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Indonesia cultural insights

The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.

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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:


Local perspective

City or area of origin is a good topic to start a discussion. Indonesians belong to many ethnics groups with different local dialects. Talking about family is the most popular topic among Indonesians. They will most likely ask about immediate family members especially children: how many, age, gender, grade, school, etc. If they are not married, they may be encouraged to get married of course not in a serious discussion but rather with humor.

The age of retirement in Indonesia mostly is 56 while it is 65 in certain disciplines. Most people close to the age of retirement do not feel they are ready to retire. They also do not want to be viewed as old. It is best not to assume that a person in that age group has already retired. It is recommended that one does not ask a person whether they have already retired from their job. It is better to ask about where they work, their area of expertise and interest.

Canadian perspective

Greetings and exchanging of personal information such as marital status and family details (children, husband, wife), age, religion, work, education, where you are from, places you’ve traveled, etc. are appreciated.

Acceptable topics include points of interest such as tourist sites and unique cultural/ethnic practices, e.g. beaches, mountains, gardens, cultural sites, shopping, cultural dances and music, special holidays, festivals and events. Food, local delicacies, restaurants, ingredients (e.g. chili, coconut, coffee, cocoa, etc.), agriculture or industry of the area, development opportunities and business growth, e.g. fishing, coconut, batik production, carving and local crafts are also acceptable topics for discussion.

Communication styles

Local perspective

Most of Indonesians especially Javanese are shy. They do not talk much, and they hardly ask question unless necessary. But that does not mean that they do not know about the work or their subject. They may be more knowledgeable than their colleagues who are more talkative. People from East Java and Sumatra however are more open-minded and straightforward in talking.

Indonesians use a lot of body language when they talk, especially when giving directions. Pointing finger at someone is considered very rude and pointing something using toes is considered showing arrogance. Shaking head means “No” and nodding head means “Yes”. Using left hand especially in giving something to someone is viewed as impolite. Touching shoulder or upper back means encouragement while touching someone’s head is considered very rude and arrogant.

Looking into someone’s eye is considered very rude and arrogant, especially in communication between a junior and senior person. When communicating to a person in a higher hierarchy, people generally avoid having direct and continuous eye contact.

Canadian perspective

Indonesia is a vast country made up of between 300 and 400 ethnic groups, each with their unique culture and language. Indonesia’s common language is Bahasa Indonesia. In general, throughout Indonesia, it is expected that people communicate in a respectful, friendly way without showing aggression, anger or disagreement. It is important to respect age, authority and bureaucracy. People usually use “Sir” (Bapak/Pak) or “Ma’am” (Ibu/Bu) for greeting people of similar or older age or more senior in status. It is common and expected to greet people in the street, especially in your own neighbourhood or in the work environment.

People may be indirect in their communication, e.g. asking if you are enjoying an activity rather than directly asking if you would like to leave now? You may also be referred to in the 3rd person. For example, “would Ibu like some water?” rather than directly saying “you” or use your name. People do not like to say they don’t know, so when asking for information, they may tell you what they think is true or likely to be true, even if they have no idea. It is always best to double check information.

Indonesians love social media so you can expect to be asked for photos and selfies, for your mobile or WhatsApp number and see photos of yourself quickly posted on the internet. Most Indonesians love music and are talented singers or musicians. People are not shy about singing in public; they love karaoke. It is very common for leaders to sing spontaneously at public ceremonies or events.

Recently, Indonesia has been trying to reduce corruption but it is still insidious. Sometimes you may feel you are being purposely misunderstood, if there is some expectation of a favour or bribe.

There are several stereotypes regarding people from major islands (language groups) around Indonesia. These can be taken as a guide for communication styles. Some major groups are mentioned below.

Javanese are known to be reticent and are very deferential to people in authority. They even physically make themselves smaller (by hunching down) and sub-servient to others with a perceived higher status. They do not like to disagree and so they will often seem to agree publicly although they do not really agree. They will show their disagreement by not following through with the agreed idea or decision. They will not like to tell the reasons why they do not disagree so you will have to find out from other means. However, it makes it very pleasant to be working with Javanese as there is not disagreement or conflict on the surface.

Balinese are known to be very humble, service-oriented, creative and closely follow their cultural and religious rituals. They are friendly and easy-going and will try to accommodate your requests except if the requests clash with their cultural and religious rituals.

Bataknese, Buginese and Makassarese are more direct in their communication. They will convey their agreement or disagreement openly. They are very active and quick.

Manadonese are very open and friendly. They welcome newcomers but expect newcomers to show respect towards them and their culture and religion. They freely extend invitations and whole-heartedly expect you to accept. However, plans often fall through and this is not considered anything to be concerned about. When disagreements or disputes occur it can lead to a lot of shouting and arguing which can become violent. They do not hesitate to verbally abuse or bully either for fun or for revenge and swearing is considered part of being Manadonese. Manadonese are more westernized than some other parts of the country and like to follow western culture as reflected in western media.

Papuans are very quiet and shy and don’t like to make eye contact. When you first meet, they do not feel comfortable to reply to questions and may only give a quiet “yes’ or “no”.

Display of emotion

Local perspective

Indonesians believe that showing affection is a private matter thus should not be displayed in public. Showing a lot of bare skin should also be avoided. Being impatient, raising voice, shouting and display anger are regarded as uneducated and unprofessional.

Canadian perspective

In general, Indonesians do not publicly display affection or other emotions. However, they are warm, friendly and welcoming. Most have very long fuses and usually do not show their frustration or anger. When Indonesians are upset to their breaking point and raise their voices it always draws a crowd of worried onlookers. Everyone will try their best to soothe the upset person, calm the situation down or else put a distance between them and the upset person.

While people of the opposite sex almost never kiss in public, it is not uncommon to see spouses, family members or friends (same or different sexes) holding hands. People are comfortable being physically close and touching or hugging. Shaking hands is a normal greeting and women may kiss each other on the cheek. If someone is not comfortable to shake your hand, they will keep their hands over their heart or in a praying position. It is common for strangers to ask “white” westerners (‘buleh’) for a photo and comfortably put their arms around you as if you are old friends. It is not acceptable or expected that young Indonesian men touch young western women, even though they may like to have a photo with them.

People will often cover up nervousness and put on a brave face in situations where they feel uncomfortable.

Dress, punctuality & formality

Local perspective

Since Indonesia is a tropical country, the weather is hot and very humid. People sweat a lot, thus wearing light undershirt is recommended. Unless they have a formal meeting, people generally wear light short sleeves shirt and trousers for men. For women, they wear short/ long sleeves shirt and below knees skirt. Clean and ironed clothes are recommended. Friday is half day work and sport day in Indonesia, they wear sports clothing and shoes to work. Once or twice a week they may wear uniform or batik. In some offices at district level, they may wear local traditional dresses/costumes once a week. Sandals are not recommended for going to work, however sandals with strap around the ankles are acceptable.

A person is considered successful at work if he/she is punctual, meet deadlines, and is able to use judgment and mannerism when communicating with management, colleagues, and subordinates. However, because there are a lot of uncertainties it will not be easy for Indonesians to plan ahead and set deadlines. Someone else has to make plan and deadlines for them and they will meet expectations. Their plan is what their manager plans for them. If they have a plan to move or to study abroad without knowing the situation and condition of the system at the work place, they are regarded as arrogant, talking nonsense and avoiding their duty or assignment or wasting time.

Canadian perspective

Because of the wide range of culture practices, there are different expectations in the work environment regarding dress. It is always wiser to err on the side of formality as you will find most people are very smartly dressed or even in uniforms, which lends a militaristic feel at times. Across the country, Batik is considered formal attire and you can never go wrong by wearing batik regardless of the occasion. Otherwise smart, business attire will usually be acceptable. Regular western attire works well in Jakarta and the surroundings, Jogjakarta, Bali, Manado and some larger cities. In Aceh and some other locations, women will feel more comfortable when dressed more modestly, e.g. longer skirts or loose trousers, longer shirts or blouses with longer sleeves, and that are not deeply cut. In some cases, wearing a scarf may feel more appropriate.

The work environment is fairly formal with people knowing their place and status in the structure. Senior staff usually have assistants or deputies who vet meetings with their bosses and letters requesting a meeting or introductory letters. One-on-one meetings are rather rare as often you may need to be accompanied by someone who is introducing you and the person whom you are meeting may bring along others. People at the top are always given lots of attention and almost fawned over. Seminars are often formal occasions for making speeches, with the emphasis on mentioning the names of the people present, particularly the most senior person present. Large banners accompany almost every important occasion and often feature the names and photographs of special invitees. At the opening or closing ceremony, many important people will make a speech and then leave. MCs and dramatic background music create even more formality. The formality is off-set by the penchant for taking photographs, and there is often time set aside in the schedule of any program for taking photographs.

Generally, deadlines are not respected in Indonesia (except flight departure times). Many programs are organized at the last minute so you might not know something is happening until the day before. Many programs are also canceled or postponed at the last minute so it is advisable to use caution when booking expensive flights that are non-refundable. Similarly, timetables and agendas are not followed but rather give a flavor of what may or may not happen. Most programs start half an hour to 2 hours late and can extend well beyond a reasonable ending time. Time is considered “jam karat” or rubber/elastic time.

Preferred managerial qualities

Local perspective

In Indonesia, factors that mostly regarded as superior are the combination of education, experience and age. Education represents the knowledge they acquired while age represents the wisdom they have. You will note that most educated Indonesians generally put their education’s title in the front or after their names. The longer the list of the titles, they are considered the most knowledgeable.

If you are a manager, they will view you as the wealthiest and the most knowledgeable person. They expect that you know everything and ready to give guidance or resolve issues. Because of these special attributes, manager would also be expected to have qualities such as discipline, being on time, patient, kind, down to earth, not biased, etc. These are some good qualities that can be used as an example for the staff to follow.

Canadian perspective

Patience, good communication and good team buildings skills are valued. This means being fun-loving and easy-going and somehow getting the job done. Being positive, polite and giving lots of rewards rather than criticism is more appreciated. Problem-solving and decision-making abilities are expected of managers.

It’s hard to know how people feel in a short space of time. With time you will be able to tell if people (your equals or those you are supervising) respect you by their comments, their willingness to share their opinions and confide in you, their friendliness and body language and whether they initiate communication. They will also invite you for family occasions. No comment and being reserved means they are still reserving judgement. Regardless of how they actually feel, most people will be obedient and loyal as most people highly value their jobs. Some exceptions apply in North Sulawesi.

Hierarchy and decision-making

Local perspective

In Indonesia, decisions are generally made after discussion and listening to the opinion of all members of the team or stakeholders. The person highest in hierarchy generally leads the meeting; however, he or she alone will not make a decision; decision is made based on consensus. In a situation where it was necessary and that a decision is already made from top of the organization, the manager will announce the decision, explain, and give guidance.

It is recommended that staff go to immediate supervisor for answer or feedback. A supervisor generally gets update on employee’s work.

Canadian perspective

Most workplaces are hierarchical and decisions are taken by the person at the top and information is controlled by the top. Most people will wait for a decision to be taken or information to come from above, rather than pushing, even if the lack of decision/information creates a lot of inconvenience or distress to them or you. Many people function without knowing basic or key information that we would consider common knowledge of a work environment. Middle-level workers are often not trained or don’t have the information to make decisions or provide information and may not have the courage or be expected to request/demand information from higher up. However, most people are willing to try to help if you do not lose your patience.

Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender

Local perspective


Having a certain faith is very important in Indonesia. Every Indonesian has to have a religion. There are six major religions recognized in Indonesia: Islam, Christian (other than Catholic), Catholic, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucius. Whether they are religious or not, Indonesians have to declare faith in their identity card.

In the work place, having a religion and practicing a religion does not interfere the duty and responsibility of an employee. As most Indonesians are Muslims, they have the obligation to pray five times a day. The noon and maybe afternoon prayers are the prayers during the normal office hours. Employees generally pray the noon prayer during lunch time and if they think they are going to miss the afternoon prayer when they reach home, they pray at the office after work. Most of Indonesian offices have prayer rooms or Musholah and washrooms with ablution facilities. Every Friday, it is compulsory for Muslim men to attend congregation at a mosque. The Friday prayer is in lieu of the noon prayer. During Ramadan, Muslims have to fast from dawn to dusk for the whole month (29-30 days).


Class system exists in Hinduism through its hierarchical caste systems. A certain task belongs to a certain caste. And in marriage, Hindus will only marry people from the same caste. Most of Balinese are Hindus, thus one could expect that the Bali class system may affect work place. In Bali, people will recognize a person’s class from their names.


Indonesians are comprised of over 300 ethnic identities with different local languages and dialects. Over 50% of the population is Javanese ethnic, and about 70% of Indonesian population lives on the island of Java. Thus, Javanese culture and language are the most prevalent in Indonesia. At work, they may be viewed as slow, but they are actually hard workers and have endurance. Most of them may remain quiet though they are knowledgeable until someone asks about the subject. If it is not necessary, most of them will not talk much.

Amongst themselves, Indonesians sometimes can easily recognize from which part of Indonesia a person comes from by the way he/she speaks “Bahasa Indonesia” – the National Language.

Bahasa Indonesia is a means of communication among Indonesians, without Bahasa Indonesia, people from different regions of Indonesia may not understand each other. People can also guess region of a person from his/her name or family name. Although most of Javanese are Muslims, they still keep the tradition of Hindu culture in naming their children using Sanskrit language. Most of their names are only one word without family names. Some Sumatran people may bear Islamic names, and some Indonesian Catholics may have the baptized name.


Most of Indonesians are Muslims with the husband as the leader of the family and as a breadwinner and protector of his wife and family. If the wife has a good education and she wants to work, she has to have permission from her husband. If her husband gives her permission to work outside, then the salary she receives will be exclusively hers. Since she does not have the responsibility for the household expenses, it is up to her how she will spend the money she earns. If she voluntarily helps her husband in covering household expenses and other needs, however; this act is regarded as a good mannerism.

As family is very important in Indonesia, a woman generally consults their husband for professional opportunities. Most Indonesian men allow their wives to work, continue their studies and have a career. Women at work are also respected as equal as men; gender does not restrict her to advance in her career. If there is an opportunity, is it up to the woman whether to take it or not. If there is a need for her to pay more attention to the family than her career (for example young children), she generally keeps working however remains at a low profile.

Canadian perspective

There is still a gender gap in many areas although we see some women holding leadership positions in government and business in many parts of the country. Women are equally or more educated than men. Nevertheless, women’s opinions are sometimes not taken seriously or viewed as secondary to men’s opinions. Men are seen as the decision-makers in the household. However, it is often the case that women are in charge of household finances. The majority of micro and small entrepreneurs are women. In the workplace, we often find men occupying the most senior positions and not valuing women’s opinion or giving women a chance to speak or contribute. Women and men often sit segregated. Religion is a factor in women’s inequality with men.

Class distinctions are stronger in some parts of Indonesia than others. There has been kings or Sultans in many parts of the country prior to the arrival of the Dutch. And since Bali also had a caste system, there is a strong sense of class or one’s position or place in society. In North Sulawesi, where there were no kings, there is less feeling of class distinctions. However, throughout the country, there are very wide gaps between the poor and the rich in terms of education, exposure and opportunities.

Indonesia enshrines the philosophy of Pancasila which is meant to help unite the ethnic and religious diversity of the country. Religion is very important in Indonesian society and is one of the first 3 questions a newcomer is asked. Religion is shown on Indonesian identity cards and often asked on official forms. In the work place, there is ample space given for practicing your religion; a prayer room is normally available and prayer times are respected. On Fridays, in Muslim areas there is a longer lunch hour to accommodate attending the Mosque. In Christian areas, on Sundays (Christians) or Saturdays (Adventists) it is expected not to hold any business or work meetings. Many official functions will begin with prayers from one or all religious groups present.

Ethnicity comes into play since Javanese are the largest ethnic group and Java is the most densely populated island. Most government services and budget are centered in Java. Other parts of the country resent this, especially those parts that are resource rich (e.g. Papua). To try to manage the large population in Java, the government has a transmigration policy to relocate Javanese elsewhere in the country. Despite being unified under Pancasila, most ethnic groups are proud of their unique cultural differences. Different ethnic groups are known for their stereotypical traits and these can come into play in the workplace.

Religious and cultural rituals are considered very important and often take precedence over work duties. There are often additional holidays for national religious festivals to enable people to return to their families. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, house-warmings, graduations, promotions, etc. are all celebrated usually in grand style and attendance by work colleagues is the norm. It is considered normal not to come to work if these type of occasions are happening. Indonesians like to be associated with the group, so on these occasions, work colleagues or the extended family will wear matching outfits. The same applies when travelling as a work team or attending conferences – it is highly desirable to have a t-shirt or something to show you belong with the group.


Local perspective

Relationship building is very important in Indonesia. Indonesians will not do business with a stranger, thus it is very important to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business. You may not necessarily need to know them personally, but at least you need to introduce yourself before doing business with them. The better the relationship, the better the business will be.

Anyone including Indonesians who wants to do work, research, taking samples or data or business in a certain area, will need a permit from the local government or authority. The local authority will not give permit without the permit from the higher authority. They need to know your plan or what you will be doing. Thus, having a proposal and business card are always very helpful.

Canadian perspective

Building relationships are very important in Indonesia. People will try to find or establish a connection. Normally, introductions are made by a mutual connection, rather than cold calls.

Privileges and favouritism

Local perspective

It is common for a colleague or employee to expect special privileges and favoritism from you especially if they are qualified and are good with their job. They also like to be appreciated and encouraged. In some cases, however, they do not need the privilege or consideration for themselves but to help their family or friends.

When doing someone a favour, it is important to have a good justification. Otherwise, an unnecessary expectation will be set up by other colleagues.

Canadian perspective

It would not be uncommon to expect special privileges or special considerations due to a relationship or friendship. These may more likely be considered as rewards or benefits, e.g. able to attend a conference. Such things should be taken in the context of widespread corruption in the country and understanding that rules and laws are considered more as guidelines or recommendations (except in the case of drug trafficking).

Conflicts in the workplace

Local perspective

At first, clarify with the colleague privately as it may just be a miscommunication or misunderstanding. If a person tries to avoid or ignore this gesture, it is a sign that there is a real problem. If you think that you cannot resolve it alone, bring this matter to your supervisor. If there is a real conflict, your supervisor will eventually hear it. Rather than getting the information from different sources, it would be better you inform your supervisor directly and ask her/him to intervene.

If you have a conflict with your immediate supervisor, try to resolve it within the section first. If you report the matter to the higher manager straight away, they may perceive you as disobedient and sassy.

Important to note that, compare to other ethnics that are more straightforward, Javanese people are shy, quiet, polite, soft spoken, and tend to be indirect in conveying message especially if the message is not expected. They are mostly sensitive and do not want to hurt somebody’s feeling and avoid conflict.

Canadian perspective

Saving face is very important in Indonesia so any work-related problem should be dealt with privately. It may be better to have someone else speak to the person regarding the problem rather than directly approaching the person. In some cases, depending on the relationship and nature of the problem, even speaking to the wife or husband could be considered appropriate.

Motivating local colleagues

Local perspective

Encouragement, appreciation, compliments, promotion or upgrade generally work well to motivate colleagues or staff. As they cannot plan to promote themselves at work, by performing well in the job, they deserve that their good work is recognized, appreciated, and eventually get promoted.

Canadian perspective

Recognition, status and rewards are high motivators in Indonesia.

Recommended books, films & foods

Local perspective


Culture Shock, a Guide to Customs and Etiquette, Indonesia by Cathie Draine and Barbara Hall, The Year of Living Dangerously by C.J. Koch.


Journey to the South Pacific (IMAX), Born to Be Wild (IMAX)

Television shows

Kisah 9 Wali (History, in Indonesian), Si Unyil (for children, in Indonesian)


The most common type of music are Gamelan (popular in Java and Bali) and Dangdut (influenced by Indian music, very popular among the lower-middle class Indonesians). Musical instruments of Indonesia include, Angklung, a two to four bamboo musical instrument that has its origin in West Java formerly Sunda and Kolintang (North Sulawesi).


Indonesial food include tempe (fermented soybean), tofu, gado-gado (salad with peanut sauce), nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), rendang (hot spicy beef cooked with coconut milk), and bakso (noodle soup with meatballs).

Canadian perspective


  • The series of books by Pramoedya Ananta Toer: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, House of Glass
  • A House in Bali by Colin McPhee
  • Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton
  • Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning
  • The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert
  • Love and Death in Bali by Vicki Baum


  • Habibi and Anun
  • The Act of Killing

TV shows

Kick Andy, Indonesia’s Got Talent


Anklong, Kolingtan, Bamboo Music, Dangdut, Noah


Nasi (Rice)/Mie (Noodles) Goreng (fried), Nasi Kuning (Yellow rice) – cooked with turmeric and usually served with a boiled egg; usually eaten for breakfast, Nasi jahe – rice cooked with ginger often served wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed in bamboo, Nasi Campur – rice served with one or dishes (e.g. with fish/chicken and kankung); usually means you can select from several options, Beef Rendang – slow-cooked beef which becomes very tender in a rich gravy, Ayam lalapan – fried chicken served with rick and raw vegetables,

Kuah Asam – a thin fish soup flavoured with lemon, Coto Makassar – beef soup made with all the insides of the beef (heart, liver, etc), Soto Ayam – chicken soup with egg, noodles, Ikan Bakar – barbequed fish, Ikan Goring – fried fish, Ikan Woku – fish cooked in a sauce made from a variety of herbs and spices including lemon grass, Bebek – duck, Cakalan Fufu – smoked tuna usually served with a spicy tomato sauce, Cap cay – chop suey, Ubi/Pisang/Kentang Goreng – Fried manioc/banana/potato often in a batter sometimes decorated with cheese served with dabu-dabu in Manado, Pisang Krepik – thin crispy fried bananas, Pisang Epe – Banana wrapped in a green coating and served with a fruity pink sauce, Poki-poki – eggplant, Sate – small pieces of meat barbequed on a skewer, Ragay – large pieces of pork barbequed on skewer, Babi putar – roast pig, Dabu-Dabu – side dish of chili, tomato, onion, lime (like salsa), Gado-gado – boiled vegetables served with peanut sauce, Kankung Ca – morning glory stir fried with garlic.

Rumah Makan Padang – Padang restaurant that serves a large number of dishes, brought to your table but you only pay for what you eat.


Mangosteen, Duku, Passion Fruit, Tomatilla.


Captikus (distilled alcohol from palm wine), Saguer – palm wine, Tinatuan or Bubur Manado – a thick vegetable soup of pumpkin, corn and green leaves, Martabah – like a pancake served with sweetened condensed milk, Tahu – tofu and tempe.


Include Kelapatart (pudding made from fresh young coconut), Onde-onde (made from sticky rice and filled with palm sugar and coconut), kacang (peanuts).

In-country activities

Local perspective

It is useful to visit the local markets and local cinemas. Travel to tourist destinations that offer workshops on jewelry making, pottery, batik, puppets, etc. could be very interesting. Also recommended is to learn the local traditional musical instruments. Socializing with local friends, attending wedding ceremonies, baby showers, circumcision ceremony, etc. and enjoy the local culinary is a useful to have a better understanding of the culture and people.

Canadian perspective

In Jogjakarta, visit the Sultan’s palace, world renowned Buddist and Hindu temples, and watch the performance of the Ramayana. Also visit the different craftsmen and batik producers. There are lots of different areas of the city to explore by walking, including the market. It is advisable to take a language course at any of a number of language institutes.

In Bali, visit the Hindu temples throughout the island and visit the beautiful paddy fields. In Ubud, visit the palace and take in all the different cultural dances performed nightly or enjoy a puppet show. Sample a variety of local and fusion cuisine or follow a cooking class. Visit the local craftsmen and artists and enjoy the shopping.

Visit Toraja in South Sulawesi and participate in their interesting funeral rituals and visit their unique burial sites and tombs. See the uniquely constructed wooden houses and grain storage facilities decorated with buffalo horns. Take pleasant walks in the paddy fields and enjoy the views of the hills.

Visit the Dayak people in Kalimantan and people from various tribes in Papua who still follow traditional cultures. In the remote Togean Islands it is possible to visit the villages of sea gypsies who until recently lived in floating villages.

National heroes

Local perspective

There are 168 National Heroes have been declared by the Indonesian Government, some of the names are:

  • Sultan Agung (1591-1645): He was Sultan of Mataram Kingdom, fought against VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch) - Dutch East India Company.
  • Nyi Ageng Serang : (1752-1838): She was a war advisor and commander of forces fought against Dutch occupation in Java.
  • Diponegoro (1785-1855): Son of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, establish a five-year war against the Dutch colonial army.
  • Martha Christina Tiahahu (1800-1818): Heroine from Maluku who died while being held by the Dutch.
  • Cut Nyak Dien (1850-1908): Aceh rebel leader attacked on the Dutch colonial forces; she was Teuku Umar’s wife.
  • Teuku Umar (1854-1899): Aceh guerrilla leader who fought against the Dutch colonial army; husband of Cut Nyak Dien.
  • R.A. Kartini (1879-1904): women's rights pioneer from Java.
  • Abdul Muis (1883-1959): Political activist and writer.
  • Ki Hajar Dewantoro (1889 -1959): Educator and government minister, founder of “Taman Siswa”.
  • Soetomo (1988-1938): Educator, founder of “Boedi Oetomo”.
  • Soekarno (1901-1970): Independence activist who read the proclamation of independence, Indonesia's first President.
  • Mohammad Hatta (1902-1980): Independence activists, the First Vice-President of Indonesia.
  • Muhammad Yamin (1903-1962): Poet turned politician and independence activist
  • Wage Rudolf Supratman (1903-1938): Composer of the national anthem "Indonesia Raya".
  • Sudirman (1916-1950): Indonesian National Army commander during the National Revolution.
  • Bung Tomo (1920 -1981): Military commander who led the resistance in the Battle of Surabaya.

Canadian perspective

Many of the heroes were freedom fighters who fought against the Dutch to gain independence. These include, Raden Sudirman, Mohammad Hatta, Imam Bonjol, Wolter Monginsidi, Amhad Yani. There are many local heroes such as Hassanudin (Makassar) of Gowa and Sam Ratulangi (Manado). Ibu Kartini is considered a hero of women’s rights and education. Many present-day successful businessmen such as Yusuf Kalla are also highly esteemed.

Shared historical events with Canada

Local perspective

Canada played a very important role for Indonesia in getting its independence from Dutch in 1949 after nearly four centuries of colonization. Following the collapse of Japanese dominance in Asia during WW II, on August 17th, 1945, Soekarno-Hatta proclaimed the Independence of Indonesia. However, Dutch were not very easy in accepting the independence of Indonesia and tried hard to re- occupy the archipelago. In 1948, American-backed Security Council condemned the Dutch occupation and demanded the Independence of Indonesia. Dutch refused to follow the order of the Council, in which the intercession of Canadian led to round-table talk between Indonesia and the Netherland at The Hague from August 23rd – November 2nd, 1949. This round-table talk resulted in the Transfer of Sovereignty from the Dutch to Indonesia on December 27th, 1949. The contribution of Canadian remains in the heart of Indonesian, thus in 1953, President Soekarno sent Indonesian best person – Ali Sastroamijoyo to become the first Indonesian Ambassador to Canada, US and Mexico. In the same year, Canada opened its first South East Asian embassy in Jakarta.

Canadian perspective

Many Indonesian university lecturers took their PhD in Canada through CIDA and ADB scholarships.

In 1986, Indonesia sailed a Buginese phinisi (traditional ship) called “Nusentara” from South Sulawesi to Vancouver for Expo.


Local perspective

Indonesians are generally shy, quiet, smile a lot, and tend to avoid eye contact. In local culture, this is a sign of showing respect. However, for Canadian counterparts, these traits of personality may be perceived as unprofessional and unreliable.

Canadian perspective

Although Indonesia is a Muslim nation, you should not assume everyone is Muslim. There are many Christians, Buddhist, Hindus and other religions so it is unwise to make assumptions. It is acceptable in most cases to ask the person what their religion is. One should not make assumptions about the way Islam is practiced. Although many Muslims are observant, most are not hard-line. The culture for the most part is fun-loving rather than serious. Since there are large numbers of Christians and Chinese-origin people, it’s possible to eat pork in many places in Indonesia and it’s relatively easy to purchase alcohol. Beer is available in grocery stores as is some alcohol. Indonesia has several local brands of beer (Bintang, Ankor). Wine is produced in Bali but is very expensive. Palm wine (saguer) is readily available in the countryside and captikus (distilled alcohol) is also available.

About the cultural interpreters

Local perspective

She was born in Yogyakarta, Indonesia from Javanese parents. From both parents, she can trace her ancestry to the Javanese Kings. She graduated from Gadjah Mada Universiy in Yogyakarta and obtained her Master degree from the University of Wales in Cardiff, UK. She received prestigious scholarships from the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia to do PhD where she completed her Doctorate degree with a specialization in Insect biology and Behavior. Before coming to Canada in 2002, she lived in Rawalpindi, Pakistan for more than three years. While she was still in Indonesia, she used to work as a research scientist in Central Java and Bogor. Currently, she is a staying at home mom with three growing children in Ottawa.

Canadian perspective

The author is a development worker from Ontario who has spent more than 20 years working with NGOs and higher education institutions. She has lived and worked overseas for more than 15 years in conflict-affected and disaster-affected countries primarily in South and South-East Asia. She lived in Sri Lanka for 9 years, Indonesia for 4 years and India for 2 years and has been responsible for projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Indonesia, she lived and worked in North and South Sulawesi and worked with 7 universities. She has provided capacity building in Cambodia, Vietnam, Kenya, South Sudan and Mozambique. Her area of expertise is vocational and tertiary education, entrepreneurship, sustainable livelihoods, capacity building and disaster response. She has contributed extensively to developing a variety of project proposals which received funding. She is married to a Sri Lankan Tamil.

Related information


Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.

You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.

The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.

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