Bapakism (Indonesia)

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Bapakism 🇮🇩
Indonesia map.png
Location: Indonesia
Definition: Javanese culture of patriarchy; refers to being the head of a family and /or head of a formal or informal organisation
Keywords: Indonesia Southeast Asia Patriarchy Gender Leadership
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Conformity Lock-in effect Kinship lock-in
Author: Dodi W. Irawanto
Affiliation: Department of Economics and Business, University of Brawijaya Malang, Indonesia
Website: Profile page at UBM

By Dodi W. Irawanto, Department of Economics and Business, University of Brawijaya Malang, Indonesia

Bapak, which literally means ‘father’, is a term used to denote the patriarchal role of men in every aspect of life. Bapakism was particularly prevalent under President Suharto’s regime, a 32-year period of dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997. Suharto was known as the ‘Father of (National) Development’ (Bapak Pembangunan) in Indonesia. He introduced several Javanese principles into national life, and in so doing influenced both formal and informal practices in Indonesian society (Vickers 2005[1]).

Historically, the term bapakism refers to a patriarchy in which society respected its elders and their opinions, pronouncements and decisions. Being a bapak can mean not only being the father of a family, but also the head of a formal or informal organisation, and the mentality of bapakism informs all aspects of life from the social, political and cultural to religious relationships. Indonesia comprises a number of ethnicities (more than 300 ethnicities are documented in literature), but Bapakism is derived from Javanese culture in particular. Javanese is one of the largest ethnicities, and over time its traditions have significantly influenced the behaviours of the people in Indonesia. Koentjaraningrat (1985[2]) notes that being a leader in the Javanese culture system means being concerned with kekeluargaan (familyism) which Irawanto, et al. (2012[3]) confirms is a crucial part of a bapak’s identity.

The role of a bapak specifically demands obedience, in particular from those of lower status – defined by being younger in age, junior in work status, or culturally ascribed as having lower status in formal relationships. In formal contexts, bapakism requires both obedience and flattery from subordinates, which is reflected in all aspects of bureaucratic relationships. Ideally, a bapak is the person who is considered to be the most knowledgeable and therefore has legitimacy. However, it is not uncommon for bapaks to make unwise decisions because of the informal social rules governing expectations and obligations to which subordinates are forced to comply. The prescribed relationship prevents subordinates from advising against or remedying poor decisions made by their bapak. It is forbidden in Javanese culture to question a bapak’s decision under any circumstances. The reality is that the cultural norms of bapakism mean that subordinates are inclined to speak only in ways that will please the bapak, even to the extent of withholding the truth. Being a bapak also demands the display of a paternalistic leadership style (Irawanto et al, 2013[4]) which includes demonstrating authoritarian acts to display knowledge and in order to be seen as a credible leader. This kind of relationship is defined by concepts of hierarchy and demand. In the public sector, at this present time this hierarchal structure can still be readily identified with regard to the civil servants who hold high positions and thus for example are obliged to respect the city major’s decisions because the city mayoral position has political status. Often decisions taken at local level are out of line with government planning, but due to the respect demanded by the bapak – whatever the consequences- the civil servants comply. This behaviour is also found in relations between civil servants and business, and commonly this practice leads to collusion and nepotism for personal fulfilment (Pye 1999[5]).

In Indonesia, being in a position of authority automatically imbues the holder with power, and because the bapakism culture is so embedded, it becomes inevitable that even well intentioned power holders take on the behaviours attributed to a bapak (Lubis 2001[6]). As a consequence, during the dictatorship of President Suharto (who described himself as a Javanese King), all participants in the government were obliged to obey the President at all times and in all situations. This frequently led to behaviour termed ‘asal bapak senang’, which literally means ‘as long as the father is happy’, and influenced every aspect of life from the political to the business sector. In a region where Javanese customs of life, moral deeds and etiquette are still practiced, for example in reporting the completion of assignment, the subordinates in order to show high respect to the leader only report the good (Vickers 2005[7]).

Bapakism has been described as ‘loyalty to a hierarchical structure of authority.’ (Koentjaraningrat 1985[8]) In a working environment, such cultural norms are at their worst when they result in blind submission to the higher authority and present as a lack of concern about work performance, standards, or initiative. Javanese culture strives for a system that encourages harmony, trust and deference and one which motivates the subordinate to work diligently to obtain the superior’s goals. Here the word ‘diligently’ is not equated with achieving high standards, as the main aim is to keep the bapak happy and complete the task as given by the bapak.

In a culture in which loyalty to a hierarchical structure of authority is highly valued, followers have a tendency to try to please their superiors, regardless of the fact that they frequently have no precise idea of what their superiors want (Caraka 1988[9]). They remain untroubled by this as the cultural norm leads them to believe that their superiors have divinely-inspired knowledge and abilities. Those in a position of superiority in this culture are able to control others thanks to the requirement for respect demanded of their position in the hierarchy of the organisation and, more generally, in their positions in society, regardless of their sophistication, actual competence, or technical ability. Complaints about superiors simply don’t occur because of the belief that such action would result in semi-divine retribution. The cultural norm demands that the superior with their position and knowledge is always right. Subordinates rarely lose respect for, or argue with a superior if they make a mistake; and equally, the superior remains indifferent, as the ultimate goal is concern with his own status and the deference paid to him.

In contemporary society the application of bapakism is becoming less common. National reforms starting in 1997 were the catalyst for moving from an authoritarian regime towards democracy. The political movement is progressively leading to greater transparency in all aspects of formal life. People are increasingly basing their decisions on reason, and as reforms start to influence all aspects of national life, there is a growing awareness that conforming to bapakism means extending the application of unhealthy collusion and nepotism to daily life and realising that at its worst it may lead to corruption.

Since the start of the reforming era, corruption in Indonesia has been known by the acronym KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism). The legacy of 32 years of the Soeharto dictatorship left practices of the bapakism culture rooted mostly in the civil service. However, the new era has been marked by the establisment of many corruption watch organisations who take part in national development and have helped bring about an era of greater transparency (Hamilton-Hart 2001[10]). As a consequence, in contemporary society bapakism tends increasingly to be restricted to being used only when showing respect to the elders of organisations.


  1. Vickers, A., 2005. Public debates about history: comparative notes from Indonesia. History Australia, 2(2): 44-1.
  2. Koentjaraningrat. 1985. Javanese culture. Issued under the auspices of the Southeast Asian Studies Program, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Oxford University Press.
  3. Irawanto, D.W., Ramsey, P.L. and Tweed, D.C., 2012. Exploring paternalistic leadership and its application to the Indonesian public sector. International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, 8(1): 4-20.
  4. Irawanto, D.W., Ramsey, P.L. and Tweed, D.M., 2013. The Paternalistic Relationship: Authenticity and credibility as a source of healthy relationships. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 6(1): 5.
  5. Pye, L.W. 1999. Civility, social capital, and civil society: Three powerful concepts for explaining Asia. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29(4): 763-782.
  6. Lubis, M. 2001. Manusia Indonesia: sebuah pertanggungjawaban. Obor Indonesia: Yayasan.
  7. Vickers, A., 2005. Public debates about history: comparative notes from Indonesia. History Australia, 2(2): 44-1.
  8. Koentjaraningrat. 1985. Javanese culture. Issued under the auspices of the Southeast Asian Studies Program, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Oxford University Press.
  9. Caraka, C.L. 1988 Ensiklopedi populer politik pembangunan Pancasila. Jakarta, Indonesia. Yayasan Cipta Loka Caraka.
  10. Hamilton-Hart, N. 2001. Anti-corruption strategies in Indonesia. Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, 37(1): 65-82.

Further Reading

  1. Antlöv, H., & Cederroth, S. 2004. Elections in Indonesia: The New Order and Beyond (Democracy in Asia). United States:RoutledgeCurzon.
  2. Santoso, P. B. 1993. Birokrasi pemerintah Orde Baru: perspektif kultural dan struktural. Jakarta, Indonesia: RajaGrafindo Persada.
  3. Shiraishi, S. 1997. Young heroes: The Indonesian family in politics (Vol. 22). SEAP Publications. Cornell University
  4. Stevens, A. M. 2004. A comprehensive Indonesian-English dictionary. Jakarta, Indonesia. PT Mizan Publika.