Photograph of Lulun Danu Temple, Indonesia
Unity in Diversity. Temple, Lulun Danu, Indonesia. Photo ©

Creative Commons CCO, adapted from the original.

February 2018

Paul Smith, British Council Country Director, explores Indonesia’s increasing economic and soft power, and how its diverse, tolerant culture is helping to position it as an ideal partner for closer engagement with the UK.

The World’s 7th Greatest Economy, 3rd Biggest Democracy, & Largest Muslim Nation

Whilst the conflicts, confusions, and critiques circling around contemporary Islam in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia can sometimes seem to overwhelm British media headlines, by far the largest Islamic population in the world - the Indonesian community of some 230 million Muslims - sits quietly to the side of our frazzled world’s geopolitical focus, often ignored in debates in the UK. Take these huge numbers of people with the contemporary world’s largest Islamic minority – in India - and you have an Islamic population which is larger than that of the whole of the Middle East and North Africa.

By far the largest Islamic population in the world sits quietly to the side of our frazzled world’s geopolitical focus, often ignored in debates in the UK

Islam came late to the archipelago known since 1965 as Indonesia (‘the isles of India’). Though it is likely that merchants from Gujarat first brought the new religion to Sumatra in the 9th century, it was not until the 13th century that the religion began to grow. It spread, not on the hooves of conflict and conquest, but on the winds of trade and commerce. This had important consequences. Its narratives, some of its practices, and even certain strands of theology, gradually consorted and then blended with the legacy of Hinduism and Buddhism which had defined the culture of much of the archipelago for many centuries. Islam informed an already syncretic religious and cultural emanation that was Hindu and Buddhist and was particularly celebrated in the ancient dominant kingdoms of Crivijaya, Majapahit, and others.

Anyone arriving in Indonesia is struck with exhilaration by the narrative that Islam describes in this most pluralistic, tolerant, courteous, and civil of democratic nations. For, as well as having the largest Islamic population in the world, Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy. It also has some 9,000 populated islands amongst its necklaces of 17,000 isles in all. To visit one populated island a day would take an intrepid visitor 25 years. Over 700 languages are spoken in the country. As well some 230 million Muslims, Indonesia is also home to around 25 million Christians and significant Hindu and Buddhist minorities . Diversity - human, linguistic, ethnic, religious, cultural, biological, zoological, botanical, environmental - cannot but be the defining attribute of this remarkable nation. 

In the wonderful cultural city of Yogyakarta, you can find the beautiful 9th century temple complex of Prambanan which, with the great site of Borobudur a few miles northwest, proudly stands as the most significant and visited religious tourist sites on the island of Java. Amongst the foreign visitors are dozens of local Javanese families and school parties, almost all Muslim, reverently and joyfully enjoying the statuary of the ancient Indian scriptures, moving amongst Brahma, Siva, Vishnu, and seeking out stories they had known since birth from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The Indonesian state is alert to its own positive positioning in the world’s search for better interfaith engagement. Last year the annual gathering of the Bali Democracy Forum, an Indonesian annual initiative of international acclaim, took as its theme Religion, Plurality and Democracy, and was opened by President Jokowi with a rallying call for tolerance and understanding. 

The Bahasa Indonesia language has a lovely word, Kerukunan, which means communal harmony and concord. The British Council in Indonesia has taken the concept of Kerukunan to inspire a project to celebrate the plurality, diversity and inclusiveness of Indonesia and to help re-set some international assumptions which too glibly stereotype and demonise religions, particularly Islam. There can be another vision, obverse to the commonplace of “countering violent extremism”. “Championing tolerant normalcy” could be an alternative mantra, finding its quiet, strong sourcing in this most diverse and inviting archipelago.

It shouldn’t be claimed that Indonesia is a nirvana of peace and religious tolerance. Its post-war history has seen dictatorship and massive political violence. And, of course, like too many countries, Indonesia has known its headline terrorist attacks, with the horrendous Bali bombing of 2002 followed by a spasmodic series of further outrages. Often, though, the prompting of such dire events is located beyond Indonesia. 

In fact Indonesians also have one of the lowest percentages of active adherents to Daesh, with little movement towards the Middle Eastern centres of violence or overt advocacy in the country. This, too, in a nation which tops numerous international social media usage lists. Recent research by Ipsos MORI for the British Council* showed that young Indonesians – just like young Brits - were more worried about extremism/terrorism than any other issue. 

Where religious conversion has been the result of socioeconomic interaction and integration, and where there is a long-nurtured culture of civility across broad ethnic diversity, a narrative of tolerance and a more benign geopolitics can be dominant. Recent years have brought Indonesia peace, democratisation, a booming economy, and increasing soft power

So it seems that, where religious conversion has been the result of socioeconomic interaction and integration, and where there is a long-nurtured culture of civility across broad ethnic diversity, a narrative of tolerance and a more benign geopolitics can be dominant. And recent years have brought Indonesia peace, democratisation, a booming economy, and increasing soft power. 

An Obvious Partner for the UK

Indonesia is a large and growing economic and diplomatic power. It has the world’s fourth largest population, with 261 million people, projected to grow to 295 million by 2030. It is a significant emerging market, already the 7th largest economy in the world according to the World Bank (by Purchasing Power Parity GDP), having just overtaken the UK, and it continues to grow at around 5% a year. As it continues its peaceful economic and political ascent, as the biggest of the so-called ‘MINT’ rising powers, it represents an obvious partner for the UK.

Furthermore, there is clear evidence of ideals shared with the UK, and the majority of those surveyed considered that the UK was a country that supported the values they considered most important. In particular, two thirds agreed that the UK demonstrates the respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs that Indonesians so value themselves.

The survey also revealed strong positive perceptions of the UK in general, which had - after Japan - the second most trusted government, institutions and people, and was viewed as overall the second most attractive G20 country. The UK was also, by some way, the European G20 country whose culture Indonesian people had most experience of and most wanted to experience and was the most attractive for the purposes of education. 98% of young Indonesians said they spoke at least some English, with 6 in 10 speaking it fairly or very well. This is much higher than in other G20 countries in Far East. Finally, of all the G20 European countries, the UK was deemed the most attractive as an existing or future trading partner.

Positive views of the UK increased after the EU referendum, with 43% saying that Brexit had a fairly or very positive impact on the UK’s attractiveness, compared to 11% who said the impact was negative.

Yet, in contrast, Indonesia scored towards the bottom of the G20 in British people’s perceptions across most categories, reflecting scant awareness or understanding of the country. This represents a missed opportunity for the UK, post-Brexit, to build on the shared values and soft power it enjoys in Indonesia for mutual benefit and prosperity. 

Indonesia is a country with growing economic and soft power, many shared values, and strikingly and increasingly positive views of the UK. As the UK seeks to project itself as a ‘Global Britain’ and find new partners around the world, it could consider doing more to learn from and increase its ties to this exciting, diverse, and tolerant nation.

Paul Smith, British Council Country Director, Indonesia


*Commissioned by the British Council, Ipsos MORI conducted an online survey across all 19 countries of the G20, interviewing 18-34 year olds with a minimum of secondary education. The first wave was conducted between 23 May – 16 June 2016 and the second wave was conducted between 8 September – 16 October 2016. Each country had a sample size of around 1,000.

In each market, the data is weighted to be representative of the national population by age (18-24 vs. 25-34) and gender. Additionally, the sample of the second wave is weighted to match the sample profile of the first wave on the following variables: interlocking age and gender quotas, education, area of residence, and employment status. 

See also