While most of Indonesia’s youth appears to have a worldly outlook, recent surveys show some troubling insights into the minds of a significant minority of the two Indonesian generations who hold the Muslim majority country’s future in their hands.

One poll, carried out by the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), reveals a strong lean towards xenophobia, with 47.8% of millennial respondents believing that foreign companies have a negative impact on Indonesia’s economy.

Another survey published by the Mata Air Foundation and the Alvara Research Center shows 20% of high school and university students, the so-called Generation Z, support the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and in many cases vowed they would fight to defend it.

While 85 million of Indonesia’s 250 million people are aged between 18 and 34, the definition of what constitutes a millennial varies. CSIS puts it in a range of 17 to 29 years. Others define it at 23 to 37, or those simply born in a loose period between 1980 and the early 1990s.

If most of the world’s youth today are perceived to be tolerant and open-minded, WARC, an online marketing intelligence service, found in a well-researched consumer study last year called ‘Demystifying Indonesia’ that younger Indonesians tend to be an exception.

Indonesians share a computer. Counterfeit software is widely available in the country. Photo: Reuters
Indonesian youth viewing a computer screen. Photo: Reuters

The research showed that although Indonesia may seem modern and outward-looking – and is one of the most social media-connected countries in the world — societal change is happening only slowly. Successful brands, for example, often rely on traditional values to sell their products.

The CSIS poll also revealed a perception, shared among 76-77% of millennials and, in this case, non-millennials as well, that foreign workers are detrimental to the economy, apparently in the widely-held belief that they are poaching local jobs.

In fact, Indonesia already has one of the lowest intakes in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), with the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) noting that the 74,100 registered foreign workers constitute just 0.062% of the 120 million-strong work force, compared with Singapore (36%), Malaysia (15.3%) and Thailand (4.5%).

Strangely, 84% of millennials thought the Asean Economic Community was good for the economy, unaware it promotes the free movement of skilled labor across regional borders, initially in the engineering, medical and tourist sectors where there is stiff opposition from Indonesia’s professional organizations.

The current number of foreign workers is higher than the 45,300 Bank Indonesia recorded in a 2009 report, despite a dramatic shrinkage among those employed in the oil and gas and financial sectors due to economic nationalist policies and tougher labor regulations.

But a substantial part of the increase is due to a recent huge influx of Chinese workers, many of them engaged in menial jobs on new Chinese-funded industrial and infrastructure projects, who make up about a third of the total number.

Indonesian Muslims watch a woman dressed up in traditional Chinese costume during the Lunar New Year celebrations in Malang, eastern Java island, on January 28, 2017, in the most populous Muslim country. The Lunar New Year will mark the start of the Year of the Rooster on January 28. / AFP PHOTO / AMAN ROCHMAN
Indonesian Muslims watch a woman dressed up in traditional Chinese costume during the Lunar New Year celebrations in Malang, eastern Java island, January 28, 2017, Photo: AFP/Aman Rochman

According to the Manpower Ministry, there are now more than 21,000 Chinese working in Indonesia, followed by Japanese (10,000), South Koreans (7,600), Indians (4,650), Malaysians (3,700) and Americans (2,400).

Although BKPM figures show foreign direct investment (FDI) created 975,000 new job opportunities in 2016, labor officials and other like-minded bureaucrats seem to feel that increasing amounts of foreign capital should not necessarily mean a commensurate boost in the number of foreign workers.

It is one of the many puzzling contradictions in President Joko Widodo’s avowed search for more FDI to re-build the manufacturing sector, which in providing jobs and improving export earnings holds the key to Indonesia growing beyond its current 5% level.

The economy expanded by a slower-than-expected 5.06% in the third quarter this year, largely the result of sluggish domestic spending, leaving projected growth for the year at 5.03%, significantly short of the 5.2% set down in the revised 2018 national budget.

The Mata Air Institute-Alvara Research Center survey also revealed a disturbing vein of anti-foreign sentiment, this time stemming from a broader trend of intolerance towards religious and ethnic minorities that has already done considerable damage to Indonesia’s image abroad in recent years.

Moreover, 82% of the 4,200 student respondents from across the ethnically-diverse archipelago disapproved of interfaith marriages, while 90.6% found Indonesia’s large lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community morally offensive.

The Setara Institute, a social research outfit, noted in a preliminary study carried out in Bogor and Depok, two of Jakarta’s more conservative suburbs, that messages of intolerance and radicalism are mostly disseminated through community mosques and Islamic study circles on college campuses.

High school students in Sumatra celebrate the end of national exams before heading to university. Photo: Roni Bintang, Reuters
High school students in Sumatra celebrate the end of national exams before heading to university. Photo: Reuters

“This finding should alarm society, especially government and moderate Islamic organizations to take tangible steps in religious teachings that match the trends among today’s youth,” it said.

Setara found that radical narratives emphasized anti-Western concepts and notions of Muslim inferiority and hatred towards “enemies of Islam,” a message that in many cases was also being disseminated by mothers who had become primary recruitment targets.

It is noteworthy that 70% of the nearly 700 Indonesians who travelled to Syria and Iraq over the past three years to join the Islamic State (IS) were young wives and children, including some women who had been responsible for radicalizing their husbands.

As reflected in a recent Jakarta Post editorial, there are serious concerns all this could turn into full-blown racism if millennials and Generation Z continue to be exposed to ideas and propaganda that promote suspicion of people of different nationalities and backgrounds.

The Indonesian public is already easily led, the consequence of an education system that fails to encourage students to think independently.

But millennials now comprise a significant demographic force in any election and, facilitated by a vibrant social media, could conceivably spring a surprise of Brexit-like proportions at the 2019 polls that would have a profound impact on the future of secular Indonesia.