An Indonesian ferry bearing 250 passengers sank on Sunday. Twenty-two people have been rescued thus far, but, according to the Associated Press, “Indonesians generally don’t know how to swim, and the others on board were feared dead.” Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with more than 50,000 miles of coastline. So why don’t its citizens know how to swim?
Because its primary ethnic group never took to the seas. Though there are thousands of distinct cultural groups in Indonesia, the dominant one—both politically and demographically—is the Javanese. Though the island of Java was, historically, an important stop on trading routes from Europe and India, the Javanese themselves weren’t sailors. Agriculture—primarily rice farming—was far more important, leading to a culture that placed emphasis on the land rather than the sea. The ocean was traditionally seen as a dangerous, foreign place, which meant that swimming never really developed as a recreational practice.
Same goes for the Balinese, who make up the majority of the country’s Hindu population. Indian civilizations historically sprang up along hills and mountains and didn’t place much emphasis on the sea. The Balinese, in turn, consider the sea to be a hazardous place; their most holy location, the mountain Gunung Arung, is located in the interior. This tendency isn’t universal throughout Indonesia, however. The Bugis people of Sulawesi, for example, are famous sailors: The word boogeyman is said to derive from their name, due to their reputation as fierce pirates.
The influence of Islam—which is practiced, in one form or another, by 86 percent of the country’s inhabitants—may also play a role. Muslims are expected to dress modestly in public, which means finding appropriate swimwear can be a problem. This difficulty may discourage some Indonesians from venturing into the water, although there aren’t any specific religious prohibitions against the practice.
Bonus Explainer: Why are Indonesian ferries always sinking? Old ships, overcrowding, and bad weather. Sunday’s accident was only the latest in a string of recent maritime disasters. Hundreds of ferries crisscross Indonesian waters every day, many of them old and less than seaworthy. Though ferries fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transport, Indonesia’s far-flung geography—covering more than 3 million square miles—and lack of financial resources means that some are beyond the reach of government supervision. Ferry operators often overcrowd boats and sail during unsafe conditions. Corrupt harbor masters, who sometimes accept bribes in exchange for sailing permits, make matters worse. Finally, December through February is monsoon season in Indonesia, which means heavy rains, strong winds, and unpredictable currents.
The U.N.’s International Maritime Organization has recently partnered with Interferry, an international ferry association, to address the problem of ferry safety in the developing world. A pilot program has begun in Bangladesh, with plans to expand into Indonesia. In 2008, to address mounting safety concerns, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono increased Indonesia’s transportation budget by almost 65 percent.
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Explainer thanks Gene Ammarell and Witia Listyowulan of Ohio University; Ariel Heryanto of Australian National University; Devdy Risa of the Indonesian embassy in Washington, D.C.; Capt. Hadi Supriyono of the International Maritime Organization; Jeremy Wallach of Bowling Green State University; and E. Arti Wulandari of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Thanks also to reader Phil Gross for asking the question.