Said kav C 15-16
Jakarta Selatan 12940
Tel (62 21) 2550 5555
Fax: (62 21) 526 1690

Australian Consulate General
Jalan Prof Moh Yamin 4
Denpasar Bali Indonesia
Tel. (62 361) 235 092
Fax (62 361) 231 990


Iem Brown, Curtin University of Technology.

Indonesia Country Information. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2004.

Indonesian Business Culture. Executive Planet., 2003.

Learning Bahasa Indonesia. Living in Indonesia, 2003.

Lonely Planet Worldguide – Indonesia. Lonely Planet, 2004.

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