Indonesia: Facts for Dummies

Having lived for around a year in the UK and extensively interacted with people from different countries have revealed some intriguing facts to me. Whenever comes the situation where one has to introduce oneself and make a casual conversation, it appears that it won’t go anywhere but around one’s country of origin. Not only is it always a good topic to begin with, it also translates into an infinite number of possible sub-topics which are useful to prevent awkward and dull moments with new acquaintances. That being said, it often brings up some interesting cultural facts which are always worth noting and remembering.

Here is one language-related example. It may seem ridiculous to some but I didn’t know that texts written in Arabic alphabet may not be Arabic at all. They can be Persian (in Iran), Urdu (in Pakistan), or many other languages in Central Asia and Africa. It had been used in the Turkish language too before they later changed to Latin. Likewise for the Cyrillic alphabet, I used to associate it with the Russian language, only. There was a multitude of Kazakh people in my class who have proven otherwise. Call me daft as you might, but I may not be the only one who never knew about this. There’s always a first time for everything, isn’t there? I know little, that’s why I learn.

Speaking of which, “Indonesia” also seems to be somebody else’s first time. It happens so frequent that it’s becoming my first supposition when meeting new people. In my case, however, thanks to the giant operations of international oil companies in the country, Indonesia has never been difficult to talk about. Balikpapan, Minas, Duri and Jakarta are the popular oil-centric regions and those names are always all over the place. Digging down the subject is another story, though. Just like how I used to assume, these people have also got their assumptions. Here is a list of funny questions and statements, which were posed by different people in different occasions. Probably you’re asking why I’m doing this. Well, there’s no particular reason, to be honest. I just want to see all the experience in a retrospect, considering that this date, last year, I left Indonesia and arrived in the UK.

Is Indonesia a country? Is it not just a region?

Ridiculous as it may sound, the question above was asked in a humble, honest and not-knowing manner, twice, by two different people. That was the sole reason that prevented me from responding with something sarcastic and full of condescension like “Did you fail Geography?” or “Have you suffered from any sort of mental retardation?” It’s mind-boggling to know that the people asking the question do know that Indonesia exists but are not sure whether it’s a sovereign country with all the law, regulations and political dynamics happening therein.

It’s very easy for people to correlate “Indonesia” with “Polynesia”, “Melanesia” and “Micronesia”. On the map, they all look like regions consisting of many islands and they are in fact bordering and overlying one another. Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia are not countries. They are regions which comprise many countries and colonies. Why should one think that Indonesia is not? So there comes the first fact: Unlike the other ‘nesias’, Indonesia is a country.

If you look at the globe, you won’t find many island countries. Some examples are the UK, the Philippines, Japan and New Zealand.

Was it difficult for you to learn the Latin alphabet?

I lost count of the number of times this question was asked. This question was conveyed in an assuring affirmative tone, often rather a compliment, and sounded like, “Your handwriting in the Latin alphabet looks so neat,” or even something imperative like, “Hey, Michael, teach me how to write my name in Indonesian!

I was speechless. “What do you expect me to write?” I was left in both shock and amusement. I started writing my friend’s name in some random curvy lines that supposedly looked like a mixture of the Arabic and Thai alphabets, diagonally across the paper. I can’t speak or write either of them so they were completely fictitious. It turned out that they looked more like a 1-year-old handwriting. Yet I said, “This is how your name is written in Indonesian.” He took awhile looking at my doodle and said, “It looks like Arabic.” Three minutes later I told him that Indonesians use the Latin alphabet, thanks to 350 years of Dutch colonialism. He replied, “No, you’re lying.

It didn’t really cost me any extensive research to find out why this was presumed. Look at Asia, count the number countries, their populations and their official languages. It turns out that the number Latin-based languages in Asia is relatively low. Some examples are Indonesian, Malaysian, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Again, thanks to the Dutch, British, Spanish, Americans and French people who paid us a long visit. There you go, the fact number two, the Indonesian language uses the Latin alphabet.

Is Indonesia a Muslim country?

Well, this has just got very interesting, hasn’t it? Most often this questions was posed in such a condition that I was not readily available for any sort of prolonged discussion. Answering ‘yes‘ might save me some time but that would mean I wasn’t telling the truth. Answering ‘no‘ would probably put me in a lengthy talk and answering ‘something like that‘ would definitely not suffice. The occasion has happened a lot that I’ve got to design a short, preemptive speech that would answer any subsequent questions. Here it is, the fact number three:

Indonesia is predominantly Muslim but it’s not a Muslim country. It’s not quite a secular country either because religion does play a major role in the government. According to the constitution, six religions are acknowledged: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Religious freedom is protected by law but one must belong to one of the six religions. By that, one can’t be irreligion nor belong to any religious group which is considered outside the six.

One thing for sure, my little speech has never quite achieved its purpose as it always triggers further and deeper discussion. Nonetheless, I always love the facial expression shown by my friends when I reply to their question. They always say, “That’s really, really interesting.

“I know.”

Prambanan by Zsolt Bugarszki. All rights reserved.

  •  I’m curious to find out what blog platform you’re working with? I’m experiencing some small security issues with my latest blog and I would like to find something more safeguarded. Do you have any recommendations? Looking Forward for your Response!

    • I use WordPress for this blog and I highly recommend that you try it.

  • *sorry grammar fault * before the government phrase I meant to write : -I thought that

  • Hi!
    I really like your article and being an indonesian that lives in France I have often encountered similar questions ;) I just would like to say that I think our government acknowledged 5 religions, hence the star symbol pancasila  whose 5 corners represent the 5 big religions along with the slogan: Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa. and that confucianism is acknowledged as other beliefs.
    as the question about is Indonesia an islamic country, we definitely have the same response, It’s very true that a single yes or no can’t suffice. I also answered as you do that the majority of the population is Islam but it is a secular country ;) 

    really enjoyed your article! :)

  • i’m always visit every years with my family, so beautifull..

  • I really can’t believe they asked you those (silly) questions. Really, they didn’t know that we use Latin alphabet? Come on! Where did you find these people?

    Nevertheless it’s very interesting to know their presumption against Indonesia and Indonesian. Looks like our beloved communication and information ministry has big job to do, eh… *cough…

  • So no one’s asked you if Indonesia is in any way related to India yet?? Haha :p Or the ever popular ‘Oh it’s near/in Bali, right?’

  • Nurhayati

    Hi there..

    Greetings from Malaysia..

    I happened to notice your page when i was searching on personal blogs (via yahoo) that can give me good information on Medan & Lake Toba. I do find your writings are very useful, up to date & have nice pics too.
    Me & gal pal suppose to be visiting Lake Toba around October this yr. At least, I can have some slight ideas how the vacation is going to be. Unfortunately, with Sinabung eruption & the anti demonstration (is it too serious?? It is safe for Malaysians to travel to Indonesia, rite??) might cause the vacation to be canceled. That is absolutely a real bummer. :(
    Nonetheless, I do hope everything will be fine… as soon as possible. So everybody will be happy & safe. Especially people who live there.

    best regards…

    • oza

      Hi Nurhayati,
      Don’t worry about Sinabung. it is only a small disaster since Indonesia lies in’ ring of fire’ area.really, because only 2 people dead but it due to their heart attack disease. The eruption is far from Medan, it is in Karo highland next to Aceh. so, it won’t influence Medan people.
      Don’t worry about demonstration, with 240 million people from 750 ethnics and languages its normal if there are many different thoughts and views. Demo is only in Jakarta, not Sumatra. Since Indonesia is archipelago with thousands islands so, what is happening in one island won’t affect other islands, that is 1 positive about Indonesia.
      what you have to worried about Medan is ‘penyaluk saku’ be aware of them, and maybe bit culture shock since Medan people are very open minded. I am Acehnese, but i am always suffered from culture shock whenever i visit Medan. I think Medan and Aceh is 180 different.
      enjoy your trip!

  • bangzenk

    hoyong ningali poto-poto di ditu tiasa? komo pami aya info tentang beasiswa teknik kimia mah. kaleresan simkuring hoyong pisan neraskeun S2 di luar negeri, da kapungkur S1 na di Belanda.. susuganan we :)


  • This is the most exact explanation I’ve ever seen in the web. :D

  • Say good~ thinks

  • finally, there are new posts.


  • calvin

    okay… now would you upload your handwriting sometime and let us know why it was mistaken as arabic script? =))

    by the way Iran actually has their own script “Avesta”, I think nobody longer used them since the islamic conquest of Persia. Now iran used modified arabic script without these complicated diacritic. IMO, Farsi looks kinda similar to Jawi (arabic script in malay world),

    • It wasn’t my real handwriting. My Latin handwriting (hahaha) is very good, you know. That day my friend was expecting me to write something fancy and script-like. So I deliberately invented something random. I can’t even re-create what I had.

      Yeah, that’s true. They’ve got additional 4 letters too. One day my Iranian and Qatari friends were having an argument on why those additional 4 letters are important. Yet I was wondering why they could possibly not understand each other while both used the same alphabet. I know it was a completely imbecile thought. French, English and Indonesian people do not understand each other and they all use the Latin alphabet. For some reason, the idea of Arabic letters correlating to and only to the Arabic language had already sticked to my brain for a long time. I don’t know where it had come from.

      Have you got no comment about the religion-related stuff? Hahaha.

  • Once, a couchsurfer from US asked me, “Can we identify an extremist (he knew that there were suicidal bombings here) from how they get dressed? I mean, do we know them when they walk by in the street?”


  • i like it!