Back to Home Page Living Diversity in Indonesia September 11, 2006
Pluralism -- Beyond Unity in Diversity
Blending cultures begets child of tomorrow
Who are the Indonesians?
Building a pluralist nation
Defining pluralism, liberalism, secularism
Post-conflict Poso: Consumed by hate, divided by faith
Mutual coexistence and religious harmony
Spicy distinctions in a Betawi-Palembang marriage
Kampung Keling: Economic symbiosis in Medan's Chinese-Indian enclave
Yogyakarta -- Indonesia's proverbial melting pot
Australian-Indonesian couple finds common ground across their cultural divid

Who are the Indonesians?

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat

Since early childhood, Indonesians have been, and continue to be, taught that their country is a huge archipelago comprised of thousands of islands and hundreds of ethnic groups. It is also common knowledge that the Javanese are the largest ethnic group in the country and, not surprisingly, that the island of Java is the most populated in the country.

Beyond these facts few actually know the exact ethnic composition and distribution of these groups.

The 2000 Population Census conducted by the Central Statistics Bureau provided much insight into the make up of the Indonesian population. Further invaluable analysis was provided by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) when in 2003 it published Indonesia's Population: Ethnicity and Religion in a Changing Political Landscape, which was planned as the first in a series of publications on the Indonesian population.

The findings of these two reports, both of which complement each other, has provided some striking knowledge about the people who inhabit the world's biggest archipelago.

What is interesting about the methodology of the BPS census is that ethnicity is defined by the respondents themselves. That it is people themselves actually choosing which ethnicity they self-identify with. Those who do not respond or cannot make up their mind are classified according to their father's bloodline.

The diversity of this country was confirmed with the finding of about 1,000 ethnic and sub-ethnic groups in the country. However most are very small. In fact only 15 of the ethnic groups have a population of over 1 million.


There is no surprise that the Javanese continue to be the predominant ethnic group (Graph. 1). Combined with the Sundanese, these two ethnicities make up over 57 percent of the Indonesian population.

Such is the preponderance of the Javanese that they have a high concentration in almost all provinces. Javanese comprised of at least 15 percent of local populations in 13 of the 30 provinces surveyed by BPS in 2000.

Even outside of the island of Java, Javanese make up the largest single ethnic group in the provinces of Bengkulu, Lampung and East Kalimantan. In many other provinces they are usually only second or third to the local indigenous population in terms of size. For example, they are the second biggest ethnic group in North Sumatra comprising 32 percent of the provincial population, in Riau with 25 percent, Jambi with 27 percent, Central and South Kalimantan with 18 and 13 percent respectively.

The demographic shifts can be attributed to several factors such as transmigration, greater mobility as a result of intensified transportation infrastructure and the search for economic opportunities.

The high concentration of Javanese in many provinces supports the increased diversification of the Indonesian population. It would be a simplification nowadays to say that a particular province simply belongs to a certain ethnic group. The facts simply do not support it.

In only six provinces did the perceived indigenous population comprise more than three-quarters of the total provincial population: West Sumatra (Minangkabau); South Kalimantan (Banjarese); Yogyakarta along with Central and East Java (Javanese); and Bali (Balinese).

In other words, there is greater diversity within the peoples of any given province.

In terms of religion the numbers have generally remained consistent over the last three decades with the Muslim population accounting for 87 to 88 percent of the population. In the 2000 census over 88 percent of Indonesians chose Islam as their declared faith, followed by Christians with 8.9 percent, Hindus 1.8 percent and Buddhists with just under 1 percent.

The caveat however, is that the government only formally recorded and recognized five religions: Islam, Protestanism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

There little room for deviation if one prescribes to an alternative faith. Up until 1971, Confucianism was still listed in the census with a record of 0.82 percent. Since then consequent censuses have not officially recorded the numbers of those following Confucianism. In the 2000 census, those who did not prescribe to the five recognized religions were categorized as 'others' and accounted for 0.8 percent of the population.

Ethnic Chinese

Despite being so prevalent on the economic stage, repeated surveys have consistently shown that ethnic Chinese constitute a tiny minority of the population, in fact less than 1 percent.

In Indonesia's Population... by Leo Suryadinata et al, it is suggested that because the survey was based on self-identification by the respondents, many second and third generation ethnic Chinese (peranakan) considered themselves to be part the local indigenous population. Furthermore, despite the era of greater openness, some may continue to fear the stigma of being considered Chinese.

In the mid-1960s the government launched a campaign to 'indigenize' the ethnic Chinese by encouraging -- or forcing -- them to shed their Chinese names and adopt more locally sounding ones. Under President Soeharto's three-decade rule, Chinese cultural and ethnic symbols, including their celebrations, were completely forbidden. It was not until the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid could this rich cultural heritage resurface.

Suryadinata in his study nevertheless suggests that even if the number of ethnic Chinese in the 2000 Census was inflated further to account for those who refused to identify themselves with this ethnic group, their composition would only range between 1.45 to 2.04 percent of the population.

Based on data compiled from the statistics bureau, nearly half of all ethnic Chinese are concentrated in two provinces: Jakarta and West Kalimantan. (Graph 2)

This statistical information helps show two things:

First, it confirms the diversity of the nation and illustrates the intensity of pluralism pervading all corners of the archipelago.

Second, it also exposes the fallacy of accepted 'prejudices' when talking ethnicities. People, for example, are wrong when they say that "the Chinese are everywhere" when in fact the group as a whole comprises no more than three percent of the population.

Furthermore, due to increased mobility, mixed marriages, and economic activity, it becomes increasingly difficult to make simplistic categorizations of the Bataks only living in North Sumatra, or the Dani tribe in Papua. Respective 'indigenous' populations may have historical and cultural ties born out of a particular venue, but what Indonesians are realizing is that no one group has particular exclusivity as a consequence of it.

This is the challenge of the evolving new Indonesia.

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