A national identity card nightmare

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IN JANUARY last year, when Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi announced that his office was working on the design of a new, nationally valid electronic identity card, many local netizens reacted negatively.

“I truly doubt Indonesia is technically ready for such an ambitious scheme,” one observer wrote on the Jakarta Globe’s website. “I see a potential nightmare on the horizon.”

Those words may yet prove prescient. In recent weeks, complaints about bureaucratic incompetence involving the implementation of the 6.6 trillion rupiah (S$934 million) scheme have multiplied. Human rights groups have also expressed objections.

One thing everyone seems to agree on, however, is the need to overhaul the current system. For decades, Indonesian identity cards have been issued to local residents by kelurahan (district administration offices). But since the card was regionally rather than nationally valid, citizens changing their residence from one part of the country have been obliged to exchange their old cards for new ones. This requirement, together with the lack of a national database, has resulted in considerable abuse.

Terrorists and graft suspects have long taken advantage of multiple identity cards to avoid capture. Local businessmen are also believed to juggle multiple identities in order to avoid paying tax. With up to 250,000 people suspected of holding at least two identity cards in Jakarta alone, questions have also been raised about double voting during elections.

Reform has become more urgent since 2009, when the Constitutional Court ruled that identity cards – rather than the electoral register – could be used as proof of eligibility to vote. National elections are due in 2014.

Mr Gamawan wants to give every citizen a card with a unique single 16-digit identity number. Each card will also display a photo and provide basic information such as name, place and date of birth, marital status and religion. Other information, such as blood type, physical or mental disabilities, and finger prints of all fingers, are to be stored electronically.

Last month, however, as the central government and Jakarta authorities blamed each other for the slow progress in issuing the new cards, it seemed that the sceptics would be proven right.

In late August, about three weeks after the first stage of the programme was scheduled to begin in Jakarta, many kelurahan in the capital had not received the necessary equipment. Operators were also reportedly having trouble connecting to the Home Affairs Ministry’s central database.

The original plan was for the identity card programme to be carried out in two stages. The first stage was to be implemented this year in the nation’s major cities, with 67 million residents getting the new cards. The rest of the country – about 105 million people – were to get their cards in 2012. However, these dates may now have to be revised.

While the first stage has been experiencing difficulties, the second stage could face even more serious obstacles. While some kelurahan in Jakarta have never had an Internet connection, there are kelurahan in the rural areas that are still using typewriters. In such circumstances, training available staff in the use of equipment such as desktop computers, fingerprint scanners, iris scanners, cameras and modems may not be easy.

For many Indonesians, however, the real nightmare lies in the information the new cards will continue to display. “People have been killed in sectarian conflicts because religion is mentioned on the cards,” said activist Maya Safira of the National Integration Movement.

Indonesian Legal Aid (LBHI) director Hurkhalis Hidayat told me in Jakarta last month that his organisation believes that forcing people to state their religion contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which was ratified by Parliament in 1999. The interpretation, however, is controversial. In 2006, Parliament passed a law making the inclusion of religion on identity cards compulsory.

Indonesia officially recognises only six major faiths – Islam, Catholicism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. As a concession to followers of religions such as animism, bureaucrats are supposed to leave the section blank. In reality, however, LBHI says that officials often ignore the objections of cardholders and write “Islam”. In theory, this could oblige such citizens to follow Islamic practices and face Islamic punishments in provinces such as Aceh even though they are not Muslims.

The exact number of animists in Indonesia is not known. However, in 2007 animist leader Djoko Sumono claimed there were about 250 animist associations in the country, with a combined membership of nine million.

Despite the bureaucratic bungling and the inevitable allegations of corruption in the procurement of equipment, Indonesia’s attempt to rationalise its messy identity card system seems like a good thing. It is sad, however, that an opportunity to address the concerns of minority groups has been passed up.

Copyright © 2011 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd

Key Political Risks

The inability of the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to bridge the deep divisions between her populist government and its royalist opponents in the military and bureaucracy remains a major concern.

Prime Minister Yingluck has selected a competent economic team, but it is difficult for these technocrats to deliver on the new government's campaign promises without triggering inflation or hurting business. 

The government has also been unable to resolve the ongoing insurgency involving ethnic Malay Muslim rebels in the south.



  1. Attempts by the government to amend the constitution. The proposed rewrite is aimed removing legal measures initiated by the royalist generals who overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister's elder brother, in 2006.
  2. Ballooning government debt as officials seek to finance government programmes aimed at subsidising rice prices in order to retain the support of farmers.
  3. The relationship between Prime Minister Yingluck and senior generals. Coups have been a common means of regime change in Thai history, and any attempt by the government to purge royalist elements in the top brass could trigger yet another. Thailand

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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