What Does it Mean to be “Western” in the Netherlands? [Updated]

Some time ago I wrote about the curious case of Japanese colonial subjects in the Dutch East Indies. The interesting observation is that

After concluding a Treaty of Trade and Navigation in 1896, the Netherlands and Japan recognised each other as most favoured nations, and subsequently the Tokyo government pressed the Dutch to accord its migrants in their colonies the same legal status as Europeans. In 1899, Japanese citizens in the Indies acquired European status…

Today I learned two more interesting facts about the regulation of identity in the Netherlands today, and how the Netherlands government conceptualize what it means to be from the West.

First, when the Netherlands government conceptualizes migrants as being from the West or not, it continues to follow the precedent set in the Indies back at the turn of the last century.

Due to their socioeconomic and cultural position, people from Indonesia and Japan residing in the Netherlands are considered as having a ‘western’ migration background. These are mainly people born in the former Dutch East Indies and expatriates employed by Japanese companies with their families.

Not only does the Netherlands government maintain the idea that Japanese are “not like” other non-Europeans, it also applies that standard to anyone from Indonesia. It is somehow meaningful that this principle of “the former colonial subject is Western, like us” does not apply to, say, Suriname, although I’ll leave it to a specialist on Netherlands politics to explain how that has come to be and what it means.

Second, what it means to be a cultural minority in the Netherlands:

Student from a cultural minority defined by the Dutch Ministry of Education as someone meeting one of the following criteria:

  • belongs to a Moluccan group;
  • at least one parent or guardian originally comes from Greece, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Cape Verde, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia or Turkey
  • at least one parent or guardian originally comes from Suriname, Aruba or the Netherlands Antilles;
  • at least one parent or guardian originally comes from another non-English speaking country outside Europe, except Indonesia
  • at least one parent or guardian was admitted as a foreigner under article 15 of the Aliens Act.

Here we see a bunch of knotty problems in distinguishing among former colonial subjects. Someone from the Moluccas (Maluku) is from a cultural minority background, but not someone from elsewhere in what is today Indonesia, like someone from Java. Unless that Javanese person went to Suriname first after slavery was abolished there, in which case that person would be from a cultural minority background.

In the Netherlands, as in elsewhere, we learn a lot about politics and society from the categories that we use to regulate identity.


Another day, another thing learned. There are plenty other ways that peoplehood and citizenship are regulated in the Netherlands (and, of course, elsewhere too, but the Netherlands example is the one that fascinates this Indonesianist). Take, for example, the requirements for obtaining a temporary residence permit to live in the Netherlands. Many migrants have to take a Basic Civic Integration Exam. But not all of them!

You do not have to take the exam in one of the following situations:

  • You are under 18 or you have reached your AOW pension age. The AOW pension age differs per person.
  • You have a valid residence permit and you want to change the purpose of stay.
  • You have lived in the Netherlands for at least 8 years during the compulsory school age.
  • You have the nationality of an EU/EEA country, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland, United States of America, Vatican City.
  • You have the status of a long-term resident EC in another EU country.
  • You have the Turkish nationality or you are a family member of a Turkish national that has lawful stay in the Netherlands…
  • You have the Surinamese nationality and have at least finished primary school in the Dutch language in Surinam or the Netherlands…

Whereas the examples above show that Indonesians are viewed as having a Western background rather than a non-Western one, when it comes to civic integration, Indonesians are treated like other non-Western migrants—but Surinamese who are educated in Dutch are not!

There is a fascinating book to be written on the politics of citizenship in the Netherlands and Indonesia. The mutual co-constitution of Dutch and Indonesian ideas of citizenship, from the colonial period through today.

Comment 1

  1. Ferdinand van Dieten July 2, 2019

    The difference between “immigrants” from Indonesia and from Suriname and the Antilles is quiet simple: From Indonesia came the mixed-dutch people and other persons who were considered collaborators by the Indonesians. They were expelled from the new Republic Indonesia, where they were seen as Dutch and many of them considered themselves as Dutch (although in the Netherlands they were not accepted as real Dutch). Also many of them considered the colonial time as better than the independency. So the “Indo’s” were no way a challenge to the Dutch white supremacy, This latter and only this is the criterium for being a “cultural minority”.
    From Suriname and the Antilles came voluntary immigrants, who had much less assimilation as an ideal, and many had a negative view of colonialism.
    Typically the “hindoustani” are less seen as “cultural minority” than the Black people from Suriname. in hindoustani circles you hear less critiques of colonialism, that makes them less a “cultural minority”.

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