The Country and its People


Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world, stretching 3,200 miles (5.120 kin) from east to west, it straddles the equator between the Australian and Asian Continents.

The name Indonesia came from two Greek words: “Indos” meaning Indian and “Nesos” meaning islands. This is an excellent description of the archipelago, as there are an estimated 17,508 islands, some nothing more than tiny outcroppings of barren rock, others as big as California or Spain and covered in dense tropical jungle. Approximately 6,000 of these islands are inhabited, with five main islands and 30 smaller archipelagos serving as home to the majority of the population. The main islands Sumatra (473,606 sq. km), Kalimantan (539,460 sq. km), Sulawesi (189,216 sq. km), Irian Jaya (421,981 sq. km), and Java (132,187 sq. km).

The islands and people of Indonesia constitute the fourth most populated nation in the world, with about 190 million people. A democratic republic, Indonesia is divided into 27 provinces and special territories. These are classified geographically into four groups: The Greater Sundas, (Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi) The Lesser Sundas, (the smaller islands from Bali eastward to Timor) Maluku, (all the islands between Irian Jaya and Sulawesi) and Irian Jaya in the extreme eastern part of the country.


Indonesia is a tropical country, and the climate is fairly even all year round. There is no such thing as an Autumn or Winter, the year being roughly divided into two distinct seasons, ‘wet’ and ‘dry’.

The East Monsoon, from June to September brings dry weather while the West Monsoon, from December to March, brings rain. The transitional period between these two seasons alternates between gorgeous sun-filled days and occasional thunderstorms.

Even in the midst of the wet season temperatures range from 21 degrees (70’F) to 33 degrees Celcius (90 ‘F), except at higher altitudes which can be much cooler. The heaviest rainfalls are usually recorded in December and January. Average humidity is generally between 75% and 100%.


With the fifth largest population in the world. Indonesians number 240 million and are basically of Malay and Polynesian stock comprising of 300 ethnic groups and subgroups having their own traditions. Early immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, China, the Arab peninsula, and Persia have left their mark on culture and religion followed by influences of Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch traders and invaders.


The majority (about 85%) of the population follows Islam. Freedom of religion is protected by the Indonesian Constitution, which is defined in the first Principle of the State Philosophy “Pancasila”. However, there has been a definite drive in recent years to implement a version of Islam for which Saudi Arabia is the role model.

As the Indonesian constitution guarantees freedom of faith, Indonesia is on of the few countries with a majority Muslim population that allows Muslims to convert to Christianity. This is not commonly known. Therefore, here as proof the changed Indonesian official ID card of one such convert, Mediana Situmorang. The upper ID card is issued to her with specifying “Islam” as religion and “unmarried” as civil status. The lower ID card shows her civil status as “married” and her religion as “Christian”. Please note that these are ID cards issued by the Indonesian government, just the same as passports.

These ID cards are also sufficient proof of citizenship.


The strategic position of Indonesia and its waterways between the Indian and Pacific Oceans has led to fascinating and complex cultural, religious, political and economic history.

Evidence of Indonesia’s earliest inhabitants include fossils of “Java Man” (Pithecanthropus Erectus), which date back some 500,000 years, discovered near the village of Trinil in East Java by Dr. Eugene Dubois in 1809. Major migration movements to the Indonesian archipelago began about 3000 years ago as the Dongson Culture of Vietnam and southern China spread south, bringing with them new Stone, Bronze and Iron Age cultures as well as the Austronesian language. Their techniques of irrigated rice cultivation are still practiced throughout Indonesia today. Other remnants of this culture such as ritual buffalo sacrifice, erection of stone megaliths and ikat weaving are still visible in isolated areas across the archipelago.

Indonesia came under the influence of a mighty Indian civilization through the gradual influx of Indian traders in the first century, A.D., when great Hindu and Buddhist empires were beginning to emerge. By the seventh century, the powerful Buddhist Kingdom of Sriwijaya was on the rise, and it is thought that during this period the spectacular Borobudur Buddhist Temple was built in Central Java. The thirteenth century saw the dominance of the fabulous Majapahit Hindu empire in East Java, which united the whole of modern-day Indonesia and parts of the Malay peninsula, ruling for two centuries. Monuments across Java such as the magnificent Prambanan temple complex near Yogyakarta the mysterious Penataran temple complex in East Java and the ethereal temples of the Dieng Plateau are all that remain of this glorious period in Indonesia’s history.

The first recorded attempt at armed invasion of Indonesia is credited to the notorious Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, who was driven back in 1293. Arab traders and merchants laid the foundations for the gradual spread of Islam to the region, which did not replace Hinduism an Buddhism as the dominant religion until the end of the 16th century. A series of small Moslem kingdoms sprouted up and spread their roots, but none anticipated the strength and persistence of European invasions which followed.

In 1292, Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to set foot on the islands, but it wasn’t until much later that the Portuguese arrived in pursuit of spices. By 1509 Portuguese had established trading posts in the strategic commercial center of Malacca on the Malay peninsula. Their fortified bases and the inability of their enemies to unify against them allowed the Portuguese to control strategic trade routes from Malacca to Macau, Goa, Mozambique and Angola.

Inspired by the success Portuguese, the Dutch followed at the turn of the 16thcentury. They ousted the Portuguese from some of the easternmost islands, coming into conflict with another major European power, Spain which had confused its colonial interests in Manila. The Dutch expanded their control of the entire area throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Dutch East Indies, as it was known at this time, fell under British rule for a short period during the Napoleonic Wars of 1811-1816, when Holland was occupied by France, and Dutch power overseas was limited. While under British control the Lt. Governor for Java and its dependencies was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who was known for his liberal attitude towards the people under colonial rule and his research on the history of Java.

With the return of the Dutch in 1816, a period of relative peace was interrupted by a series of long and bloody wars launched by the local people against the Dutch colonial government. The Indonesian nationalist and independence movements of the 20th century have their roots in this period. Upper and middle class Indonesians, whose education and contact with Western culture had made them more aware of colonial injustice, began mass movements which eventually drew support from the peasants and urban working classes.

The Japanese replaced the Dutch as rulers of Indonesia for a brief period during World War 2. The surrender of the Japanese in 1945 signalled the end of the Second World War in Asia and the start of true independence for Indonesia. With major changes in global consciousness about the concepts of freedom and democracy, Indonesia proclaimed its independence on August 17 of that same year.

The returning Dutch bitterly resisted Indonesian nationalist movements and intermittent fighting followed. Under the auspices of the United Nations at the Hague, an agreement was finally reached on December 9, 1949 officially recognizing Indonesia’s sovereignty over the former Dutch East Indies.

Flora and Fauna

British naturalist A.R. Wallace (1823-1913) postulated an imaginary line (named after him Walace’s Line) as the dividing line between Asiatic and Australian fauna. It passes between Bali and Lombok islands and between Kalimantan and Sulawesi, then continues south of the Philippines and north of Hawaii. This theory explains the presence of species of fauna familiar to both Asia and Australia in Indonesia. However, there are spices indigenous to Indonesia, like the “orang utan” apes of Sumatra and Kalimantan, the giant “komodo” lizards, the one-horned rhinoceros of Java, the wild “banteng” oxen, tigers and many other species which are now protected in wildlife reserves. The flora Indonesia ranges from the tiny orchid the giant “Rafflesia” plant which has a bloom almost a metre (3.2 feet) in diameter, the largest flower in the world.

Agricultural products include rubber, coconut, coffee, tea, cocoa, corn, spices, kapok, tobacco, rice, etc. and an abundance of vegetable and fruit. Indonesia has some of the richest timber resources in the world and the largest concentration of tropical hardwoods. The total area of state-controlled forests is approximately 12,9 million hectares. Meranti constitutes about 56% of the entire timber export. Other varieties include ramin, agathis, teak, pinewood, rattan and bamboo.


The country is rich in natural resources. While 90% of the population is engaged in agriculture, oi1 and gas contribute 70% of total export earnings and 60% of the government revenues. However, fluctuations in world prices of traditional export commodities have led to a change in recent years in the structure of the economy. Tourism is gaining a more important sector as a foreign exchange earner. Significant progress has been made in communications and transportation and since 1976, Indonesia has had its own communications satellite system, which has enabled rapid expansion of telephone, television and broadcast facilities to all 27 provinces. Air and sea ports are being extended to cater to growing traffic in both domestic and international sectors.

In recent years a number of steps have been taken to promote and stimulate non-oil exports which include handicrafts, textiles, precious metals, tea, tobacco, cement, fertilizers as well as manufactured goods.

To meet domestic needs, Indonesian plants assemble various types of automobiles, trucks, buses and motorcycles under license from foreign manufactures. Also produced are electronic equipment and electrical appliances. The aviation industry has been growing and the state owned Indonesia Aircraft Industry (IPTN) produces two types of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. New production lines are coming on stream as well its Universal Maintenance Centre for the overhaul of aircraft engines. The aircraft are for domestic use as well as for export.

In the agricultural sector, Indonesia has become self sufficient in rice and does not need to import this staple food as it had for years.

Indonesia maintains a liberal foreign exchange system and has few restrictions on transfers abroad, and in general freely allows conversions to and from foreign currencies.

Bank Indonesia, the Central Bank, maintains the stability of the Indonesian Rupiah and reviews the exchange rate in terms of other currencies on a daily basis. The Rupiah is linked to a basket of currencies of Indonesia’s major trading partners. The unitary exchange rate allows for fluctuation. With the objective of a more equitable distribution of development gains, the government gives high priority to expansion in the less developed regions of the country and the creation of employment opportunities for the country’s growing labour force. To attract foreign capital, certain incentives are provided and several sectors are open and several foreign investment.

Arts and Culture

Indonesia is blessed with a rich and diverse mix of traditional cultures and art forms. The basic principles which guide life across this colorful tapestry of life-styles include the concepts mutual assistance or “gotong royong” and communal meetings and gatherings or “musyawarah” to arrive at a consensus or “mufakat”. Derived from the traditions of agriculturally based rural life, this system is still very much in use in community life throughout the country. Social life, as well as rites of passage, are stepped in ancient traditions and customs, or “adat” laws, which differ from area to area. “Adat” laws have a binding impact on Indonesia life and have been instrumental in maintaining equal rights for women in the community. Religious influences on communal life vary from island to island and village to village, depending on local history.

Art forms in Indonesia are not only derived from folklore, as in many other parts of the world. Many were developed in the courts of former kingdoms, as in Bali, where they are integral elements of religious ceremonies. The famous dance dramas of Java and Bali are derived from Hindu mythology and often feature fragments from the Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu epics.

Languages and dialects

There are about 583 languages spoken by as many distinct ethnic groups across the archipelago. There are five main language groups on Sumatra alone, six on Sulawesi and three on Java. One small island, Alor in Nusa Tengggara has seven different language groups! The Balinese speak their own, and many local languages are further divided by special forms for addressing someone of inferior, equal or superior social status. Adding even more spice to this linguistic stew, all these languages are also spoken in a number of different local dialects.

Bahasa Indonesia, the official national language, is akin to Malay, and is written in Roman script and based on European orthography. English is the most widely used foreign language for business and travel alike. Wherever you go you will be greeted by the familiar “Hello Mr.!”, (regardless of your sex), and even if your travels take you off the beaten track’ it is not uncommon to find Indonesians with a decent command of the English language. In some of the bigger cities and tourist destinations Dutch is still used, and the influence of Dutch in Bahasa Indonesia is quite obvious. French is increasing its popularity at the better hotels and restaurants.


The staple food of most of Indonesia is rice. On some of the islands in eastern Indonesia, staple food traditionally ranged from corn, sago, cassava to sweet potatoes, though this is changing as rice becomes more popular. Fish features prominently in the diet: fresh, salted, dried, smoked or paste. Fish is abundant and of great variety: lobster, oyster, prawns, shrimp, squid, crab, etc. Coconut is found everywhere and besides being processed for cooking oil, its milk and meat is an ingredient for many dishes.

Spices and hot chili peppers are the essence of most cooking, and in some areas they are used generously such as in West Sumatra and North Sulawesi. Each province or area has its own cuisine. West Sumatra is known for its Padang restaurants, found nationwide. Besides the hot and spicy food, these restaurants are known for their unique style of service.

Further to the east, seafood is a staple of the daily diet, either grilled or made into curries. In Bali, Irian Jaya and the highlands of North Sumatra and North Sulawesi pork dishes are specialities. As the population of Indonesia is predominantly Moslem, pork is usually not served except in Chinese restaurants, non-Moslem regions and in places serving international cuisine. There is a wide variety of tropical and sub-tropical vegetables all year round. Fruit is available throughout the year. Some fruits such as mangoes and water melons are seasonal, but most of the other fruits can be bought throughout the year, such as bananas, apples, papayas, pineapples, oranges, etc. Coffee and tea are served everywhere from fine restaurants to small village stalls. There are several breweries which produce local beer. Bali produces “brem” which is a rice wine, whereas Toraja has “tuak”. For most people, a meal consists of steamed white rice with side dishes of meat, chicken, fish and vegetables along with a glass of tea.

There is such a rich variety in the Indonesian cuisine that one should sample specialties in each area. However, most common nationwide are “sate” (skewered grilled meat), “gado’gado” (vegetables salad with peanut sauce), “nasi goreng” (fried rice served at anytime) and bakmi goreng” (fried noodles).

Chinese restaurants are found all over the country. There are fine restaurants specialising in Continental and Japanese and Korean cuisines.

Riau / Batam Island / Where to Eat

One of Batam’s biggest attractions is the fresh and delicious seafood. Giant prawns, live still crawling crabs, live fish taken straight from nets in the sea, lobsters, clams and shellfish are cooked in a variety of styles and all delicious. Try the local ‘gong-gong’ conch shell where the succulent meat inside is fished out with a pin and dipped in a spicy sauce before eating.

In Batam, finding fresh seafood is no problem. Anyway that visitors find their way to, a seafood restaurant will have preceded them. Hotels have their own. Nagoya has many. Batu Besar, Batu Merah, Telaga Punggur, all are lined with restaurants. Late night ferries from Batu Ampar allow diners to eat at a Batam restaurant and return the same evening to Singapore.

Genuine Padang food can be found at Pagi Sore in Nagoya. In Sekupang try the Indonesian Delights, where regional Indonesian dishes are offered to the accompaniment of traditional dances.