Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Crime and criminality

Crime and criminality

Ian Wilson

   Members of a Jakarta gang enjoy a ‘dangdut’ music performance
   Ian Wilson

In popular parlance in Indonesia, ‘criminality’ refers not only to illegal practices and breaches of the law, but also to politically and socially charged categories used to describe behaviour and people. Questions of how and by whom these categories are constructed, enforced, experienced and transgressed lie at the heart of this edition of Inside Indonesia. The relationship between crime and power in Indonesia has been long and intimate. In particular, many people perceived Suharto’s New Order regime to be a criminal regime because it institutionalised corruption, nepotism and the use of extra-legal violence. These practices normalised patterns of state-sanctioned illegality which, as contributors to this edition show, continue into the present.

Perhaps no figure is associated more closely with the intersection of criminality and authority in Indonesia than the preman, the ubiquitous street thug or gangster. The politics and culture of the preman is the subject of two articles in this edition.

In my own article , I recount the story of the rise and fall of a Jakarta preman. His account suggests that preman violence is perceived by many of Jakarta’s disenfranchised and unemployed youth as one of a limited number of ‘livelihoods’ available to them. Okamoto Masaaki examines the ‘unholy alliance’ that has formed in Banten, West Java between the Islamist PKS political party and ‘jawara’ martial arts strongmen. Born of an almost cynical pragmatism, the article suggests it is a marriage of convenience common to post-New Order politics: the jawara make compromises in order to gain formal political power, while political parties make use of the jawara’s coercive informal power to build their street muscle.

Power holders have used the social category ‘criminal’ to stigmatise particular groups and individuals. There is no more telling example of this than the so-called ‘Mysterious Shootings’ of the 1980s when state officials brutally murdered thousands of petty criminals, identified by their tattoos. Reflecting upon this dark history, Helmi Haska from Marjinal, a Jakarta punk collective, describes how people with tattoos still face stigma and challenges in gaining acceptance by mainstream society.

John MacDougall gives us a rare glimpse inside Cipinang, one of Indonesia’s most infamous prisons. Detailing the complex political economy of drug use and distribution in prison, his article provokes deeper questions regarding both the purpose and social costs of incarceration when it exposes prisoners to the very thing for which they have been incarcerated.

‘Criminal culture’ is of course not the sole preserve of street thugs, tattooed punks and prisoners. Articles by Luky Djani and Jacqui Baker highlight the ongoing tensions within state institutions between their responsibility to uphold law and the temptation to abuse it for personal gain.

Charges of corruption and nepotism were at the forefront of critiques of Suharto’s New Order. But how much has changed in 10 years? Examining the anti-corruption campaigns of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government, Luky Djani argues that despite high profile prosecutions and institutional reform, the deep-rooted culture of corruption in the government bureaucracy and administration remains strong. Since its separation from the armed forces in 1998, the police have become the main institution responsible for law enforcement. However as Jacqui Baker shows, this institutional independence has come with significant baggage in the form of a troubled relationship with the ‘older sibling’ of the police: the military. This has resulted in violent turf wars as two of the main law and order institutions struggle to control resources and illegal rents in a style not far divorced from that of preman gangs.    

Taken together, the articles in this edition of Inside Indonesia suggest that Indonesia still has significant hurdles to overcome before the impartial rule of law and equitable social justice prevail.     ii

Ian Wilson ( is a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University

Inside Indonesia 93: Aug-Oct 2008

Latest Articles

Feminists and LGBT


Can they work together? Religious objections make it hard

Concerts for cash

Oct 27, 2023 - MICHAEL H. B. RADITYA

Indonesia has a plan to boost the economy through large-scale arts, cultural and sporting events, but are they ready?

Healing the nation? Part 2

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Healing the nation? Part 1

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.