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What's With Indonesian Last Names?

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Did you know Facebook allows users in Indonesia to use its service with only their first names?
What's With Indonesian Last Names?

Published by The LingoNomad

Officially, there are 633 ethnic groups in Indonesia. Some of the biggest ethnic groups are Javanese, Sundanese, Batak, Madurese, Betawi, Minangkabau, Buginese, and Malay. Many of these ethnic groups have their own typical naming conventions; for instance, it is common for Javanese people to possess only one name, such as Sukarno (the first Indonesian president); and Batak people typically have a clan name that they use as their last names, such as Radja Nainggolan (who is a Belgian footballer with Batak ancestry).

In general, last names in Indonesia are optional and not inherited. This phenomenon has a few confusing implications:

1. One can have a first name without a last name

In official Indonesian documents (identity card, driver's license), full names are shown without distinguishing between first names, middle names (if any), and last names (if any). In official Indonesian forms, the term "full name" is used to request someone's name because one may not necessarily have a last name.

Indonesians without last names often cause confusion in immigration counters abroad, though it isn't really anyone's fault. For example, someone may be named Anto—and that's it. It intuitively draws a lot of question marks, but that's just how it is.

In the event where last names are required, such as in the case of booking flight tickets, Indonesians without last names typically enter their single names as both their first names and last names, e.g. Anto Anto. This is why Facebook allows users in Indonesia to use its service with only their first names, because quite a number of Indonesians do not have last names.

2. A last name is not (necessarily) the same as a family name

In the case where Indonesians do have last names, it may not necessarily signify their family names. How so?

Going back to the point above, last names in Indonesia are optional and not inherited, so a child can technically be named anything. Every single person in a family can have different last names, and those last names may not necessarily signify a family name. For example, in a family, a father and a mother can have the names Tony Kusuma and Lisa Chandrawi respectively, and their children can have the names Patricia Fransisca and Alex Kusnadi. However, the flexibility in giving your children last names also mean that everyone in a family can have the same last name if they prefer to.

3. A last name does not (necessarily) signify one's cultural background

In Western countries such as in the US, someone's last name is often used as an indicator of their cultural background. A person with the last name Ivanov suggests that they may be of Russian descent; a person with the last name Fernández suggests that they may be of Mexican or Spanish descent.

In Indonesia, the same approach tends to work only with certain ethnicities such as the Batak people (where their last names refer to their clan names which are inherited patrilineally). 

However, it is safest to exert more caution in assuming one's cultural background in Indonesia because a lot of the time, a name is just a name. Consider the Minangkabau people where a person's clan affiliation is determined matrilineally. The last names of Minangkabau mothers do not signify their clan names and are not automatically inherited by their children as they typically consider clan affiliation to be a separate identity from their last names.

Confusion is often towards amongst Chinese Indonesians as they typically have rather unique names for their ethnicity, such as Felicia Stanley or Patrick Anthony. The last names Stanley and Anthony most certainly do not signify European ancestries, but they are merely names that do not (necessarily) signify their family names nor their cultural background. In the past, Chinese Indonesians were strongly encouraged by the government to change their Chinese-sounding names and in recent decades, they began naming their children using Westernized names.

 The Take-Home Message

Indonesian last names are... unusual, in that it does not follow the convention established in many other countries around the world, but the simplest way to wrap your head around it is to know that they are optional and not inherited. So hopefully by reading this article, if you meet an Indonesian next time, you can express less confusion when they happen to only have a single name, and try not to give too much weight on their last names.

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