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), whereas Batak people typically have a clan name that they use as their last names, such as Radja Nainggolan (a Belgian footballer with Batak ancestry).
With all of these variations, what does it all mean?
1. In general, last names in Indonesia are legally optional and not inherited.
Citizens in many other countries around the world typically inherit their last names from their family.
This is not the default in Indonesia. Having a last name is optional, and even if someone has a last name, it does not mean it's inherited from their family.
Let's take a look at the following 3 implications of this phenomenon:
2. It's perfectly acceptable for someone to have no last name.
Because last names in Indonesia are optional, a person can have a single given name only without any last name at all.
In official Indonesian documents (such as in identity cards and driver's licenses), full names are usually shown without distinguishing between first names, middle names (if any), and last names (if any).
When it comes to filling up forms in Indonesia, most would request a "full name" with only one name field.
It’s not uncommon for Indonesians without last names to 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 if you are not used to Indonesian names, but that's just how it is.
In the event where last names are required, such as in the case of booking flight tickets for example, Indonesians without last names typically enter their given names as both their first and last names, for example: Anto Anto.
Fun Fact: This is also why Facebook allows users in Indonesia to use its service with only a single given name.
3. In Indonesia, when someone has a last name, it's not necessarily their family name.
When you meet an Indonesian with a last name, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's their family name. 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 person in a family can have different last names.
That's not a family name now, is it?
For instance, a father and a mother in a family can have the names Tony Kusuma and Lisa Chandrawi respectively, and their children can have the names Patricia Fransisca and Alex Kusnadi.
However, this flexibility also means that everyone in a family can have the same last name if they prefer to.
4. Finally, you can't really infer someone's cultural background from their last name.
In Western countries such as in the United States 🇺🇸, 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 last names refer to clan names which are inherited patrilineally
- The Minang people, where last names refer to clan names which are inherited matrilineally
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.
Confusion is often directed towards 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.
This is because in the past, Chinese Indonesians were encouraged by law to change their Chinese-sounding names and in recent decades, they began naming their children using Westernized names instead.
- Read More: 7 Types of Chinese Indonesian Names
The Take-Home Message
Indonesian last names are unusual, in that it does not follow the given name + family name convention established in many other countries around the world.
The simplest way to wrap your head around it is to understand that last names in Indonesia are legally optional and not inherited, which should resolve much of the confusion around Indonesian names.