New Internationalist

Country Profile: Indonesia

May 2013

Only 15 years ago, Indonesia was ruled by Soeharto, whose 32-year regime began with the orchestrated massacre of up to a million actual and suspected members of the Communist Party and ended following massive street demonstrations amid economic collapse. The Soeharto regime did reduce the poverty rate and roll out near-universal primary education. But there was tight censorship, suppression of dissent and a rigid, top-down system of administration.

Since then, Indonesia’s path has been not so much ‘two steps forward, one step back’, but rather resembles a drunk staggering irresolutely home. The current president, Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono, widely known as SBY, was a serving military officer in occupied East Timor under Soeharto, but he has been a strong advocate of the army staying out of politics.

Josh Estey
A seller in a traditional market on the island of Sumba prepares oil lamps at her stall as night falls. On the outer islands, electrical power is often unreliable or non-existent. Josh Estey

He was initially perceived as a competent manager of the economy committed to reforms, including extending access to health and education and strengthening local government and community institutions. He has strongly supported PNPM, the national poverty-reduction and community-empowerment programme, which offers microcredit to poor people and block grants to local communities for developing village infrastructure.

Josh Estey
Flooding after a dyke in central Jakarta burst. Josh Estey

Despite these successes, his government has become increasingly unpopular, being widely perceived as weak, indecisive and lacking the will to implement the full range of promised reforms. This is partly a product of its devolution of power, which has involved unfortunate compromises and has undermined attempts to implement meaningful reform in, for example, environmental management, minority rights and eradicating corruption.

No-one ever thought the last of these would be easy: in 2012, 170 of Indonesia’s 550 district heads were facing criminal investigations into corruption involving sums of more than $100,000 in each case. The President’s Democratic Party has itself been racked by numerous corruption and bribery scandals, with SBY often seeming to drag his feet in cases involving party members and senior military figures.

Josh Estey
An aerial shot of one of the few crowded kampungs left in central Jakarta; poor residents are increasingly being pushed to shanty towns on the perimeter. Josh Estey

This perceived weakness has left the electorate increasingly disillusioned with political and economic reforms, and disturbingly nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of the Soeharto regime. With presidential elections scheduled for 2014, one of the most popular emerging candidates is General Prabowo Subianto, Soeharto’s stridently anti-Chinese former son-in-law, who has been trying, with some success, to sweep under the carpet memories of his involvement in the kidnapping, imprisonment and torture of democracy activists.

Indonesia remains a troubled country. Almost half the country’s population still lives on less than two dollars per day. In rural areas, particularly in the eastern provinces, there are high rates of malnutrition and child and maternal mortality. By contrast, the major cities have seen rampant, barely controlled private-sector development, with building glittering shopping malls and ritzy apartment blocks taking precedence over flood controls, roads, and public parks. Jakarta’s clogged canals and dysfunctional dykes mean that, in the rainy season, the city experiences serious floods and electricity blackouts that bring it to a virtual standstill for days at a time. Despite such conditions, rural migrants continue to pour into the city in search of work and better living conditions, with many living in illegal settlements on the fringes or by the canals.

Josh Estey
A goat on the wall of the main cemetery in central Jakarta Josh Estey

Indonesia’s economic fundamentals remain strong. It has a smart, engaged middle class and its poorer citizens are becoming increasingly empowered to demand basic services. The big question is: will its progress be undermined by vested interests? The story is still being written, with the country passing through yet another ‘decade of living dangerously’.

Country Profile: Indonesia Fact File
Leader President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono
Economy GNI per capita $2,940 (Malaysia $8,770, Australia $49,130). Since 2004, the economy has expanded by more than 6% per year and Indonesia is now classified as a ‘middle-income country’. But around half the people live on under two dollars a day, with many unemployed or underemployed.
Monetary unit Indonesian rupiah
Main exports Gas, plywood, textiles and rubber. Indonesia is the world’s largest tin producer
People 239.9 million – the world’s fourth most populous country. Some 58% live on the island of Java. With an effective family planning programme, the rate of growth is fairly low (and declining), at 1.04%.
Health Infant mortality rate 27 per 1,000 live births (Malaysia 5, Australia 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 190 (Australia 1 in 7,400). The HIV prevalence rate in Papua and West Papua is around 2.4%, more than 10 times the national average and over the WHO threshold defining an epidemic. Indonesia is introducing a universal social health insurance system.
Environment Large areas of forest are being cleared by transnational pulp and palm-oil companies, to be replaced by plantations. As a result, huge areas of Kalimantan have been hit by bush fires, causing massive smogs over the entire region. Regional autonomy has made it harder for central government to protect the environment.
Culture Highly diverse, with hundreds of different ethnic groups in the different islands.
Religion 87% Muslim, 7% Protestant, 3% Catholic, 2% Hindu, and 1% Buddhist (2010 census). The syncretic form of Islam practised by many Javanese has Hindu and animist elements.
Language Bahasa Indonesia (official) is spoken to some degree by almost all citizens. But there are around 500 local languages spoken throughout the archipelago.
Human development index 0.629 – 121st of 187 countries (Malaysia 0.769, Australia 0.938)
Country Profile: Indonesia ratings in detail
Income distribution
Large and growing gaps between rural and urban areas and between the poor eastern provinces and the richer western provinces. The Gini index has risen from 0.31 in 1999 to 0.41 in 2011 (0.4 is a danger point for social instability/unrest)
Life expectancy
69 years (Malaysia 74, Australia 82)
Position of women
Women earn less than men, face discrimination in law, and often marry very young, particularly in rural areas. But women traders often control their own businesses, as many girls as boys attend school and there is a strong women’s movement.
92%. Rates are lowest in the eastern provinces, although still fair.
The rights to free expression, worship, and assembly are generally upheld, though vigilantes have attacked religious minorities and threatened journalists. The record is worse the further away one travels from Jakarta and is close to appalling in West Papua, where there are frequent allegations of torture of activists.
Sexual minorities
The national criminal code does not prohibit homosexuality. There is a large gay scene in Jakarta and the big cities, with numerous support/advocacy groups. But some regions have a modified sharia law that punishes homosexual acts with fines or imprisonment.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Indonesia has made a partially successful transition from an authoritarian dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy, with the devolution of authority for many basic services to elected district governments. National, regional and district elections are more or less free, fair and democratic. But corruption at high levels is still rife and there are some disturbing signs of regression to authoritarianism, particularly among the emerging presidential contenders for the 2014 election. Indonesians are increasingly disenchanted with the process of reform.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 462 This column was published in the May 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 disorderedworld 02 Jun 13

    It is alarming to read that in 2012, 170 of Indonesia’s 550 district heads were facing criminal investigations into corruption involving sums of more than $100,000 in each case.
    In the 2009 Parliamentary election in India 150 MPs with criminal records were elected, of whom seventy-two faced serious criminal charges including murder. The election of criminals is an anathema to economic development and the establishment of a society based on the rule of law. Indonesia, like India is one of the world's largest democracies. In both countries however democracy is failing to protect citizens from pathological elites, and is instead enabling them to gain power.

  2. #2 AndrewJ 05 Jun 13

    For six months TNI preparations for the scorched earth retribution against East Timor in 1999 had passed through the office of Yudhoyono the smiling General, for Megawati he oversaw a campaign in Aceh that included wiping out hundreds of tsunami survivors as suspected GAM supporters, and during his own presidency has facilitated campaigns in West Papua burning villages, conducting military sweeping operations, and officers sharing trophy videos of their taunting of Papuan civilians as they have been tortured and dying on video. Although President Obama while visiting Jakarta cited a proud tradition of tolerance, Al Jazeera has continued reporting instances of Church burnings and religious communities living in fear.

    The US congress which attempted to ask questions about West Papua in 2005 was thwarted after SBY announced he would lobby the US Senate to remove that sections of the Foreign Relations Authorization bill. The legal issue about the sovereignty of West Papua remains unanswered since it was made a UN trust territory in 1962 when the General Assembly made resolution 1752 (XVII) and appointed Indonesia as the <a href=>administrator</a> of the trust territory in 1963.

  3. #3 Irfan Kortschak 31 Oct 15

    As the author of this article, it's interesting for me to look back several years later. When I wrote it, Prabowo was still the scary bogey man at the fringes of events, more of an ugly hint of the worst that could befall Indonesia than a real threat. As we all know now, he DID come very close to winning the election, and his victory almost certainly would have pushed Indonesia into a more authoritarian, regressive direction. But, to the enormous relief of all those with hopes for a progressive future for Indonesia, he lost.

    Perhaps just because Jokowi was such a stark contrast to Prabowo, everyone had ridiculously high hopes for what a candidate seemingly committed to reform could achieve. People overlooked the fact that, really, the President is not the only factor in implementing reform, and that the Indonesian political system is still horribly corrupt and dominated by elite interests. Jokowi has spent his whole first year struggling and fighting these interests, not always very effectually. If anything, the mood of pessimism regarding equitable growth and reform has deepened.

    But I'd pull back a bit from my position that Indonesians are nostalgic for a more authoritarian system. I'd have to say that despite the ugliness, there doesn't seem to be any signs that any elite political faction is cohesive enough to impose such a system, or that people really want it. Mainly, that's because there's so much conflict WITHIN the political elite that democracy wins by default. As always in Indonesia, the conflict within the political elite is the saving grace for maintaining a democratic political system.

    New Internationalist, it's definitely time to update this profile! There have been many, many interesting developments since it was written!

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Life expectancy4
Position of women3
Sexual minorities3
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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This article was originally published in issue 462

New Internationalist Magazine issue 462
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