Indonesian Names Explained

Indonesian names are confusing.

Take for instance the Indonesian equivalent of the Minister of Defense : the current one (2019) is simply called Wiranto while its predecessor was Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan.

I may sound like there is no logic at all, but there is actually one. It is simply very different from the one we are used to in Western countries.

Naming your children : pure liberty

Like virtually everywhere on Earth, parents give a name to their newborn child. The main difference in Indonesia is that parents are free to pick whatever they want for the full name of their child.

No last name required

So parents pick themselves the first, middle and last name of their children.

Many people, don’t give a last name at all ! Actually this is mainly true for Javanese and Sundanese people from a rural background. But this represents already tens of millions of people (see this article on ethnic groups in Indonesia).

ID One Name Indonesia
A perfectly fine Indonesian ID of a guy whose full name is Hasan (source)

Yet there is no stigma attached to that (at least not in the public space). The first 2 presidents of Indonesia had only a single name : Sukarno and then Suharto.

Last names are not mandatory in Indonesia.

It may become a problem when one’s want to go abroad, for instance to undertake the Haji or Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca.

Usually the administration makes up a last name on the passport, most of time they simply repeat the first name.

So a guy called just Agus for instance will be called Agus Agus on his passport. I had a driver at work in Jakarta whose name was Sulaiman, on his passport his name is Sulaiman Mansulai.

The name given by parents usually reflects their aspirations for their child. For instance in Java you can meet people called Slamet (Javanese : safe, peaceful ; only for boys) or Beja (Javanese : Luck). People with Putri/Putra (princess/prince) in their name are very common too.

Javanese also get inspiration from the characters of the wayang epics of Javanese litterature : Panji, Sukarno or Suhadi for boys, Sriyati, Lestari or Kartini for girls.

More generally, several popular names find their origin in Sanskrit : Bayu ‘wind’, Gita ‘song’, Nirmala ‘pure’ …

The old Sanskrit words for numbers are often included in someone’s name, based on his position among his siblings : Eka (1st), Dwi (2nd), Tri (3rd), Catur (4th) …

The Balinese do share this tradition, but use Balinese names instead (Putu, Made, Nyoman, Ketut …).

Religion is of course a great source of name, usually of Arabic origin for Muslims : Abduh, Muhamad, Anisa …

Don’t be surprised if you meet Christian people with latin name like Martinus, Paulanus (quite common in Flores or Papua for instance).

Particular circumstances of birth can also serve as an inspiration. It is common to use the birth month of the child. I have the feeling that this is more true for girls than boys.

  • Juli, Juliani refer to the month of July (ind. Juli).
  • Nova, Novita refer to the month of November (ind. November)
  • Yuni, Yunisa refer to the month of June (ind. Juni)

Some rather original choices

Some parents can be quite creative when naming their child. Anyway, many consider the official name not very important given it is seldomly used in the daily life but for administrative purpose.

I personally met guys whose first name was Beckham or Clinton.

Indonesian newspapers are often reporting such cases :

  • In 2017, a family from Tangerang (Jakarta’s suburb) named their child Pajero Sport after the name of a Mitsubishi SUV (source).
  • In 2018, a couple from Palembang named their baby Asian Games because he was born during the Opening Ceremony of the Asian Games held in Jakarta (source).
  • This article relate the case of a policeman in Magelang (Central Java) called Andi Go To School.
  • In 2018, a chicken noodle seller made the headlines because he requested the court to change his name from Kentut (Indonesian : fart) to Ihsan Hadi. His father would latter explain that he named his son Kenthut (strong, muscular in Javanese) and that someone at school made a mistake when registering his son.
  • In 2020, a high ranking police official called Napoleon Bonaparte was dismissed (source).

Family names

Given parents are free to pick whatever they want as a last name, there is usually no family name in Indonesia.

Yet the Batak of North Sumatra do transmit their clan name (different name depending on the sub-ethnic group, Toba call it marga, Karo merga …) through the father. A few typical Batak names : Siahaan, Simanjuntak, Nasution, Damanik…

On nearby Nias island, people usually share a family name too.

As a more general rule, regions where the Christian missionaries had an influence tend to have more family names than others, for instance in North Sulawesi or in Maluku.

I have the impression that when the family has some prestige, the parents tend to transmit their name to their children no matters if they are Muslim, Catholic or Protestant.

For instance a very well known political journalist is called Najwa Shihab, she is the daughter of famous Islamic scholar and former minister of religion Quraish Shihab.

Most of the children of Indonesia first president Sukarno bear the name of their father too, like his daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri (litteraly daughter/princess of Sukarno).

Besides political dynasty, powerful tycoons also often transmit their names to their children.

This is usually not true for artists.

Spouse names

When a woman marries she most of the time doesn’t take the name of her husband. This is especially true among Muslims, but there is no general rule.

Current first lady of Indonesia Iriana Widodo has assumed the name of her husband for instance (she was born simply as Iriana).

I remember that I was very confused the first time I received a wedding invitation. Such invitation always features the name of the bride and groom’s parents.

But there wasn’t any similarities between each of the 6 names ! It doesn’t mean that the parents are not married though !

It is very common for a married couple to call each others father (bapak) and mother (emak is more common in this case) after the birth of their first child.


Almost everyone have a nickname in Indonesia. It is often a shorten up version of the first name : Kinidwi becomes Dwi, Norvianda becomes Novi

It goes not only for close friends but even proeminent public figures. For instance the current president of Indonesia Joko Widodo is called Jokowi by everyone, including ministers during interviews and  journalists in articles. Its predecessor at the presidency, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is referred to as SBY (pronounced s-bay-yay).

The nickname given to someone can be quite different from its original name :

  • The governmor of Jakarta from 2014 to 2017 Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is publicly known as Ahok (for the origin of the nickname see this article in Indonesian).
  • All the children of late general Suharto are known by their nickname : its eldest daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana is called Tutut or Mbak Tutut, its youngest son Hutomo Mandala Putra is known as Tommy
  • The governor of Nusa Tenggara province (2008-2018) Muhammad Zainul Majdi is usually called Tuan Guru Bajang or TGB (Tuan Guru is an Islamic title given to a master in religious teaching, Bajang means ‘young’ in the Sasak language of Lombok).

Initials before names

For official purpose (typically a wedding invitation or an election), people usually add many initials before and after their name. These initials usually refers to an honorific title related to education or religious background.

Let’s take for instance the candidates for the regency of Sintang (West Kalimantan) in 2015 (source of the image : an interesting political blog), the names are below the pictures :

Cabup-Cawabup Sintang

H. (Haji, for men) / Hj. (Hajah, for women) means that the person has done the Haji pilgrimage in Mecca. Of course, only Muslim people use it. If you pay attention to the picture above, only men wearing a peci (typical black Muslim hat) claim to be Haji.

Besides that, initials usually refer to a university degree. If you want the full list, check this (in Indonesian).

  • Ir (Insinyur) or Drs (Doktorandus, for women use Dra) are old academic titles inherited from the Dutch which are no longer given by university since the 90s. Doktorandus is the equivalent of an English MSc, Insinyur is a bachelor in engineering.
  • dr (dokter) means that the bearer is a medical doctor.
  • Dr (doktor) means that the bearer has a PhD.
  • S stands for sarjana (bachelor degree). For instance S.H is sarjana hukum (bachelor in law), S.E sarjana ekonomy (bachelor in economy) …
  • M stands for magister (master degree)

Sometimes, people also give their professional certification. For instance if you see S.K.A it stands for Sertifikat Keahlian Kerja, S.K.T for Sertifikat Keterempilan Kerja. They are expert certifications in the construction industry.

Other possibility : give one’s rank

Here I’m thinking especially about Bali where the system is more systematic, but other regional nobilities are often still indicated in names.

For the Javanese, the names ending by -kusuma, -tananya or -ningrat indicate the nobility.

You can find similar examples among the Bugis and Makassarese of South Sulawesi, the Butonese, the Sundanese, the Acehnese, some villages of North Lombok

In Bali, names are very often preceded by initials. These initials are shortened-up versions of the honorary titles due to each person’s caste.

  • For Brahmins (high priest) : I.B (Ida Bagus) for men and I.A (Ida Ayu) for women
  • For Satriyas (upper nobility) : A.A (Anak Agung), Cok (Cokorda) Gst (Gusti).
    • Another initial is often added depending on the gender : A.A.I Anak Agung Istri, Gst. Bgs Gusti Bagus
  • For Wesyas (lower nobility) : Gst (Gusti), Dw (Dewa), Ngkn (Ngakan), Dsk (Desak).

Given that Balinese tend to give the same names to boys and girls, often a latter is added to indicate the gender of the bearer :

  • I (for men)
  • Ni (for women)

In honorary title, if Bagus (Bgs, I.B Ida Bagus is an exception) is added then the bearer is a male, if you have Ayu (A) then it’s a female. They respectively means ‘handsome’ and ‘pretty’ in Balinese. Sometimes female also bear a I for Istri (wife).

For more comprehensive explanations, please refer to this document (in Indonesian).

Kinship terms

It is always possible to call someone by a kinship term : usually father/mother, uncle/aunt or sister/brother. You could actually talk to the same people for month and never learn their name !

Kinship terms have a multitude of local variants (basically the translation of father, aunt, sister … in each local languages or dialects).

For instance in Java it is common to use mas / mbak (brother / sister) to call someone from your age or younger. It is actually a common mistake among non-native speakers : if you call someone like that you are implying that he/she is Javanese. Calling someone from Pontianak or Medan mas would be improper unless he is from Javanese origin.

People often call me mas in Indonesia but it makes sense because I learnt most of my Indonesian in Jakarta and it is obvious in the way I speak. After that I often ask “Do I really look Javanese ?” (I’m definetly caucasian) and everyone have a good laugh.

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