Why CRIME isn’t a big issue in Indonesia plus common-sense rules for protecting yourself and your things regardless

Motorcycle snatch and ride scene

Not a real robbery but rather a scene from a TV drama shoot – none-the-less be aware that this kind of petty theft can happen in Indonesia and other Asian countries.

Most Westerners tend to assume that countries and cities with crowded living, low incomes, and limited education opportunities will be hotbeds of crime.

Think Venezuela, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Nigeria, and some of the Caribbean countries.

Some of us lump Indonesia into the same basket – and when we do, we are getting it completely wrong.

Statistics issued by the World Population Review for 2022 suggest that Indonesia has less violent crime per 100,000 people than Australia, the USA, much of Europe and even peaceful New Zealand (1)

For violent crime, numbers taken from UN statistics for 2017 and 2018 show Indonesia ranked somewhere between 17th and 20th in the world and other figures elsewhere put Indonesian at 67th out of 136 countries for crime overall. 

Indonesia ranked better than the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Vietnam, and Sweden and about on a par with Australia, New Zealand, and Belgium.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes ranks 192 countries in terms of the most ‘intentional homicides’ per 100,000 people. Indonesia has ranked way down at 184 – the same as Austria and Norway and with even fewer intentional killings than places like Japan and Hong Kong.You can check the UN data HERE.

Almost 16 million international tourists visited pre-COVID Indonesia in 2018. No more than a tiny handful would have experienced any kind of crime or ever felt threatened.

Indonesia does have its share of petty crime

Regardless of statistics, like every other place on earth, Indonesia has its share of petty crime and corruption. International visitors are not immune – in some respects they are considered fair game.

Most Indonesian crime revolves around thefts, drugs, commercial sex, and illegal gambling in the big cities and towns.

It is mainly confined to (often vibrant) entertainment and bar districts. Unless you seek it out, you are most unlikely to be touched by it.

Serious crimes like armed robbery are rare. And such crime as happens is despite hardline anti-drugs enforcement and a complete ban on gambling, even lottery tickets.

A ban on guns is rigorously enforced and a street mugging is so unusual it will make front page news.

Violence involving Western visitors is particularly rare, and where it happens the authorities crack down hard.

Police and officials have been made conscious of the importance of protecting Indonesia’s international image at a time when the Government is working hard to attract more foreign visitors and investment.

There are seedy areas in the bigger cities and occasional ‘no go’ districts where poor and unemployed people will steal or commit other petty crimes to survive.

Be aware of possible pickpockets and bag snatchers in heavily trafficked pedestrian areas … and you may need to prompt taxi drivers to turn on their meter.

Rigorous enforcement against guns and drugs

Indonesia’s international safety rankings are not surprising – the authorities rigorously enforces gun ownership restrictions and strong anti-drug laws.

Convicted drug traffickers face the death sentence, and defnitions of trafficking are very broad.

Organized illegal gambling – often regarded as a catalyst for criminal activity – was forcibly shut down in February 2005 and has largely stayed that way.

A mugging can make front page news in Indonesia, especially if a foreigner is the victim. Can you imagine a street crime making the front pages of a newspaper in Washington DC, New York or even Sydney?

Violence involving Western visitors is particularly rare and where it happens the authorities will crack down hard – they are conscious of the importance of protecting their international image at a time when the Government is working hard to attract more foreign visitors and investment.

But culture, tradition and values probably play a bigger part than enforcement or punishment. Contrary to widely held popular belief, the Muslim faith teaches giving, tolerance, non-violence and peace as core values. 

Most Muslims consider it sinful to kill ANY other person except in self-defence – the view that it’s somehow OK to kill non-Muslims (infidels) is an aberrant idea of ISLAMIST extremists. And this group is repudiated by the conservative and inherently nonviolent, decent citizens of the broader Indonesian society.

The non-violent values of main-stream Indonesian society were probbly shaped long before the spread of Islam from around 700 years ago by the cultural importance of FACE and honour, a history of nation-building through commerce, religion and culture rather than military might or conquest, and the sharing traditions of Kampung communities.

Counterfeit products - it's business as usual

Shopper browsing pirated videos

Pirated video DVDs, video games and software are sold openly and widely in Indonesia.

Fake "Luois Vuitton" bags for sale on Indonesian market stall

Fake “Luois Vuitton” bags are a popular item in some Indonesian markets.

A PREVALENT CRIME in Indonesia, as elsewhere in Asia, is the production and sale of counterfeit, fake or pirated consumer goods.

This goes beyond the usual counterfeit music, movie videos and computer software to copies of the up-market clothing, bags and other fashion items of leading international brands, perfumes, foods, cosmetics and even pharmaceuticals.

Despite the efforts and periodic crack-downs of international and Indonesian regulators, counterfeiting and intellectual property theft persists, powered by the steadily rising affluence of a massive domestic market of more than 275 million.

Depending on personal scruples, for you as a visitor, this all may seem to offer opportunities to buy cheap (but often well made) ‘knock-offs’ of leading brand products.

But be aware you might face questions if transiting countries like Singapore or on re-entering your home country.

Be aware also that computer games, software or pirated movies may not work or play on the hardware available in your part of the world.

Corruption reduced but remains a continuing problem

Like much of the rest of Asia and the developing world, Indonesia’s big-ticket crime relates to corruption, with fraud, bribery and graft tarnishing commerce, the bureaucracy and politics.

To its credit Indonesia established a special Anti-Corruption Commission in 2002. Though under-resourced, by 2017 it had convicted 119 members of Parliament and 17 corrupt regional Governors, and had jailed 130 corrupt police.

It is continuing to expose and prosecute cases involving tens of millions of dollars siphoned out of public funds.

While this is having an impact, it likely will be a long time before Indonesia climbs far from its 96th ranking (out of 180 countries) in the 2021 Transparency International Corruption Index.

Corruption can also be at the core of the civil disturbances that periodically make headlines – it’s common knowledge that many taking part in “spontaneous political mass demonstrations” are often paid to be there.

But these events are limited to locals, including any casualties. Holiday visitors who abide by Indonesian laws and regulations will rarely be directly impacted.

COMMON-SENSE RULES TO PROTECT YOU AND YOUR STUFF WHEN TRAVELLING INDONESIA

Provided you take common-sense precautions, you are unlikely to have any problem protecting yourself or your possessions in Indonesia or the rest of Southeast Asia.

Here’s a checklist of standard rules to follow for any foreign destination:

Consider keeping your passport and valuables in a safe or safety box at your hotel. Carry a photocopy of your passport identification pages in case you are asked for ID by the police or other authorities. Keep a record of your passport number elsewhere (perhaps in your phone).

Avoid carrying or displaying large sums of cash and be a little wary when using and leaving ATM machines. Don’t be paranoid but take a prudent glance around at who might be watching or waiting.

Secure your wallet and handphone from pickpockets, especially in crowds, markets, bars, nightclubs, discos, and the like.

Consider placing reserve credit or debit cards in the hotel safety box with your passport or carry cards in pockets other than where you keep your wallet.

Consider a money belt that you can wear under your clothing or some other secure way of carrying cards or cash.

Avoid walking around by yourself at night in areas other than lighted inner shopping districts unless you have first checked with hotel staff, resident expats, or trusted locals (especially if you have had a drink or two). The local people will tell you whether an area is safe.

Be selective about taxis and other transport. If alone stick to recognized taxi companies or ride-share operators or recommended hire car drivers. Avoid using ‘unofficial’ taxis. The Bluebird group’s taxis are metered and have an excellent reputation. On-line ride hailing operators Gojek (motorcycle taxis), Gocar and Grab provide excellent services at good rates. A recent addition is Maxim. cellphone Apps are in both English and Indonesian and easy-to-use.

Mind your own business – don’t talk too much or too loudly and DON’T get involved under any circumstances in any confrontation or altercation with a local. Be polite, smile (a lot), say thank you and walk away if necessary.

Be careful of strangers who want to take you to venues or places you don’t know for alleged shopping bargains or personal services, especially if the locations are away from the mainstream. Try to avoid taking up such an invitation alone.

If you invite casual company to visit you in your hotel room, be sensibly careful with valuables, phones, and laptops. With casual partners from a recognized service, you are unlikely to experience pilfering. If it does happen, then you may have some recourse to the management. With a ‘freelance’ partner you do not. All you know about her or him is whatever he or she has chosen to tell you.

Dealing with ‘Helpers’ and hawkers

You may be approached and ‘chatted up’ by Indonesian locals. Mostly, they are people simply being friendly or wanting to practice their English, especially young people.

But if you suspect the approach is from someone a little too anxious to ‘help’ you or sell you something you don’t want, then smile, say you are ‘running late,’ excuse yourself, and just move on. Always be polite, courteous, and friendly – never rude or aggressive.

Expect the best from, and befriend the local people you meet, especially those who are providing services for you. Most people are less likely to rob or mislead a friend.

And smile, smile, smile … because smiles work like magic in Indonesia.

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Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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