Chapter 2: Peoples

The Origins of Ethnic Diversity

The continental plates which brought the plants and animals of Gondwana into contact with those of Laurasia carried no human beings. The broad geophysical outlines of the archipelago had been set for about ten million years before hominids – the direct ancestors of modern humans – appeared in what is now Indonesia. Many prehistorians believe that these hominids evolved in Africa and spread from there throughout the rest of the world. Fossil remains in the Brantas river valley in central and eastern Java suggest a hominid presence from perhaps as early as 1.8 million years ago. The discovery of these remains, then called ‘Java Man’, by Eugene Dubois at Trinil in East Java in 1891 was instrumental in directing the attention of scientists beyond Europe and the Middle East in their search for the origins of humankind.

Whether ‘Java Man’ was the ancestor of the first human beings (Homo sapiens) in what became the Indonesian archipelago is still uncertain, though other Java remains dated to 100,000 years ago appear to represent a transitional stage between early Homo erectus and true humans, whose earliest traces in the region date from about 40,000 years ago. There is no reason to doubt, however, that those first humans were of the broad ethnic group we now call Australo-Melanesians and that they were the ancestors of the Melanesians of New Guinea, the Australian Aborigines and the small Negrito communities of the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines.

Sites of hominid remains in Java

Schematic diagram of human evolution, showing possible place of Java Man and Homo floresiensis

As we have seen, the global climate has changed a number of times during the last 40,000 years and these changes certainly had a major effect on early humans. As hunters and gatherers, they probably did best in relatively open forest, along the coasts and on the margins of tropical rainforest. As the sea levels rose and the climate grew wetter after the end of the last ice age, from about 17,000 years ago, human settlement seems to have been concentrated in the drier eastern part of the archipelago. There, by 7000 BC, in the highlands of New Guinea, the Melanesians made a major technological breakthrough with the development of agriculture based on taro, sugar cane, pandanus and bananas. Agriculture sustained much more densely settled communities than hunting and gathering had done, further strengthening the Melanesian presence in the east of the archipelago.

The western and central parts of the archipelago, by contrast, probably had relatively few inhabitants in about 3000 BC, when a Mongoloid people from Taiwan, whom we call the Austronesians, began moving south in significant numbers. The Austronesians brought with them the technologies of pottery, outrigger canoes, and bows and arrows, as well as domestic pigs, fowl and dogs, and they cultivated rice and millet, along with other crops. Rice and millet at this stage were crops suited to temperate and sub-tropical climates, and they apparently did not become established in Indonesia until somewhat later; their place in the Austronesian diet was taken by taro, breadfruit, bananas, yams, sago and coconuts.

The great wave of Austronesian migration lapped at the coasts of New Guinea and then divided. To the east, Austronesian seafarers reached Fiji and probably Tonga by 1500 BC and swept on through the Pacific to populate Polynesia, a huge area stretching as far as New Zealand, Easter island and Hawaii. To the west, the Austronesians took control of Java, Sumatra, Borneo and the Malay peninsula. Some settled on the Southeast Asian mainland, becoming the ancestors of the Cham, who are still a small minority in southern Vietnam. A good deal later, in a series of migrations starting around the fifth century AD and ending in the twelfth, Austronesians settled the then-uninhabited island of Madagascar. The spread of Austronesians over an arc stretching more than half way around the world is one of the most spectacular human migrations before modern times.

We know nothing of the contact between Melanesians and Austronesians in this early era, but the physical appearance of modern Indonesians shows that there must have been considerable genetic mixing in some areas: many Indonesians have a physical appearance part way between the dark skins, rounded eyes and curly hair of the Melanesians and the paler skins, Mongoloid eyes and straight hair of the Austronesians.

Indonesians today recognize amongst themselves dozens of major ethnic groups and hundreds of minor ones, but there is no official formal system for classifying these groups. Instead, physical appearance, language, religion, personal name, place of birth and social customs are used loosely to differentiate between people according to circumstance. Formal ethnic classification is instead applied only to the descendants of more recently arrived immigrants, principally Chinese, Arabs and Europeans.

Austronesian migrations

The history of the Austronesian migrations is still only imperfectly known, although its broad outlines have been deduced by comparing archaeological, linguistic and ecological evidence. The dates shown here are those suggested by current research, but they may change as further excavation takes place.


The Austronesian invaders of the archipelago probably spoke a single language. Over the course of the centuries, however, as different groups lost contact with each other, their speech diverged. Languages can change rapidly – once-similar dialects can become mutually unintelligible in a couple of centuries – and there is virtually no record of the process of language change in the archipelago before 1800. In modern Indonesia, however, it is possible to identify over two hundred Austronesian and over one hundred and fifty Papuan (Melanesian) languages, most of which linguists have been able to group into larger clusters which almost certainly indicate more recent descent from a common ancestral language. The affinities between languages give researchers some clues to the early history of their speakers.

The close relationship, for instance, between Madurese – spoken in Madura and in neighbouring eastern Java – and Malay suggests that the island was first settled by migrants from Sumatra, rather than settlers from the Javanese mainland. The survival of Papuan languages on Timor and neighbouring islands supports archaeological evidence that this region was an important centre of Melanesian settlement before the arrival of the Austronesians. And the fact that a number of isolated forest peoples – the Badui in West Java, the Kubu in South Sumatra and the Penan in Borneo – speak the languages of surrounding peoples suggests that they may not have been as reclusive in the past as they are now.

Southern Sumatra may once have been as linguistically diverse as northern Sumatra and the northern Malay Peninsula, but from the seventh to the eleventh centuries it came under the powerful cultural influence of the trading kingdom of Srivijaya, based in Palembang. It is likely that many small ethnic groups were absorbed into the Malay-speaking communities during these centuries.

Acehnese is generally classified as an Austronesian language, but some scholars suggest that it may be a language of mainland Southeast Asia into which Austronesian grammar and vocabulary have become deeply embedded.

The status of Kenaboi and Lom, which apparently died out in the 19th century, is disputed.

Languages of Sumatra

Although small kingdoms emerged on the island of Borneo from time to time, especially at the mouths of the great rivers, Borneo was never the centre of a large, long-lived empire like Srivijaya, and it has remained linguistically complex. Complexity, however, does not necessarily mean isolation. The peoples of Borneo’s northern coast were in regular contact with other Austronesians in Champa on the coast of what is now Vietnam and with China. The Manya’an language of southeastern Borneo, moreover, is related to the Malagasy language of Madagascar.

Especially since the fifteenth century, however, Malay has become the dominant language of the coastal regions. This dominance is partly for commercial reasons – from the fifteenth century, Malay was the most important language of trade in the archipelago – and partly for religious reasons. Malay was the language of the large Muslim kingdom in the region, the sultanate of Melaka on the Malay Peninsula, and it became the main language of Islam as it spread eastwards.

On a much smaller scale, the Kapuas (Ngaju) language has become a lingua franca in the southeastern corner of Borneo as a result of its use by Christian missions in the region.

Languages of Borneo

Languages of Java

Languages of Sulawesi

Just as the Malay language spread widely along the shores of the Melaka Straits thanks to successive empires in the region, so did the Javanese language dominate densely populated central and eastern Java, where a series of agriculture-based empires developed from the eighth century A.D.

Javanese is a complicated language, not only grammatically but socially: the vocabulary which a Javanese speaker uses depends on the speaker’s status in relation to the person being addressed. Correct use of Javanese, therefore, is only possible when the relative social positions of the speakers are clear. For the traders of the archipelago, Javanese was too complex for everyday use, while Malay became the principal language of Islam. In pre-colonial times, therefore, the Javanese had considerable influence on other languages in the archipelago in vocabulary, but Javanese itself did not spread as a language of communication beyond the territorial limits of the successive Javanese kingdoms.

The social stratification embedded in Javanese also worked against it during the colonial era. The relationship between the Dutch and their main Javanese agents, the quasi-feudal regional officials called bupati, was inherently ambiguous: the Dutch officials treated these Javanese aristocrats in some respects as superiors, in some respects as inferiors. Instead of Javanese, therefore, the Dutch chose Malay as their language of administration and law. This fact not only required more and more people in the archipelago to speak Malay, but helped to equip the language with the vocabulary and grammatical forms necessary for expressing more complex administrative concepts.

A second boost to Malay came from the emergence of a Malay-language publishing industry in the early twentieth century, partly in the hands of Malay-speaking Chinese businessmen. The publications they produced helped to give Malay wider currency, as well as broadening the range of topics it could be used to discuss.

In 1928, the Indonesian nationalist movement adopted Malay as the language of the future independent state of Indonesia, calling it Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia. They chose it because it was already widely known and it lacked the hierarchical rigidities of Javanese. Indonesian became the principal language of modernity for Indonesians.

Languages of western Nusatenggara

Languages of eastern Nusatenggara

Languages of northern Maluku, the Bird's Head Peninsula and the Tanimbar and Kai Islands

Languages of New Guinea and the Aru Islands

Figure 2.i:  Number of speakers (in millions) of the major Indonesian languages (excluding Bahasa Indonesia), ca 1980.

Indonesian has continued to change and develop. Spelling has been reformed to remove a number of Dutch conventions, and grammar and vocabulary have been vastly extended, both by the deliberate coinages of the national language commission and by the inventions and borrowings of the Indonesian public. Indonesian is now the sole language of the educational system and overwhelmingly dominates the media, radio and television as well as print. The national language of Malaysia, Bahasa Kebangsaan, is also a modern version of Malay, while Malay is specified as the national language in both Singapore and Brunei (though in Singapore it is almost never used in public affairs).

Since the 17th century, many languages in the archipelago have become extinct. Some were wiped out: the violent Dutch capture of the Banda Islands in 1621 led to the extermination of most of the indigenous people and the extinction of their language, except in a couple of small villages established by exiles in the Kai Islands. Many more, however, have disappeared as a result of the integration of small communities into wider regional, national and global affairs. Only 13 Indonesian languages have a million or more native speakers; linguists generally believe that languages with fewer than this number are vulnerable to extinction.

Fluency in Indonesian, by province, 1990


The Indian cultural and religious influences which began to transform the Indonesian archipelago in the fourth century AD included the art of writing. The earliest inscriptions to be found so far are a series of brief announcements by Mulawarman, who was king in what is now the Kutai region of East Kalimantan in the late 4th century. These writings were in South Indian Pallawa script which seems to have been widely adopted by courts in the archipelago. By the middle of the 8th century, however, Pallawa had evolved into a distinctive local script, Kawi, which has been found in Java, Sumatra, Bali, and the Malay Peninsula. The range of both scripts stretches beyond any known political boundaries, suggesting that there may have been a relatively free intellectual interchange between the courts of western Indonesia during these early centuries.

By the 14th century, however, Kawi had begun to diversify. Distinct scripts emerged in the east Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, the west Javanese kingdom of Pajajaran, in the central Sumatran domain of the Minangkabau king Adityavarman, and possibly even in Aceh. Modified Javanese scripts were used in Bali, Madura and Sumbawa.

Unfortunately, there is a yawning gap in the records of writing in Indonesia in and around the 16th century. Kawi and its immediate descendants ceased to be used and in their place appeared four distinct families of scripts, Batak, South Sumatran, Javanese-Balinese and Bugis-Makasar. All are clearly Indic, i.e, descended ultimately from Indian models, but their precise evolution remains a mystery.

In modern times, Batak script was used almost exclusively for the writing of texts on magic and divination, but it is still occasionally seen on public notices and there is evidence that it was once used on a much wider range of documents. All except a few contemporary Batak texts are written in books (pustaha) made of bark which is folded in concertina-fashion to form the pages. Slightly different forms of the script are used to writing the Toba, Dairi and Mandailing Batak languages.

Three distinct scripts are known from the Bugis-Makasar group. Old Makasar, now extinct, was used for the text of the Treaty of Bungaya between the Dutch and the Makasar kingdom of Goa in 1667. Bima script, which was evidently used in parts of Sumbawa and Flores, is long extinct and is known only from the records of European observers. Modern Bugis-Makasar was used for a very wide range of documents, from court chronicles and royal diaries to epic poems, medical treatises and mundane personal notes.

The South Sumatra family of scripts was found in an area stretching from Lampung in the south to the borders of the Minangkabau country in the north. They are sometimes known as ka-ga-nga scripts, from their first three letters. The best known of these scripts, which is used by the Rejang people to write Old Malay, is also known as Rencong. The Javanese-Balinese script which emerged from the uncertainty of the 16th century is the most elaborate of the Indonesian Indic scripts, and it soon came to be used for decorative as well as informative functions. Many regional variants developed. During the 19th century, Dutch typographers favoured the elegant style of the Surakarta kraton, which has now become standard. Some scholars treat Balinese and Javanese as separate scripts, but each can be read by anyone who is fluent in the other and the differences are better seen as stylistic.

How widely were these scripts known? It has traditionally been assumed that literacy was the preserve of elite scribes and clerks attached to the courts of rulers. Several scholars, however, have pointed out reasons to believe that knowledge of the Indic scripts of the archipelago was once widely spread throughout society. These reasons include the fact that the early scripts have a form more suited to writing on paper or palm-leaf than to stone-carving; this means at least that the main media for writing were relatively accessible to society as a whole. Moreover, the range of Kawi inscriptions extends beyond the boundaries of any known state, and later inscriptions show very great diversity even within powerful political entities such as the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit. This suggests that writing had a life beyond the ruler’s court. Many early European accounts of Indonesia, moreover, report that a large part of the population, both men and women, were literate.

Distribution of modern Indic scripts, prior to the impact of Western printing technology

Kawi and Pallawa inscriptions, 4th-12th centuries

The arrival of Islam in the Indonesian archipelago brought major changes to the world of writing, because Muslim practice demanded that Islamic texts be written in arabic script. Arabic script was not especially suited to writing Austronesian languages, and therefore distinct archipelagic versions of Arabic emerged. In Java, Pegon script was used to write Javanese and Sundanese religious texts; from the 16th century Malay came to be written almost exclusively in another arabic script called Jawi. Because the curves and dots of arabic script could not easily be reproduced on palm leaves, paper, both imported and locally made, became much more widely used. Because paper tends to be more durable than leaves, a great many more texts have survived from the Islamic period than from earlier eras.

After Europeans entered the archipelago in the 16th century, many local languages in time came to be written in roman script. Missionaries keen to have the Bible available in indigenous languages were especially active in standardizing systems for writing down languages which had no script of their own and for transliterating from existing scripts. The use of printing gave these romanized versions of the Indonesian languages an overwhelming advantage, and today the old Indic scripts are for the most part used only for ceremonial and decorative purposes.
Colonial authorities began to measure literacy in the 1920 census. The results showed depressingly low levels of literacy throughout the archipelago, especially for women, with two significant exceptions. Southern Sumatra, where indigenous scripts were still widely known, and the eastern regions of Manado (Menado) and Ambon (Amboina), where Christian missionary activity had been strong, recorded relatively high levels of literacy for both men and women. Only well after independence, with the expansion of education, did literacy levels rise dramatically.

Female literacy (indigenous Indonesians), 1920

Male literacy (indigenous Indonesians), 1920

Female literacy (indigenous Indonesians) in 1930

Male literacy (indigenous Indonesians), 1930

Female literacy (entire population), 1961

Male literacy (entire population), 1961

Statistics on literacy have been kept by authorities in Indonesia since 1920, but care needs to be taken with them. The point at which a person was considered adult for enumeration purposes varied: in the colonial era, males over 15 and females over 14 were adult, whereas in independent Indonesia 10 was taken as the cut-off point. In the colonial era, the different racial categories were measured separately; indigenous Indonesians, whose results are shown above, had consistently much lower levels of literacy than Europeans and ‘Foreign Orientals’. All residents, on the other hand, were enumerated in the censuses after independence. Finally, it is not clear how diligently census takers counted people who were literate in indigenous scripts or in Arabic.

Adult literacy, 1990

World Religions

Indian religious conceptions began to spread into the Indonesian archipelago during and after about the second century A.D. Hinduism and Buddhism gradually became major religions in the region, not by a dramatic process of conversion from traditional indigenous beliefs but by a process of selective adoption, in which Southeast Asians moulded elements of Indian belief to deepen and enrich existing beliefs. Thus, traditional reverence for local spirits – the gods of rocks, trees, pools and so on – was extended by seeing those gods as manifestations of Hindu gods. Although many elements of the Hindu class structure – dividing the community into Brahmans, Ksatria, Vaisyas and Sudras – were taken over in the archipelago, there is almost no trace of the much more finely differentiated caste system, in which society is broken into a vast number of small, occupation-specific castes.

The first significant Indian religious elements were brought to the Indonesian archipelago by the Brahman priests whom local rulers called to their courts as advisers on cosmology of royal power. The earliest known inscription in the region, from Kutai in eastern Borneo, dated to the late 4th century, records a gift of cattle, gold and other treasures by king Mulavarman to Brahmans. Within a few centuries, however, Brahmanism had been joined and somewhat overtaken by Saivism (worship of the Hindu god Siva) and by Mahayana Buddhism. By the 7th century, the archipelago presented a rich tapestry of religions and beliefs, in which older Austronesian elements were interwoven with newer Indian forms. Formerly Indian beliefs moved beyond the courts and, at least to some extent, out into the community, where they were shaped by the existing belief systems of the people. Specific temples, shrines and religious sects paid respect not only to the three main gods of the Hindu pantheon, Brahma, Visnu and Siva, and to the Buddha, but also to other supernatural figures, such as the eagle Garuda, and the elephant god Ganesa. Visnu’s consort, Laksmi or Sri, became transformed in time into the rice goddess, Dewi Sri, who continued to be honoured by nominally Muslim Javanese peasants in the 20th century.

Hinduism and Buddhism in the archipelago, 4th-13th centuries

Figure 2.ii:  Borobudur, the largest of Indonesia’s Buddhist monuments.  Borobudur was constructed between about 780 and 833 A.D. on the Kedu plain in central Java.  The squared- off lower galleries are decorated with reliefs showing the lives of the Buddha, while the unadorned circular upper terraces are said to represent the achievement of Nirvana.  The monument was reconstructed under UNESCO auspices in 1973–1983.

For reasons still not entirely clear, the main religious interest on Sumatra in this era was Buddhism. Srivijaya became a major centre of Mahayana Buddhist studies, and the rulers of Srivijaya even sponsored Buddhist temples and monasteries in India and China, although the number and scale of known Buddhist monuments on Sumatra itself is relatively small. On Java, by contrast, Hinduism tended to be more prominent, though there were strong Buddhist elements and no reason to assume that the two religions were opposed to one another.

Hindu and Buddhist temple complexes in Central and East Java

Figure 2.iii:  Profile of the Borobudur.

Mountains played a major role in Southeast Asian Buddhist cosmology. They were the abode of gods and a place in which communication with the cosmos could most easily be achieved. The name of the dynasty which founded the Borobudur, Sailendra, means ‘Lord of the Mountains’, and the monument was intended to be a schematic representation of the sacred mountain, Meru, which lies at the centre of the world in Buddhist cosmology. Partly for this reason, too, most of Java’s Hindu and Buddhist temples are located on or near mountains.

In about the 13th century, Islam began to win converts in the archipelago. Evidence for the process of conversion is fragmentary, but there is a general scholarly consensus that several factors were important in the spread of Islam. One element was the strength of Sufism, a form of Islam which had blended mystical elements into the formerly austere religion of the Arabian peninsula. It seems likely that people of the archipelago often saw Sufis as holders of religious knowledge which might enrich their spiritual lives, rather than as missionaries for an alien religion. To some extent, therefore, the adoption of Islamic beliefs preceded any consciousness of being Muslim, in much the same way that Hinduism and Buddhism had spread by grafting their complex cosmologies on to compatible local beliefs.

The differences between Islam and the established religions, however, also contributed to the process of conversion. Islam appears to have been especially attractive to traders, who appreciated the egalitarianism of Muslim commercial law and the brotherhood of Muslim traders and who, in some cases at least, found that conversion to an outside religion was a convenient way to avoid the onerous community obligations to share wealth, whether with family members or with rulers, which was a feature of many societies in the archipelago.

There is little doubt, too, that the missionary vigour of Islam played a significant role in conversion in some places. Believers determined to magnify the name of Allah and to save others from perdition made strong efforts to convert unbelievers.

Finally, political factors played a role, especially after the arrival of Christian Europeans in the archipelago in the form of the Portuguese in the early 16th century. No external Islamic power ever threatened the independent states of the Indonesian region as the Portuguese did, and from that time on Islam became both a potent symbol of resistance to Western domination and a basis for broader regional alliances, though such alliances seldom came to much in practice.

The complexity of the conversion process means that it can be mapped in only the most general terms. Although Islamic philosophy makes a sharp distinction between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds, Islam did not move across the face of the archipelago behind neat boundaries. Rather, for the most part there was a process by which Islam gradually obtained dominance, both numerically and intellectually, over the older beliefs. Only occasionally can we recognize decisive instances of voluntary conversion or cases of religious war between believers and non-believers leading to an Islamic victory.

 Even today, with about 88% of the Indonesian population formally considered to be followers of Islam, the religious beliefs of many Indonesian Muslims include elements which are far from strictly Islamic. The followers of Kejawen, sometimes called Javanism, consider themselves Muslim, but their religious practice contains many elements drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism and animism. Similarly, the followers of Waktu Telu on the island of Lombok, follow many elements from earlier traditions in their observance.  Even amongst ethnic groups recognized locally as especially orthodox, such as the Minangkabau and the Acehnese, many local elements survive in religious practice, sanctioned by the Islamic term adat, or custom.

Islamization of the Indonesian archipelago and lines of Muslim religious influence in the archipelago

Islamization of Java, 1480-1546

Java’s conversion to Islam was a complicated process drawn out over several centuries. Javanese tradition, and some historical evidence, puts great weight on the role of the so-called ‘wali songo’, nine (perhaps fewer, perhaps more) saints who received knowledge of Islam by supernatural means and who set about spreading the new religion. Several of them seem to have been foreigners, in some cases perhaps Chinese, and many of their tombs are still sites of pilgrimage and reverence for Javanese Muslims.

On the other hand, the spread of Islam was greatly hastened by the military activities of the trading city of Demak. In a series of campaigns between 1527 and 1546, Demak’s king, Trenggana, subjugated the most important river valleys of eastern Java, made inroads into the interior of central Java, and established new Muslim outposts in western Java.

The complicated pattern of Islam’s spread, and its interaction with earlier religious belief led to the rise of many different variants of Islam. Although orthodox Islam was established very early, it had to compete with influential heretical doctrines, especially the identification of God with humankind. Sunan Sitijenar is revered as one of the nine saints, but his followers were considered heterodox and were often in conflict with Sunan Kudus and his followers.

Figure 2.iv:  Wayang kulit (shadow puppet) figure: the hero Arjuna.

The nine wali are reputed to have played a major role in the development of one of Java’s most distinctive cultural forms, wayang kulit or shadow puppetry. In classical wayang kulit, a dalang or puppeteer operates a vast array of intricately carved flat leather puppets from behind an illuminated screen. Performances, which last a whole night, cover a single episode (lakon) modified from the Indian epic Mahabharata. Because Islam bans the representation of living beings, the wali are said to have distorted the shape of the characters so that they could no longer be said to represent anything living. There is no firm evidence of the role of the wali, but the development of wayang kulit appears to have reached its peak in the prosperous cities of the Pasisir, Java’s northern coastal region, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Most of the stories locate the events of the Mahabharata in Java and they identify the heroes of the wayang as ancestors of the Javanese elite. The hero Arjuna was especially favoured in this role.

Only a few Islamic elements are found in wayang kulit, but other wayang forms – topeng (masks) and golek (solid wooden puppets) – tell stories with a stronger Islamic message.
Measuring the strength of religious adherence in a community is always difficult. The obligation which Islam lays on believers to make the haj, or pilgrimage to Mekka, at least once in their lives gives a rough measure of how seriously Muslims take their faith; because, however, the costs of making the pilgrimage are substantial, haj figures can also reflect the prosperity of a community. The maps show, as might be expected, a relatively low level of haj participation in the abangan areas of central Java and a high level in the prosperous regions of southern Sumatra (1927) and East Kalimantan (1971).

Pilgrims to Mekka as a proportion of the indigenous population of each gewest, 1927

Pilgrims to Mekka as a proportion of the Muslim population of each province, 1971

Muslims in Indonesia: distribution according to the 1980 census

Muslims in Indonesia, according to the 2000 census

Islam in Indonesia today presents a diverse picture of many intellectual and theological streams. Indonesia’s long-ruling second President, Suharto, was originally a follower of Kejawen and initially gave it much political support, but during the later years of his New Order he presided over a dramatic retreat in the influence of traditional Javanese beliefs. This retreat was both an indirect consequence of modernization and social change and a direct consequence of mission work by Islamic preachers amongst Kejawen communities. The traditionalist orthodox followers of Islam in Java and other regions appear to have retained much of their strength, thanks to their powerful network of rural Islamic teachers, but the main beneficiary of the retreat of Kejawen seems to be Islamic modernism.

Modernism, which arose in the Middle East in the late 18th century, emphasizes the authority of the Qur’an over the teachings of later saints and scholars, but it underpins a wide range of attitudes to the desirable nature of state and society. Some modernists would like to see a return to the values and social order of the days of the Prophet Muhammad, when the Qur’an was originally revealed, whereas others, called neo-Modernists, argue that the basic principles expressed in the Qur’an, such as piety, human dignity and social justice, should be given priority over a literalist reconstruction of the Muslim Arab society of the seventh century.

The rise of Islamic modernism in its various forms was reflected in the results of the 1999 election, and in a growing public self-confidence of Muslims in demanding adherence to basic Muslim principles such as the prohibition of gambling and restrictions on access to alcohol.

Figure 2.v:  The mosque in Kudus.

The mosque in the Central Java town of Kudus is one of the most striking symbols of the early fusion of Islam with other religious traditions on Java. The minaret, or tower, of the mosque, which was built around 1685, closely resembles a Hindu-Buddhist candi in form and the surrounding walls and gateways follow a style closely resembling that of the buildings of the Hindu-Javanese empire of Majapahit. A further relic of Hindu influence may be a prohibition, which persisted for many years, on the slaughtering of cattle within the boundaries of the town. The town’s name is derived from al-Quds, the Muslim name for Jerusalem, and it was a major site for pilgrimage by Javanese Muslims.

Catholicism in eastern Indonesia, 1546-1613

Ecclesiastical provinces of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands Indies, 1927

The age of dramatic expansion by Islam on Java was followed by a period of Christianization in the east of the archipelago. Portuguese colonialists came initially for trade and plunder, but Catholic missionaries soon arrived in the region, most notably St Francis Xavier, who worked in Ambon, Ternate and Morotai in 1546–47. Dominican missionaries also made many converts in Solor. With the expulson of Portugal from Ternate in 1574, many Catholics in the northern islands were killed or converted to Islam. In Ambon, seized by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1605, Catholics were unilaterally absorbed into the Protestant church. Much the same happened in Manado and the islands of Sangir and Talaud. In 1613 Solor also fell to the Dutch, and Catholic mission activity dwindled in Flores and Timor.

In 1808, Catholics were permitted freedom of worship in the Netherlands Indies, though this measure was mainly intended for European Catholics. From 1835, the Catholic Church was affiliated with the colonial state: clergy received a salary from the colonial government which in turn had the right to reject church appointments. In 1846, clashes over policy led the Dutch authorities to expel all but one of the Catholic priests in the colony. In 1848 there were Catholic churches in only four centres in the colony.

Active mission work did not begin until the second half of the 19th century and was concentrated in a few areas. Larantuka was a particularly important mission field under the Jesuits, because the freedom of the Catholic Church was guaranteed there under an 1859 treaty with Portugal which settled conflicting territorial claims in the region. Bengkulu, Bangka, West Borneo, and the islands south of New Guinea were also important. In other regions such as the interior North Sumatra, Catholic mission work was banned in 1898, a mission programme also began in the Javanese town of Muntilan, though the first ethnic Javanese priest was not installed until 1926.

Although the VOC insisted that Catholics in the archipelago turn to Protestantism, it was ambivalent about conversion from other religions. At times the Company gave European status to converts, but it hesitated to accept the political consequences of mass conversion, including a probable breakdown of the existing political order and moral restraints on colonial exploitation. Only in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after the end of Company rule, was greater freedom given to Christian missions. The Protestant Indische Kerk received state support as an established church, but in the mission field there was a division of labour, with different mission groups taking spiritual charge of different regions. Strongly Muslim areas, including much of Sumatra, together with the island of Bali, where the Dutch wanted to preserve traditional Hindu Balinese culture, were excluded from this arrangement.

Christian mission fields in the Netherlands Indies, early 20th century

Christians in Indonesia: results of the 1980 census

Christians in Indonesia, according to the 2000 census

The Indonesian constitution recognizes ‘Belief in God’ as one of the basic principles of the state, and the state expects all its citizens to adhere to one of five recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism, though the latter two were recognized only in 1965. Especially under the New Order of President Suharto, not to follow a religion was officially regarded as either primitive or subversive and the number of people recorded as ‘not yet’ having a religion declined rapidly.

Hinduism is the main indigenous religion on Bali. In 1969, however, the traditional religion of the Toraja in central and south Sulawesi was recognized (on fairly flimsy grounds) as a branch of Hinduism. In 1980, similar recognition was given to the traditional Dayak religion of Borneo, called Kaharingan.

Inhabitants recorded as not having a religion as a percentage of the population of each province, 1980

Hindu and Buddhist communities, 1980

Confucianism, the belief of some of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population, was formally recognized as a religion in 1965, but because of its close association with Chinese culture and because it did not easily conform with the New Order’s prescription that religions should be based on belief in (a single) God, it was increasingly excluded from practical recognition, and many followers of Confucianism came to call themselves Buddhists. Both Hinduism and Buddhism also came under official pressure to modify their cosmology to emphasize a Supreme Being who could be identified as a single God.

Since the early 1990s, there have been signs of growing antagonism between sections of the Muslim majority and religious minorities, especially Christians. In 1999, serious Muslim–Christian clashes occurred in Ambon.

Confucians as a proportion of the population, 1971

Indonesian provinces according to largest and second-largest religious groups, 1990

Religion in Sulawesi, 2000: distribution of Muslim and Christian districts

Muslim population of Papua, by district, according to the 2000 census

Migration and Ethnicity

The intricate mosaic of ethnicity in Indonesia has been complicated by centuries of migration into, out of and within the archipelago.

There is little detailed information on migration within the Indonesian archipelago before the colonial era although, as seen earlier in this chapter, there is linguistic evidence of considerable mobility in the past.  Many ancestral legends of ethnic groups also tell of people travelling to their present homelands from elsewhere. The best recorded case of extensive migration is the movement of Minangkabau from western Sumatra to the Malay peninsula in the 15th century, probably attracted by the commercial opportunities offered by the powerful Sultanate of Melaka (see chapter 3).  The main Minangkabau settlements, Rembau, Naning and Sungai Ujung, were subject to Melaka and became the core of the later Malaysian state of Negri Sembilan. From the island of Madura, off the northeast coast of Java, large numbers of people moved to the Javanese mainland in the 17th and 18th centuries, but for the most part they did not attempt to form separate states.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, many parts of the archipelago were visited and settled by Bugis and Makasar colonists from southern Sulawesi. Autocratic rule by the Arung Palakka, king of Bone, as well as Dutch monopolistic restrictions on trade in the port of Makasar, led large numbers of Bugis and Makasars to leave their homeland and move to other parts of the archipelago. Many settled along the coasts of Kalimantan and Sulawesi but others pushed further afield to become a major political force in the Malay Peninsula and even in Java.

Major migration flows within western Indonesia 15th to 17th centuries

Bugis and Makasar settlement and activity, 17th and 18th centuries

Relatively little is known about the early history of the westward retreat of Sundanese on Java, but it was probably a result of both immigration and acculturation. The Javanese-speaking communities on the northern coast of west Java, however, are almost certainly the result of direct settlement by Javanese, including garrisons sent by rulers of the Javanese state of Mataram as a defence against the Dutch in Batavia and against the sultanate of Banten.

Bajau Laut settlements in Kalimantan and Sulawesi

The transportation of slaves was one of the important sources of population movement in the Indonesian archipelago until the 18th century. Although many people became slaves as a result of debt – and were therefore enmeshed in a complex structure of rights and obligations in relation to both slave-owners and society as a whole – many others became slaves because of capture in war or in deliberate slave-raids. The main victims of these raids were people in smaller communities, often in the mountains or on smaller islands, who lacked the protection of a powerful state, but some powerful rulers, especially in Bali, played a major role as slave brokers.

Most slaves were sold for work in the larger cities of the archipelago – Aceh, Melaka, Banten and Makasar – where they were put to work as household servants, construction workers and coolies. Even amongst such slaves, there appears to have been significant social mobility, with the most menial tasks being done by the most recent captives. There were even many cases of wealthy slaves who themselves owned slaves.

Slaves continued to be a major source of labour in the archipelago with the rise of Dutch colonial power in the region from the early 17 century, and the main centre of the Dutch East Indies Company, the port city of Batavia, relied on a constant inflow of slaves from many parts of the archieplago, especially Bali.

Slaving in the Indonesian archipelago, 16th-18th centuries

During the first centuries of Dutch colonial influence in Indonesia, the colonial authorities limited free population movement between their various possessions as far as possible. In the latter part of the 19th century, however, the demand for labour in the plantations of the East Coast of Sumatra led the Dutch to permit a massive flow of indentured labourers from Java to northern Sumatra. On Java itself, the main population movements were from the crowded regions of central Java and from impoverished Madura to the relatively sparsely populated eastern peninsula and to the booming capital, Batavia.

There was some population movement also from the other islands to Java, especially to educational institutions, but total numbers were low.

Inter-regional migration on Java in the period to 1930

Inter-regional migration in the Netherlands Indies in the period to 1930

Following Indonesian independence, the pace of internal immigration in Indonesia increased. Although political turmoil inhibited mobility from time to time, on the whole Indonesia’s people were free to seek employment anywhere in the archipelago. As in the colonial period, south Sulawesi, was a significant source of migrants inter-island migration, while there was considerable movement between provinces in Sumatra. By far the largest number of migrants, however, moved within Java and from Java to other islands. Only in the 1990s did the accelerating pace of industrial development in Java begin to draw labour. Immediately before the financial and economic crisis of 1997, migration into and out of Java had almost reached equilibrium. The crisis, however, was felt most severely on Java, and by the end of the century the island had ceased to be an attractive destination for migrants from other parts of Indonesia.

Migration within Indonesia (excluding Java), to 1980

Migration between Java and the other islands, to 1980

Migrants from other parts of Indonesia as a percentage of the population of each province

Migration to Java: Percentage of current population of each province born in that province and living in Java, 2000.

Major population movements between provinces, excluding movements within Java (People residing in one province in 2000 who had been born in a different province)

Javanese in Indonesia, 2000

Javanese in Papua, 2000:  Javanese as a percentage of the population of each kabupaten

Bugis communities in Papua, 2000

Fear of intolerable population pressure on Java led Indonesian authorities in the twentieth century to sponsor a massive programme of population movement, or transmigration, from Java (as well as Bali and Madura) to other, less densely populated regions of the archipelago. The programme began on a modest scale in 1905 under the Dutch and continued under Sukarno, but it was dramatically accelerated with World Bank support from 1974. Families, and even whole villages, were encouraged to move by the prospect of abundant fertile agricultural land. In the 1970s, the main destination of transmigrants was southern Sumatra, but in the 1980s and 1990s increasing numbers were sent to Kalimantan and Irian Jaya.

Major transmigration movements, 1969-1978

Transmigration locations in southern Sumatra, ca 1990

Sukadana, a transmigration settlement established in Lampung, southern Sumatra, in the 1930s

Between 1905 and 1999, the transmigration programme moved 6.2 million people to new settlements in the outer islands of the archipelago. The programme, however, has been criticized on many grounds. The number of people leaving Java has had no appreciable impact on the island’s overall population density, while the cost of surveying potential settlement areas, providing infrastructure and supporting new-comers in the early stages of settlement has been high. Some observers have criticized the displacement of local communities and the dilution of ethnic identity in outlying provinces, though this effect, under the general heading of ‘national integration’, has been welcomed by the government. Some of the transmigration settlements have also been relatively unsuccessful because of poor choice of site or lack of proper preparation. Also influencing the attractiveness of the programme to Indonesia’s government has been the fact that land suitable for transmigration has increasingly been made available for large-scale plantation development, notably oil palm and rubber.

All these considerations led to a reduction in the scale of the transmigration programme during the 1990s.

Transmigration in Irian Jaya, 1984

Transmigrants 1970-1985 as a proportion of the 1980 provincial population

Migration from Indonesia to other parts of the world has been rather episodic. After the final wave of migration which settled Madagascar until the 13th century, there was little recorded movement from the archipelago until colonial times. The Dutch used Indonesian slaves in their colonies in the Indian Ocean and Africa, and sent political exiles to the Cape of Good Hope, and towards the end of the 19th century they permitted the recruitment of Javanese to work on plantations in other European colonies, notably Surinam, New Caledonia and Queensland.

During the Second World War, Indonesian labourers were recruited on a large scale by the Japanese occupation authorities and put to work not only in Indonesia but elsewhere in Southeast Asia and in Japan. They often worked under appalling conditions and large numbers died of disease and malnutrition. Most of the survivors made their way back to Indonesia at the end of the War, but small communities remained in some regions.

Since independence, the most massive external movement of Indonesians has been to the Middle East, where hundreds of thousands work as labourers and household servants, and Malaysia, where a booming economy (until 1997) attracted more than a million Indonesians. Many of these migrants entered the country illegally, but their presence was tolerated by the Malaysian authorities as a necessary element in their country’s accelerated development and as a potential reinforcement of the numbers of narrow Malay majority. After the economic crisis on 1997, many of these migrants were repatriated to Indonesia.

Major migrations by Indonesians beyond the archipelago, 17th to 20th centuries

Typical route for an unskilled labourer recruited from East Java to work in Malaysia

Major home regions of Chinese migrants to Indonesia

Buleleng (northern Bali) in the late colonial period

For three millennia after the arrival of the Austronesians, there was no significant migration into Indonesia. From about the 12th century, however, the growing commercial prosperity of the archipelago attracted increasing numbers of foreign traders – Indians, Arabs, Siamese, Chinese, Japanese and many others. Most of these were temporary residents, living in the foreign quarters of the trading cities, governed by their own ‘captains’ and returning sooner or later to their homelands. Inevitably, though, some traders stayed: they married locally and their descendants, especially if they were numerous enough, formed recognizable hybrid communities whose cultures drew on both local and foreign elements.

The life span of such communities could be short: some were absorbed into indigenous society within a few generations. Others, however, remained distinct: typically they spoke a version of the local language and adopted local practice in food and clothing, but retained foreign names and, sometimes, their original religion. Hybrid ethnic groups of this kind became known as peranakan, or ‘local-born’. The most important and resilient of these communities were drawn from the descendants of Chinese settlers in the archipelago. The largest of their communities were in Java.

The Chinese presence in Indonesia increased substantially during the colonial era. Attracted by commercial and employment opportunities, Chinese made up a quarter of the population of the colonial capital, Batavia, in the 18th century. Still larger numbers arrived during 19th and 20th centuries, many of them fleeing appalling poverty and hardship in southern China and seeking employment in the plantations, tin mine ports and cities of the archipelago. Some, however, also came to Indonesia for political motives: the defeat of the Taiping rebellion in China in 1864 led many Chinese to seek greater freedom in the southern seas, bringing with them the secret societies which had been an important part of the resistance to the foreign Qing (Manchu) dynasty.

For most of Indonesian history, the majority of local Chinese have been relatively poor, but from early times, Chinese were also well-represented amongst the rich. Recent Chinese migrants, often called totok or singkeh, brought habits of thrift and hard work, and were able to use family, clan or secret society connections as a source of capital, expertise and protection.  Their separate status within society was reinforced by the Dutch preference for treating them separately, initially by continuing to use ‘captains’ to administer the Chinese and later by creating the distinct legal category of ‘Foreign Orientals’ (Vreemde Oosterlingen), who were mainly Chinese, although the category also encompassed Indians, Arabs and other Asians.

Chinese population of British Malaya, 1930

Chinese in urban and rural Indonesia, ca 1940

In the twentieth century, the ‘Chinese’ community in Indonesia has comprised a range of ethnicities. Amongst the totok are some who have close cultural and political ties to China (or Taiwan), who speak local languages only haltingly and whose loyalties are primarily to their country of origin. Amongst the peranakan, on the other hand, there are many who feel no significant connection with China, who speak no Chinese and whose local loyalties are as strong and exclusive as those of any indigene. Both state authorities and the general public, however, have tended to treat ‘Chinese’ as a single category. In particular, successive governments have been unable to find a single, universally satisfactory means of addressing the complex question of the citizenship of Chinese in Indonesia.

Colonialism also brought significant numbers of Europeans to the Indonesian archipelago, but Europeans were no more homogeneous as a category than Chinese. For most of its history, the VOC was reluctant to allow European women to settle in the Indies, and many European men therefore married or cohabited with Indonesian women. In general, the offspring of these marriages were considered European, whereas the status of children produced outside marriage was determined by the father: if he recognized them, they took his name and became Europeans; if he did not recognize them, they remained with their mother and were treated as ‘natives’ (Inlanders). In the 17 and 18 centuries, European society in the Indies was hybrid, with many Europeans adopting local customs of food and clothing, as well as speaking Malay as their first language. From the early 19 century, with the abolition of the VOC and the imposition of metropolitan rule, the racial and cultural distinction between Europeans and ‘Natives’ became sharper, but it remained possible throughout the colonial period for Indonesians to achieve full legal status as Europeans if they were judged to be Westernized. The legal status of a European was thus never a decisive sign of a person’s ethnicity.

During the colonial era, Indies residents with European status lived mainly on Java, and a large proportion of these were Dutch in origin. On other islands, the ‘European’ population was much more mixed. Many foreign entrepreneurs and managers ran plantations in Sumatra, while in Bengkoelen (Bengkulu) and eastern Indonesia there were many ‘Europeans’ who spoke only a local language at home. This ambiguity became still more pronounced in 1899, when Japanese were formally granted European status, on the grounds that the European-style legal system in force in Japan entitled them to the same legal protections as Europeans.

Europeans (including Japanese) in the outer islands, 1920

Europeans in Java, 1920

Although a large number of both ‘Foreign Orientals’ and Europeans took Indonesian citizenship at or after independence, some others chose or were forced to repatriate during the 1950s. Since that time, the only significant migration into Indonesia has been by refugees from Indochina, who were granted temporary refuge on the island of Galang in Riau. None of these refugees, however, was granted permanent residence and the camp was closed in 1996.
Foreign Orientals in the Netherlands Indies, 1920

Chinese and Peranakan in the Indonesian archipelago, 1920

Chinese nationals in Indonesia, 1975

Major urban centres, 16th and 17th centuries

Cities and Urbanization

Archaeological remains of urban settlements in the Indonesian archipelago have been dated from at least two thousand years ago, but the history of intense urban development in the region is considerably more recent. Early Indonesian towns and cities seem to have combined administrative, political, commercial, industrial and religious functions in the way that was common in Europe, the Middle East and China. Instead, these functions were often separate, and the location of urban centres has changed rapidly through history. None of the major urban centres in modern Indonesia is more than a few centuries old.

A vigorous age of urban development began in the archipelago in the late fourteenth century, when trade with India and China expanded dramatically. The cities which emerged in this era seem to have had populations up to fifty or even one hundred thousand – substantial by European standards and large in relation to the relatively sparse population of the archipelago as a whole, though considerably smaller than cities in China or Japan. The form of these cities was rather different from that in Europe and China: instead of being tightly packed settlements surrounded by protecting walls, Indonesian cities seem to have been sprawling affairs, with most houses surrounded by a garden of coconut and fruit trees. Defensive walls were occasionally present, but they never encompassed the entire city, and the space they enclosed seldom represented a city’s heart.

The reasons for this distinctive urban structure seem to have been partly climatic: the tropical conditions of the archipelago made crowded housing a serious health risk. Probably more important, however, was the nature of the military threat to those who ruled and dwelt in cities. The greatest resource which a city commanded was not its buildings, which were mainly of wood, nor even its location; several major centres including Melaka, Brunei, Aceh, Pasai and Johor lacked a significant agricultural hinterland and had to feed their people with imported rice. Iin the thinly populated archipelago, people were the greatest political resource, and they were best protected at times of attack by fleeing into nearby forests, rather than by retreating behind city walls into an unhealthy dense settlement.

Majapahit's central court (kraton) in the fourteenth century

Melaka in about 1600

Melaka was founded in about 1400 by Parameswara, a prince from the city of Palembang in southern Sumatra. During the fifteenth century, the city rose to become the most powerful state in maritime Southeast Asia, partly because of its strategic location close to the narrowest point on the Melaka strait, partly because its rulers provided both facilities and legal security to make their port attractive to traders. In about 1414, Parameswara converted to Islam, and his successors applied Islamic commercial law to the city’s business, giving merchants greater security of property than had existed under the preceding Hindu order. At the height of its power, Muslim Melaka was one of the great port cities of the world and the largest city in Southeast Asia, with a population of perhaps two hundred thousand.

Melaka’s wealth and power attracted the Portuguese, who conquered it in 1511, but they were more interested in its strategic location than in promoting trade, and under their rule the city went into gradual decline.

The arrival of Europeans in the Indonesian archipelago began to change the structure of urban development. The Portuguese built a massive fort there, which they named ‘A Famosa’ and which formed a pivotal point in the defence of their interests in Indonesia for the next century and a half. Similarly, the Dutch and British trading companies began to extend their influence in the archipelago during the 17 century through a series of trading posts, generally called factories, which often quickly took on the character of fortresses.

Jayakarta (Batavia) in 1617

Although a few cities such as Batavia, Bandung, Semarang, Surabaya and Medan developed during the colonial period, the economic heart of the colonial system lay in agriculture and mining, and the vast majority of Indonesia’s people remained in rural areas. In the first half of the twentieth century, there was some movement of people into cities and regional towns, but the 1920 census still showed Indonesia with only a thin sprinkling of urban settlements with populations greater than forty thousand, and very few of these were outside Java.

Towns with population greater than 10,000, Java, 1920

Towns with population greater than 10,000, rest of  the Netherlands Indies, 1920

Significant growth in the size of Indonesia’s cities began in the early twentieth century and accelerated after independence. Economic opportunities in the cities grew, while they tended to decline in the countryside, especially with developments in the mechanization of agriculture. In the 1960s, Indonesia introduced formal controls on migration into larger cities such as Jakarta, though these have proven relatively ineffective.

City growth, 1930-1971

Urbanization, 1990

The growth of Indonesia’s cities has continued In recent decades, but improvements in communication and the need for regional strategies for development have blurred the distinction between town and countryside. On the one hand, urban activities steadily intrude into rural areas, while city planners attempt to preserve green belts and agricultural areas of cultural or historical significance as part of the necessary amenities for large cities. On the other hand, rural residents commute into town, often over large distances, so that economic and social life on towns and countryside are interwoven as never before. Nonetheless, a steadily growing proportion of the Indonesian population has no, or only weak, links to rural life.

Cities with a population over 200,000 in 1990, Java

Cities with a population over 200,000 in 1990, rest of Indonesia

Jakarta in the eastern Asian air network

Jabotabek region

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, the urban influences of Jakarta spread increasingly into surrounding regions of West Java. The resulting conurbation, known as ‘Jabotabek’ (Jakarta–Bogor–Tanggerang–Bekasi), contained nearly one quarter of Indonesia’s urban population in 1990 and was a major target for foreign, especially Japanese, investment in new factories. New housing developments in the outer regions of Jabotabek gave the increasingly wealthy new middle class of the capital the opportunity to adopt a more affluent life-style, but the development of these estates was often closely linked with speculation and the corrupt issue of building permits. Although a network of new motorways linked the main centres of the region, infrastructure and services still fell short of the needs of investors, residents and commuters.

Jakarta is also the hub of Indonesia’s communications with the outside world, as the site of the most important telecommunications facilities, the port of Tanjung Priok and the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Nonetheless, Singapore acts as a major hub between Indonesia and its major trading and investment partners in eastern Asia.


Estimating the population of the Indonesian archipelago in the period before the 19th century presents enormous difficulties, both because no more than occasional records are available, and because their interpretation often rests on uncertain assumptions about reliability and about general demographic conditions. Only from the very end of the 18th century is it possible to identify more reliable figures for Java, while for other islands this is generally true only from about 1880.

Examination of colonial figures suggests that the population of Java was three to four million in 1800, and that this population grew at an average rate of 1.4% per year during the19th century to reach a total of about thirty million in 1900; the population of the outer islands at this stage was probably little more than ten million.

Population density of Java, 1867

Population density of Java, 1890

Population density of Java, 1920

Population density of British Malaya, 1930

Malay population of British Malaya, 1930

Population density in most regions outside Java was extremely low until recent times. In 1925, the average density in the outer islands was 8 people per square kilometre; Bali and Lombok, with 148 people per square kilometre, was the only administrative region outside Java to exceed 32 people per square kilometre.

The overall population density of Indonesia rose from about 26 per square kilometre in 1920 to 93 in 1990. Because Indonesia’s population is relatively young, the rate of population increase is still relatively high and current predictions are that the population will reach about 370 million by 2025.

Population increase, 1930-1961 and 1961-1971 and population density, 1971

Population density, 1990

During the 1980s, Indonesia’s rate of population increase began to slow, reducing fears of a Malthusian catastrophe in densely populated Java. Indonesia’s overall population growth rate in 1990 stood at 2.0%, down from 2.2% in 1975–80 and the slowdown was greatest in the most densely populated regions of Java and Bali. The slowing of population growth can be attributed to many factors, including urbanization, better education for women, and a vigorous government family planning campaign. The National Family Planning Coordination Agency has been at the forefront of efforts to persuade Indonesians to have fewer children. Although there have been reports of considerable social pressure being placed on women to become family planning acceptors, Indonesia’s programme has been largely without the extremes of coercion which have been found in China and India.

Family planning acceptors, 1985

Total fertility rate, 1980

Indonesia and its neighbours, population and population growth, 1995