How did Indonesia try to absorb Malaysia

Wayang Golek – Indonesian wooden toys used in puppet shows

“Same same but different” – this how people from Sumatra island explain things. Indonesia and Malaysia are similar in many ways, but at the same time, these countries have tremendous differences.

The Language

A long time ago Malay people inhabited the Malaysian and Indonesian islands. That’s why Malaysian and Indonesian languages are so similar with about 80% of the identical vocabulary. However, the Malaysian language uses more Arabic words, and Indonesian – more English and Dutch words because of the years of colonization.

Political System And Social Life

Development of both countries was dependent on colonizers. Malaysia was colonized by the British and Indonesia by the Dutch. Therefore, Malaysia is a federation and constitutional Monarchy. Indonesia is a unitary presidential republic.
Did you know that Indonesia has Ministry of religion with 5 official religions: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity (Protestants and Catholics), Hinduism and Confucianism. And guess what, you have to put your religion in your ID card. And you cannot have a different religion or not have any religion at all.

Malaysia has a Ministry of Unity as well as Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development dealing with women empowerment and reaching gender equality.

Infrastructure And Development

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

This makes the biggest difference. Indonesia is a typical rural country. And many out of 17 thousand islands are still untouched by civilization. There is no metro in Indonesia, not many high buildings as well, due to constant seismic activity in the region. The most developed place in Indonesia is tourist paradise – Bali island as well as capital city Jakarta.

Malaysia has a well-developed infrastructure, better internet connection, air conditioners everywhere and water heaters in every hostel and house. You could rarely see wet markets in Malaysian cities as well. In Malaysia people are more obedient to rules and have more understanding of interdependent life in the diverse community, probably that’s why usually you won’t see people throwing the trash from the car window, that is a usual picture in Indonesia.


Bandung, Indonesia

In Indonesia the streets are narrow, cities are crowded and everybody use motorcycles so the traffic you can easily spend a few hours in traffic in the big city. If you don’t know how to ride a motorbike, your life is gonna be very limited in Indonesia.

Malaysia has a well-organized public transportation system, as well, as cars are the most popular private transport. So it’s much easier to get around and that’s the main reason why usually Malaysians are much more punctual than people in Indonesia.

Food Is Important

Nasi Bebek – Duck rice

From first glance, food is something life goes around in both countries. People like to eat here and they like to talk about food a lot.

Multiculturalism: Local vs Global

There is around 360 ethnic groups, and around 700 different languages in Indonesia. But everybody can speak state language Bahasa Indonesia. Most of Indonesians (85%) are Muslims. People from different ethnic groups have different traditions, customs, they look different. Still, this diversity could be called local as their cultures are relatively similar and usually representatives of these ethnic groups live on certain islands, not moving around much. So you won’t spot so many very different people in one city like you will in Malaysia.
Malaysian society is dramatically diverse combining Chinese, Malays and Indians, Muslims, Christians and Hindus and many expats living together in one country. Although state language is Bahasa Malaysia, English, that is recognized as a business language, is used as an everyday language by many.

Edward, Indonesian living in Malaysia:
Malaysians: they really like to go yum cha!! and they mix all languages in their daily conversation: “Ane, mixed rojak satu, dabao ah..”
Indonesians: they really like to talk a lot (they can spend hours talking non-sense).

Collectivistic Culture

Both Malaysian and Indonesian societies value obedience to the rules and respect to the elders, understanding of the interdependence of each person in the community, representatives of both culture recognize the importance of material possessions and status symbols.

Attitude To Foreigners

Picture with bule. Makassar, Indonesia

In Indonesia: “Hello Mister, bisa foto-foto?! Bule (pointing at you)!” Wow, you are a foreigner, I wanna be your friend, I wanna take a picture with you, oh, wait, a selfie is even better! Post on FB, Line or Path and show to all of my friends that I a white guy is my friend. Oh, and if you are a foreigner, you are definitely rich tourist from Germany, France or Australia…

In Malaysia: Orang Putih? Oh, yeah, another foreigner, nice to know you.

Happy People

Flores island, Indonesia

The Indonesian nation is one of the happiest on the Planet. People are smiling constantly. They are friendly and helpful. Generally, people live a simple life. They are satisfied with the things they have and don’t want to work harder to get more.

Life in Malaysia is different. Because of the greater economic development, people have to work harder to have a good life. That’s why probably you won’t see so many smiling people around.

Have you ever been to Indonesia or Malaysia? What differences and similarities have you noticed during your stay? What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below :).

If you are thinking about going to Indonesia for the first time, here’s my Indonesian Survival Guide!

Originally written for and published at by Hanna Flores

Hanna Flores

Hanna is an experienced traveller who values authentic cultures, loves learning other humans perspectives and creating order from chaos. You can meet her strolling in Kuala Lumpur parks, learning something new or changing the world in Mindvalley office ;)