What’s With Indonesian Names?

The president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, is expected to be forced from office and replaced with the vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of famed leader Sukarno. In their coverage of events, the New York Times and the Washington Post refer to the president on second reference as Wahid (or Mr. Wahid in the case of the Times), the vice president as Megawati (or Mrs. Megawati). In the case of Sukarno, the papers call him Sukarno exclusively. Why the different naming styles?

Indonesians do not generally use Western naming practices of a given first name and a family last name. The president, Abdurrahman Wahid, is Muslim and as part of that tradition received two names. Abdurrahman is the name given to him by his family, and Wahid is his father’s given name. Thus he is Abdurrahman, son of Wahid. So while Wahid is technically not his last name, many Westerners, and some Indonesians, use it, primarily because it is the simpler of the two. The Jakarta Post, an English-language newspaper, on second reference calls the president Abdurrahman. He is also often referred to by the nickname Gus Dur, Gus being a type of honorific and Dur being short for you-know-what.  

In the case of the vice president, while she is nominally Muslim, she comes from a Javanese tradition in which people are generally given one name. Her father Sukarno had only one name, as did his successor, Suharto. But the Javanese sometimes also give their children an additional name referring to the father, which was Sukarno’s choice. So all his children got a given name and his name as well, with the addition of “putri” for girls and “putra” for boys. So Megawati Sukarnoputri means Megawati, daughter of Sukarno. The Jakarta Post refers to her on second reference as Megawati (and they spell her second name Soekarnoputri).

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Explainer thanks William Liddle ofOhioStateUniversity and Kathy Park ofthe New York Times.