Lessons and Impressions from Indonesia

I recently spent 1.5 weeks in Indonesia. I traveled all over the country (Jakarta, Semarang, Surabaya, Batam, though not Bali) and met some 2,500 students, businesspeople, journalists, and academics. In addition to sharing some of my own views and experiences with local audiences, I learned quite a bit about the country and its people. Below are my key lessons and impressions.

1. Size and scale. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in world (220 million), an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. It is the third largest democracy in the world behind India and the United States.

2. A moderate Muslim country. It is home to the largest Muslim population in the world (88% of 220 million). The government is secular and the Islam that is practiced is moderate. State law rules, not Islamic law. As just one small but telling example, there are many Muslim women who do not wear headscarves (though the majority do) and I did not see many men wearing a peci.  Religious freedom flourishes: look at Hindu-dominated Bali, the Christian population, and the various interfaith dialogues and groups. I remember noticing two women sitting next to each other in the audience once: one wore a headscarf, the other had a Christian cross draped around her neck. Contrast this to Saudi Arabia. There, women must always wear full body hijabs (covering head to toe with small slits for the eyes); if you’re seen with a person of the opposite sex in public you can be arrested; if you are caught carrying a Bible (or any other non-Muslim religious item) it’s grounds for punishment. So it’s easy to see why the United States, among other nations, holds up Indonesia as a shining beacon of tolerance and diversity in the Muslim world.

3. Optimism of the People. I surveyed many folks and the vast majority ID’d as optimistic. They think Indonesia will be a center of gravity in the future. They believe tomorrow will be better than today. The 21st century is the century of Asia.

4. Heat and Humidity. It’s impossible to walk outside for more than a few minutes without sweating your balls off. I love air conditioning, but I would not want my existence to be defined by it. Plus, humidity is the worst. In Arizona, when I walk outside it takes some time for the oven to heat my body to the point of sweating. In humid climates, when I walk outside I begin sweating almost instantly. While I’m undoubtedly more sensitive to it than locals who grew up there, I’m not that much different: Indonesian social life, I was told, is concentrated in fancy malls, which are safe, full-service, and most of all, air conditioned!

5. Hospitality, Formality, Status. Per my post on being introduced three times, there is a broader culture of hospitality that’s impressive and at times annoying.

6. Big Cities in Developing Countries. A general rule of thumb for poor countries is that the big capital cities are sprawling chaotic messes with traffic, pollution, and overpopulation, while the countryside tends to be calm and more interesting culturally. In Indonesia this is totally true. Jakarta is not very livable. I asked probably 10 people who live(d) in Jakarta whether they liked it, and none said yes. The unpredictable traffic. The humidity. The relative danger. Surabaya, the second largest city in the country, seemed far more livable — still a big city with all the amenities (4 million people) but no traffic and plenty of open space.

7. Politics and Economy. The current president was elected with overwhelming support, despite the huge amounts of corruption that plagues the government. Democracy’s recent introduction to the country seems to have more or less taken hold, though there are still aspects of democracy beyond voting that seem fragile. Discussion of internet censorship by the government is, for example, a topic of discussion, and I encountered some odd web site failures during my time there. The Indonesian economy is the big gorilla of the region. It runs mostly on light manufacturing. Rice is big here, and mostly sold within the country. Apparently this large internal market insulated the country a bit from the global financial crisis. Several American friends do furniture manufacturing in Surabaya; the chairs and TV stands you buy at Crate & Barrel or Cost Plus were probably made in Indonesia. Side point of interest: Chile had the “Chicago Boys,” Indonesia had the “Berkeley Mafia” — economists who studied there and brought back liberal economic reform.

8. Suharto Regime. You cannot understand politics in Indonesia without first realizing that the 65-year Suharto dictatorship ended only 11 years ago. Here is more on Suharto. It makes you appreciate Indonesia’s political progress.

9. Ramadan. My visit coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. In many places in the Middle East, I’m told all restaurants would be closed during the day. In Indonesia, many restaurants remained open, another sign of its religious diversity. It surprised me to see that when my Muslim hosts broke the fast at sundown after 9-10 hours of no food or drink they did so with a small piece of bread and drink, and then gradually amped up to real food. I’ve never fasted; in fact, I’ve never gone more than a few hours without food or drink. Especially given the heat, I was amazed at the restraint and discipline shown by my Muslim hosts.

10. Terrorism. Last year, terrorists released bombs in the Mariott hotel in Jakarta. The more famous 2002 bombing in Bali killed more than 200 people. The size and remoteness of certain parts of the country make it seem likely that radical groups will have the space to band together for some time to come. Nevertheless, the Indonesian government has been effective at capturing radical Islamist terrorist leaders. Just the other week a key radical cleric was arrested for having helped organized terrorist training camps.

I didn’t feel particularly unsafe anywhere in Indonesia. Note, at the big hotels, every time you enter you have to submit to a metal detector and car-search. But like in so many places, if you’re white, you can walk right through and nobody searches you or scans for metal. When will the terrorists figure out that being / appearing white is the way to evade all security in third world countries?

11. Reading. I took three inter-country flights and observed very few people reading either on the planes or in the airport. I tend to use this as a litmus test….for something.

12. Asian Neighbors and Immigrants. They don’t like the Malaysian people. I heard stories about Malaysia’s actively racist government policies that punish non-Malays. Not sure how accurate it is, but the Indonesians I spoke to see themselves as a more enlightened society. On the immigration front, Chinese Indonesians have been there for a long time and though they represent only 1% of the population they are power brokers in business. The nice business hotels in the country are full of Chinese Indonesian businesspeople.

13. Inexpensive. It’s a super cheap country across the board. India is dirt cheap but expensive as far as hotels go. Indonesia is cheap in everything. True 5 star hotels for US $100 night.

14. Israel. At one event the host at the school announced that (paragraphed) “We are to love all people, Jews, Christians, Hindus, everybody.” I was told that it was most unusual to specifically mention, let alone start with, Jews. The anti-Israel sentiment in Indonesia is just political. People don’t think Israelis should have set up a new state in Palestinian territory, and so they resent the state, the people, and of course the country that’s backed Israel since the beginning: America. Before Obama (who spent time in Indonesia growing up), most Indonesians had an unfavorable view of the U.S., mostly because of Israel, I was told.

15. Entrepreneurial Culture.  I did meet many very energetic and talented young entrepreneurs, and there is a big push within the country to seriously amplify the focus on entrepreneurship. The limiting factor, as it is almost everywhere, is culture. Not a huge acceptance of risk-taking or failure, overbearing parents, etc etc. Same old story. BTW, on the broader business culture, I found it cool that a man can wear either a suit and tie for a formal occasion, or a local batik — a brightly colored shirt that looks like a Hawaiian short sleeves shirt. Both are considered equally formal.

Bottom Line: Indonesia is a diverse country of rising geo-political interest with very kind people. For these reasons it’s worth a visit. The weather is a deal breaker for me in terms of longer stays, and that goes for all ultra-humid tropical climates.

I thank my various friends and hosts, and to Daniel Phelps for helping me think through the political and economic situation of Indonesia more specifically. (These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.)

16 comments on “Lessons and Impressions from Indonesia
  • Great post, Ben.

    I was wondering: of all the developing countries you’ve visited thus far, which ones would you say had cultures most conducive to entrepreneurship? Which cultures were least-entrepreneurial?

    By culture, I mean it in the same sense of family values and attitudes to risk/wacky ideas, independent of government policy (which I see as bounded by cultural norms, but not necessarily an expression of those norms).

  • I would like to say thank you for “promoting” my country. The information is quite accurate.
    About reading, Indonesian don’t read when they are traveling. We do love to read at home. Not like Japanese who can read anywhere.

  • A very nice post over Indonesia and its people. As an Indonesian, I personally observed that currently there are massive entrepreneurial promotion activities encouraged by many nation’s entrepreneurs. I hope, your participation on this movement can speed up the progress. Please do come back to Indonesia, Ben.

  • Hard to say. China has an entrepreneurial culture though it is cutthroat.
    Most cultures seem equally low in culture. Among developed countries Japan
    seems pretty low, places like England more robust.

  • I was directed here by my friend Alex, as I recently lived in Indonesia for a year. A very accurate portrayal of the country. I agree with your statement of the incredible value of Indonesia, especially considering its beauty.

    As for entrepreneurship, Indonesian people are incredibly entrepreneurial in my experience, although much of it is small, non-official, out of the home activity. Thanks for writing about this great country.

  • The fasting is generally done for 14 hours and not the 9/10 hours mentioned. Which kind of requires more effort and discipline.

  • You sure observed fast on shaving by leaving the razor behind…or was that beard you grew meant to blend in with the general islamic culture of beard and no moustache)…:-)))

  • In pluralistic culture, multi-ethnics and archipelago state as Indonesia, Jimmy carter said it is not as like in USA, if He was in Soeharto position he did not sure that he can manage it, as what Soeharto’s achieving role in Indonesia. Only Indonesian President know what is the best for Indonesian.
    Refer to Entrepreneurship, as like the most of developing countries, do not expect too much in an establishment.
    The Mental and character building issues on How to be build a Nation(ality)? are still having: the Ideology, cultural and tradition-Gap.
    the parameter is: Morality in daily living and social activity in the implementation.
    the hints is: how the Indonesian Muslim’s mind set in works, trade and business.
    especially about TRUST and dignity.
    Tips: wondering, how it will be the answer of: conducive to entrepreneurship?
    in a very high corruption scale and rating in statistic rank? read more about the Top issues scandals in recent months, upon the Jakarta HQ Law, Police & justice High ranks officers ?
    How much price to pay the economical high cost for this untouchable and insolvable factor?
    This Uncertainty and unpredictable status of Indonesian will remain as Top Agenda and main TASK, in a word of “stability” and clear regulation to be as a conducive one.

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