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What You Need to Know About Indonesian Last Names

Let’s preface this article with the most important thing to remember when it comes to Indonesian names:

Last names in Indonesia are legally optional and not inherited. 

What You Need to Know About Indonesian Last Names

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 (Belgian footballer with Batak ancestry).

Over the years, Indonesian citizens of Chinese ancestry have also unofficially developed their own naming conventions.

As mentioned above, last names in Indonesia are legally optional and not inherited. This phenomenon has a few rather confusing implications in many parts of the world:

1. It is possible to have a single given name only

  • In official Indonesian documents (e.g. 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, there is typically only one name field requesting someone’s full name because last names are legally optional.

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, Indonesians without last names typically enter their given names as both their first and last names, for example: Anto Anto. 

This is also why Facebook allows users in Indonesia to use its service with only a single given name.

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 does not necessarily signify a family name at all. 

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, the flexibility in last names also means that everyone in a family can have the same last name if they prefer to.

3. A last name does not (necessarily) signify a 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 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. 

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 strongly encouraged by the government to change their Chinese-sounding names and in recent decades, they began naming their children using Westernized names instead.

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.

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