Jakarta Natives Offer Hope Amid Rising Intolerance

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WITH reports of ethnic and religious intolerance in Indonesia on the rise, it is all too easy for foreigners to get the impression that discrimination and bigotry have always been a way of life in the country.

The reality, however, is very different. No ethnic group displays this better than the one that claims to be native to Jakarta.

I am referring to the Orang Betawi (people of Batavia), descendants of the inhabitants of Batavia – Jakarta’s colonial name – during the period when the archipelago was ruled by the Dutch.

No longer a majority of the city’s population, the Betawi currently make up about a quarter of Jakarta’s inhabitants. Other major ethnic groups include the Javanese, Sundanese and a much smaller but economically influential ethnic Chinese community.

Like Singaporeans, the Betawi may well be described as an immigrant people, since they are descended from a diverse collection of South-east Asian ethnic groups, including Bugis, Malays, Sundanese, Javanese and Balinese, sprinkled with a diverse collection of foreigners such as Chinese, Indians and even Portuguese.

Among the things that unite them is a creole version of Malay that includes words derived from Hokkien, Arabic and Dutch. It is certainly quite distinct from the Javanese and Sundanese spoken by other Indonesians on the main island of Java.

Yet Betawi ethnicity remains a very fluid concept.

Speaking to the Jakarta Post last year, historian J.J. Rizal described Betawi as the most flexible and progressive ethnic identity in the country: “Anyone can claim to be a native Jakartan, as long as he stays in Jakarta long enough and immerses himself in the culture.”

Betawi ethnicity is a modern construct. Although there are historical references to the Betawi people dating back to the 18th century, Betawi was not officially listed as an ethnic category in the population census until 1930. Somewhat surprisingly, religion does not appear to be an identifying characteristic either. While the vast majority of Betawi are Muslims, a small number of Christian Betawi of Portuguese descent still live in the Tugu area of North Jakarta.

Today, the Betawi language forms the basis of Jakarta’s slang. It can be heard regularly on the streets, when speakers of standard Bahasa Indonesia abandon formal pronouns in favour of Betawi versions which draw on Hokkien roots. Instead of saying saya or aku (I, me), for example, almost all Jakartans use the word gue. And instead of using kamu (you), the popular pronoun is lu.

As one would expect, Betawi culture has few truly indigenous elements. The traditional bridal wedding dress, for example, reflects Chinese influence, while Arabian influences can be seen in the groom’s costume.

Copying the Chinese, the Betawi also use firecrackers during celebrations, while their tanjidor brass ensembles display European influence. Even the ondel-ondel – a folk performance using large puppets – draws on Chinese, Balinese and Sundanese traditions.

In recent years, as the population of Jakarta swelled with migrants from all over Indonesia looking for work, Betawi culture has lost some of its influence.

Betawi researcher and author Abdul Chaer laments the effect that this population influx is having on the younger generation. “A lot of young Betawi people don’t know the meanings or haven’t even heard of some of the words that we, the older generation, know and still use,” said the 71-year-old.

In an interview with the Jakarta Globe in June, he singled out Betawi words such as teisi, which means teaspoon, and sundung, which refers to the yoke that is used to carry grass.

Considerable effort has nevertheless been put into preserving Betawi culture. In October last year, 25,000 people attended the fourth Betawi Day celebration at the Penggilingan industrial village in Cakung, East Jakarta. Supported by then Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo, the event was enlivened by traditional Betawi arts and cultural performances.

Even so, Betawi culture may eventually be overwhelmed by the city’s new migrants, leaving a legacy that amounts to little more than a few prefixes, suffixes and pronouns in popular speech.

But there is always hope that Betawi inclusiveness will overcome the current trend towards religious and ethnic intolerance.

As an example of this, optimists can point to the September results of Jakarta’s gubernatorial election. During the campaign, Mr Fauzi sought re-election by emphasising his Betawi roots. His supporters called on voters to reject rival candidate Joko Widodo because the latter was an outsider and his running mate was an ethnic Chinese Christian.

But the attempt at Betawi chauvinism elicited little enthusiasm from Betawi organisations. Mr Joko, the former Solo mayor, is now the city’s new governor.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited 

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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