Why is sociability such a prevalent feature of Indonesian society?
by Jade Le Van
Indonesia’s population amounts to more than 250 million people, with hundreds of native groups located all over the archipelago. Despite obvious differences in customs and culture, a common trait of the diverse ethnic groups that make up Indonesia is the communal nature of their social organization. The number of family members known to and social groups joined by the average Indonesian is considerable, and entertaining these relationships requires a significant amount of time and energy.
Subordination to the parents and the weight of family
In Indonesia, everything starts with the family. Far from being restricted to blood ties, the concept of family is very inclusive, comprising for instance grandparents’ siblings. One may thus have more than just two grandmothers, as the term extends to the sisters of the grandfather and his brothers’ wives. As a result, the number of aunts, uncles and cousins is exponential, even more so as these labels are also used to refer to close friends of the family.
Hence, despite targeted policies and family planning having brought the Indonesian total fertility rate down to 2 to 3 children per woman, families remain huge. And despite the lack of transportation infrastructure and horrendous urban and intercity traffic jams, family members still make a point of attending the various family events and social obligations grouped under the concept of “silaturahmi”. It encompasses common festivities such as births, birthdays and weddings, and sorrowful circumstances like the hospitalization or death of a relative, as well as local customs such as visiting pregnant women during the seventh month of their pregnancy. Religious ceremonies are also a major occasion for family gathering.
To better understand silaturahmi, watch this fun 2.5 minutes video by Sacha Stevenson, who deems silaturahmi the scariest Indonesian word:
Yet, believing that social visits are limited to special events would be a mistake: one is expected to routinely visit family members and drop by if traveling to a city where acquaintances live. Most people would not even think of avoiding such social duties for fear of being labeled as “sombong”, which can be translated as egoist or arrogant.
Due to the prevalence of the family, weddings are the most important social events regardless of the religious beliefs of the community. The Christian Bataks from North Sumatra, for instance, are known for holding gigantic weddings, where it is not uncommon to count over one thousand guests. Similarly, Muslim weddings generally involve hundreds of participants, a majority of which is invited by the parents who want the community to witness the union and consecrate their success as parents.
The crowds involved in wedding celebrations cannot be explained by the vastness of families alone. The second key to understanding Indonesian sociability is the importance of belonging to a variety of formal and informal groups. Togetherness is highly valued and is even embedded in the administrative structure of the country.
Subordination to the group and the value of cooperation
Implemented during the New Order era of Suharto, the administrative division of Indonesia ranges from the province level to the dasawisma, which is the smallest unit and comprises ten households. Intermediate levels are the city, the district, the village, the RW (Rukun Warga, which can be translated as citizen association), and the RT (Rukun Tetangga, or neighborhood association). A RT is made of 25 to 30 households, and a RW is a grouping of 3 RTs.
The smaller units of RW, RT and dasawisma are particularly interesting when studying Indonesian sociability, as they are small enough for people to know each other, and because they organize regular meetings and social events gathering the community. Despite being part of the formal administrative framework, they are allowed a certain freedom, as RW and RT leaders do not receive a salary from the state. During the monthly meetings of RWs and RTs, members discuss the needs of the community and plan upcoming activities, which include health programs, religious events, and volunteer work.
This notion of community work is very important in Indonesian society and is referred to as gotong royong. This term lacks an official English translation but gotong royong implies the idea of mutual aid and cooperation. It applies to a variety of tasks from neighborhood spring cleaning to the reconstruction of a collapsed bridge. Its object is not necessarily collective and the community can for instance get together to help poor neighbors build their house. Such projects always include a division of labor, with some providing the workforce while others contribute with food and refreshments or money for raw materials. Again, repeated failure to join community meetings and activities may result in the culprit being labeled as sombong.
These small administrative units and the importance of gotong royong are a first example of how Indonesians are used to working communally. Yet, to conclude that they actually enjoy group activities, one would first have to observe informal forms of socialization.
The arisan, a form of collective savings, is a good example of a spontaneous social group. A set of participants get together over a meal, and everyone contributes the same amount of money to the arisan, creating a communal fund. At the end of the gathering, a lottery is organized, and the winners go back home with the money. Of course, the arisan follows a set of rules ensuring reciprocity: it has to gather at a given frequency and with the same members each time, with the same amount of money being committed, and one cannot get the lottery again before all the members have won it once. A committee is elected during the first meeting to ensure fairness, as the size of the group can range from the scale of a family or a dasawisma with a dozen members to a few hundreds of participants, if organized by the workers of a factory for instance.
Another informal form of gathering popular among Muslims is the pengajian or prayer group, whose same-sex members decide to meet up on a regular basis to read, pray and discuss extracts of the Qu’ran. It is usually followed by a meal, and the members who own small businesses such as clothes shops or food stalls, may sell their products, adding a networking and entrepreneurial component.
A physical hint of the inclination towards community is the extensive use of uniforms. In schools, for instance, students are not the only ones wearing them: the school staff usually has its own, as shown on the pictures below. A proper wedding should include various sets of matching uniforms to be worn by the close family and friends during the various ceremonies. Similarly, neighborhood associations and prayer groups often decide to create their own uniforms, to be sported during meetings. Travel packages may also include a uniform for all participants, classier than the usual cap.
In addition to the traditional Indonesian groups listed so far, Indonesians also cherish encounters with their work colleagues, as well as with their former classmates, from primary school to university. Not unusual, you may think, but picture a high school meet-up for a hundred of alumni at your own house and you will get a better idea of how social ties are sustained. Or as a social experiment, ask an Indonesian friend to show you his or her Whatsapp, and wonder at the hundreds of unread messages from his multiple social groups.
A blessing for social networks
This community-based organization is essentially a network structure, where each individual is a node connecting their different social circles. Logically, online social networks have become one of the main vectors of Indonesian sociability.
Indonesia is one of the most active countries on social networks thanks to both a huge user base and frantic posting, sharing and tweeting of content. Surveys have shown it is the fourth largest market worldwide for Facebook, the fifth for Twitter, and the twelfth for LinkedIn, despite an internet penetration below 25%. A case study of the sharing platform Path gives an interesting insight on the use of social networks in the country. Path, which otherwise has a limited user base worldwide, claims that a fifth of its 23 million users (as of November 2014) is Indonesian.
The original idea of Path was for one to be able to share pictures with close friends and relatives only, this goal being attained by capping the number of possible friends to 150. As Facebook is already massively used by both teenagers, their parents, and sometimes their grandparents, Indonesians welcomed Path as a “new Facebook”, where they could reintroduce privacy in the way they share their daily experiences. It also came as an escape to the ever-growing Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) trend, where acquaintances overload your inbox and Newsfeed with the latest clothes or cosmetics they want to sell you.
Path friends limit was updated to 500 in 2014, essentially at the request of Indonesian users. Indeed, 500 friends is still considered a rather restrained circle of acquaintances. This fact alone is a good indication that Indonesians’ hyper-sociability extends beyond the traditional conception of the community, and embraces common patterns of behavior that have achieved new-found vigor with the development of the Internet and of social media.
 CIA World Factbook 2014
 All estimates from: https://www.techinasia.com/dave-morin-path-indonesia/
 For more information on Path’s succes in Indonesia: https://en.dailysocial.net/post/why-is-path-so-popular-in-indonesia