The 'Know Your Region' series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It's important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.


On this page:

  • Overview
  • People and Society
  • National Identity
  • Media and Technology



Indonesia, officially the Republic of Indonesia, is a unitary state in Southeast Asia and Oceania between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It consists of over 17,500 islands scattered over both sides of the equator, though only around 6,000 are inhabited. Indonesia is the world's largest island country and the 14th largest by area, the combined land and water area is 1,904,569 square kilometres. The distance from end to end would stretch from Paris, France to Kabul, Afghanistan. The country shares just under 3,000 kilometres of land borders with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste. Other neighbouring countries include Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, Palau, and India (Andarnan and Nicobar Islands).

The heartland of Indonesia is Java, which ranks as the most populous island in Indonesia and the world: home to 145 million, over half of Indonesia’s total population. Java is also Indonesia's agricultural heartland and sits by the Java Sea with links to the South China Sea, the Karimata Strait to the Makassar Strait, the Flores Sea, and the Banda Sea. These seas connect the Java heartland to the four other main regions: Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Western New Guinea. For a broad overview of Indonesia, see the CIA World Factbook, DFAT’s Information Report, and watch the following video.

Indonesia has vast areas of wilderness that support one of the world's highest levels of biodiversity and is one of the Coral Triangle countries. Large species such as the Sumatran tiger, rhinoceros, orangutan, Asian elephant, and leopard were once abundant as far east as Bali, but numbers and distribution have dwindled drastically. The Komodo dragon is the largest species of lizard and the apex predator on the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang. However, Indonesia is contending with large-scale deforestation from log production, various plantations and agriculture expansion, along with wildfires. In 2018, forests covered approximately 49.7% of the country's land area, down from 87% in 1950. The terrain is mostly coastal with interior mountains on the larger islands. Since Indonesia stretches along the equator, its tropical climate tends to be relatively even year-round.

Indonesia is considered at severe risk from the projected effects of climate change, rising sea levels, and rising temperatures increasing the frequency of drought and food shortages.

Tectonically, most of Indonesia's territory is highly unstable, making it a site of numerous volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. It lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire which describes the string of 400 volcanoes that runs through Sumatra, Java, Bali and Nusa Tenggara, and then to the Banda Islands of Maluku to north-eastern Sulawesi. While volcanic ash has made agricultural conditions unpredictable in some areas, it has also resulted in fertile soils and accelerated crop turnover. To learn more about the 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, watch the following video.


People and Society

The capital Jakarta dominates the social, cultural, and political landscape of the country but Indonesia has no singular ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or religious identity. Instead, there are over 300 ethno-linguistic groups. As such Jakarta, which is dominated by the ethnic Javanese, has never managed to exercise complete control over the entire nation. Maintaining political unity is Indonesia's primary geopolitical objective and shapes the country’s decentralised administration with a vocal central government.

However, the pursuit of this objective has also upset many indigenous populations in the borderlands. As a result, Jakarta is currently facing six distinct groups. Ranging from Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra to West Papua which sits at the distance of some 3,000 kilometres from Java. Moreover, most of the hotspots are in areas that are remote and under-developed.

Home to nearly 11 million people, Jakarta is one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world. It sits on swampy land, has 13 rivers running through it, and is surrounded by the Java Sea. Jakarta is sinking up to 17cm every year and the megacity has become more prone to severe flooding. In August 2019 – supposedly unrelated to these challenges – President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo announced the capital of Indonesia would be moved to the province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Construction has started on the new capital city and is expected to be completed by 2024 and cost 466 trillion Indonesian rupiahs – equivalent to AU$45 billion. The move is also intended to symbolise the Government's intention to no longer be Java-centric and represent the diversity of Indonesian society. However, Jakarta will continue to sink as it has done for decades; watch the below video for an explanation of how it will impact the people living there.

The dispersion of the islands means that distinct micro-cultures have developed to be regionally specific. The Government introduced a new classification of Indonesia’s ethnic groups and so, expanded the list to over 1,300 spread across the archipelago. The largest is the Javanese population (40.1%) that mostly occupies the island of Java. Others include, but are not limited to, the Sundanese (15.5%), Malay (3.7%), Batak (3.6%), Madurese (3%), and Betawi (2.9%) people. Most ethnicities have languages, histories, and cultures that pertain specifically to them. Hence, Indonesians tend to identify themselves locally foremost – according to their ethnicity, family, or birthplace – before defining themselves nationally. The official language is Bahasa Indonesia; English, Dutch, and Javanese are widely spoken; and more than 700 languages are used every day across the archipelago.

As an example of the dispersion of various cultures within Indonesia: while the dominant Indonesian culture largely reflects characteristics of Javanese and Islamic society – the Balinese population, occupying the Island of Bali, are mostly Hindu. They follow different customs and traditions, have an alternate religious calendar and are divergent from other ethnic populations in many other ways. Balinese culture is most known for its dance, drama, sculptures, and especially for Wanyang kulit or shadow play theatre. For more information on Indonesian cultural identity, such as naming practices and business etiquette, see the SBS Cultural Atlas.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Despite guaranteeing religious freedom in the Constitution, the Government officially recognises only six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Additionally, indigenous religions are only partly acknowledged, and atheism is not widely accepted. The Indonesian Government has banned proselytising (attempts to convert people to one's own religion) as a measure to avoid conflict. At the time of the 2010 Indonesian Census undertaken by Statistics Indonesia, 87.2% of Indonesia was Muslim, 6.9% was Protestant-Christian, 2.9% was Catholic-Christian and 1.7% was Hindu. A further 0.7% was Buddhist and 0.05% was Confucian. Indonesia is a very spiritual country, and Indonesians often ask people about their faith shortly after meeting them.


National Identity

The concept of 'Indonesia' as a nation-state emerged in the early 20th century, culminating later in the proclamation of Indonesian Independence from the Netherlands on 17 August 1945. The name is an 18th century construct of two Greek words, 'Indos' (India) and 'nesoi' (islands), literally meaning 'Indian islands'.

A shared identity has been developed with the national motto 'Bhinneka Tunggal Ika' translated as 'Unity in Diversity' or more literally, 'many, yet one'. Formally defined by a national language, ethnic diversity, religious pluralism with a Muslim-majority population, and a history of rebellion against colonisation. National identity is very important objective for the Indonesian Government, with such a plural society and heterogeneous cultural background, because they function as integrative symbols and unifying forces of the nation. The five identities of the Indonesian nation are: the coat of arms depicting the Pancasila Eagle, the national flag (Sang Merah Putih), national anthem (Indonesia Raya meaning Great Indonesia), national language (Bahasa Indonesia), and national currency rupiah.

Pancasila is the foundational philosophical theory of Indonesia as it was formulated immediately after the end of World War II. Comprised of two old Javanese words originally derived from Sanskrit: ‘pañca’ (‘five’) and ‘sīla’ (‘principles’). Thus, it is composed of five principles that are inseparable and inter-related:

  1. Belief in the Almighty God
  2. Just and civilised humanity
  3. The Unity of Indonesia
  4. Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives
  5. Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia

The founders of the Republic of Indonesia knew the state ideology needed to encompass and shelter the whole spectrum of Indonesian society, in which a consensus for common good must be strived for and justice is served. To live harmoniously in a pluralistic Indonesian society, one's membership in a religious, ethnic, or social group should not dominate, discriminate, or be prejudiced in their relations with other groups.

Despite the diversity of Indonesians, there are cultural concepts of broader Asian culture that are recognisable throughout the archipelago. For example, face indicates a person's reputation, influence, and dignity. People can lose face and save or build face. Therefore, individuals in Indonesia usually act deliberately and with restraint to protect their self-worth and peer perception. Conservative conduct is the norm, as people do not want to stand out and risk losing face by doing something inappropriate. Additional shared concepts of Indonesian culture are courtesy, harmony, warmth, gentleness, filial piety, unity, and appeasement.

Indonesian cuisine is one of the world's most diverse, vibrant, colourful, and full of intense flavour. Many regional cuisines exist, often based upon indigenous culture and foreign influences such as Chinese, European, Middle Eastern, and Indian. Rice is the leading staple food and is served with side dishes of meat and vegetables. Spices (notably chilli), coconut milk, fish, and chicken are fundamental ingredients. Some popular dishes such as nasi goreng (fried rice), gado-gado (salad), sate (satay), and soto (a soup) are ubiquitous and considered national dishes.

Indonesian culture stresses that people are socially responsible for their families and that children must look after their elders. The nuclear family is the newly predominant household structure as it has become more common for couples to only have two children. Elder grandparents or unmarried siblings may join the domestic unit as personal circumstances change. The links an Indonesian person maintains with their extended family overseas are much closer than those maintained by most people in Western societies. 


Media and Technology

Media freedom increased considerably after the fall of the “New Order”, during which the Ministry of Information monitored and controlled domestic media and restricted foreign media. Since 1998, thousands of new print publications and radio stations have started up across the country, and more television broadcasters – including regional stations – have licenses. The Government cannot revoke these publishing and broadcasting licenses based on what the outlets say and present. Currently, mass media in Indonesia consists of several different types of communications media: television, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines, and Internet-based websites.

Indonesia's first commercial Internet service provider, PT. Indo Internet, began operation in Jakarta in 1994. The country had 171 million Internet users in 2018, with a penetration rate that keeps increasing annually. Most are between the ages of 15 to 19 and primarily use mobile phones for access.

Government expenditure on research and development is relatively low. Yet Indonesia has made notable contributions to science and technology, including: a paddy cultivation method terasering, the road construction technique Sosrobahu that allows the building of long stretches of flyover above existing main roads, aerospace technology developing military and small commuter aircraft. Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia to produce and develop its own aircraft. In Internet technology, an Indonesian information technology scientist, Onno W. Purbo, developed RT/RW-net – a community-based internet infrastructure which provides affordable Internet to people in rural areas.

Indonesia has a space program and space agency, the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (Lembaga Penerbangan dan Antariksa Nasional, LAPAN). In the 1990s, Indonesia became the first developing country to operate a satellite system called Palapa, a series of communication satellites owned by Indosat Ooredoo. The first satellite, PALAPA A1, was launched on 08 July 1976 from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, United States. As of 2019, Indonesia has launched 18 satellites for various purposes, and LAPAN has expressed a desire to put satellites in orbit with native launch vehicles by 2040. For more than 20 years, LAPAN has done research on rocket, remote sensing, satellites and space sciences. However, LAPAN is undergoing a transition to become the Aeronautics and Space Research Organisation (Organisasi Riset Penerbangan dan Antariksa, ORPA) under the brand new National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). The Jokowi administration announced the merging of all pre-existing scientific bodies together on 01 September 2021.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Indonesia has a strong sense of national unity, which has been achieved despite the numerous differences in ethnicities and cultures. However, the ire of Islamic terrorism still hangs over an otherwise peaceful nation. Is this still the main threat to Indonesia, or are other issues of more concern?
  2. Indonesia is seeking to enhance its space program, which will improve its telecommunications and Internet capabilities. Is there an opportunity for Australia and Indonesia to work together on a space program? What benefits might come from this?
  3. Jakarta will no longer be the capital of Indonesia by 2024, with a new capital being constructed in order to move away from the slowly sinking incumbent. Is this a sign of climate change, or did Indonesia overextend Jakarta’s size on land that simply couldn’t cope?