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Speak Like a Native With These 30 Indonesian Proverbs

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Proverbs are popular sayings that provide a little dose of wisdom, a truth that is sometimes so obvious we overlook it. 

Can you think of a proverb in your native language that touched you at an important moment of your life?

Indonesians are actually famous for using a lot of slang words and proverbs in their daily lives. If you want to sound like a local, you’d better learn some Indonesian proverbs yourself! Doing so is a great way to let your language skills shine and familiarize yourself with Indonesian culture.

Balinese Rice Fields

As they say, “There is no time like the present.” Learn the thirty most popular Indonesian proverbs and you’ll be sure to leave a good impression!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Indonesian Table of Contents
  1. The Top 30 Indonesian Proverbs
  2. Conclusion

1. The Top 30 Indonesian Proverbs

1. Nasi sudah menjadi bubur.

Literal translation: The rice has become porridge.

Meaning: This is basically like Lady Macbeth’s, “What’s done, is done.” And no, it cannot be undone!

2. Ada udang di balik batu.

Literal translation: There is a prawn hiding behind the rock.

Meaning: This saying is often used to express the idea that there’s a hidden agenda or intention (usually negative) behind someone’s actions. 

3. Rumput tetangga selalu lebih hijau.

Literal translation: The neighbor’s grass is always greener than ours.

English equivalent: The grass is always greener on the other side.

Meaning: This proverb is a classic, and it exists in many different languages and cultures. Apparently, it’s an intrinsically human behavior to think that others are always in a better position than oneself.

4. Sambil menyelam minum air.

Literal translation: Drinking water while diving.

Meaning: So, in Indonesia, it’s not just about drinking (water, of course!) while diving. This expression refers to multitasking in general, managing to accomplish more than one thing at a time.

A Man Multi-tasking

5. Bertepuk sebelah tangan.

Literal translation: To clap with only one hand.

Meaning: This means that there is no reciprocity in a given situation. Imagine if one hand wanted to clap, but the other was not interested! It’s most often used when referring to romantic situations where the love is one-sided, or in business when only one party is interested in striking a deal.

6. Seperti/bagai telur di ujung tanduk.

Literal translation: Like an egg on the tip of a horn

Meaning: I mean, imagine an egg on the tip of a horn…doesn’t sound ideal, does it? And this is exactly what this saying describes: a dangerous, tense, critical situation.

7. Otak di dengkul.

Literal translation: Brain on the knees

English equivalent: Not the sharpest tool in the shed

Meaning: Though this one means the same thing as the English equivalent, Indonesians prefer to be a bit more straightforward. If you’re not the smartest, they’ll say you have your brain on your knees. Not much use for it there…

8. Tong kosong nyaring bunyinya.

Literal translation: The empty can sounds the loudest.

Meaning: This refers to people who don’t have much knowledge (or wit!). Their head is like an empty can. And it’s usually these people who speak the loudest (both literally and metaphorically!). 

9. Anjing menggonggong, kafilah berlalu.

Literal translation: The dog barks but the caravan goes on.

Meaning: Life goes on even if some people try to stop progress.

10. Sepandai-pandai tupai melompat, akhirnya jatuh juga.

Literal translation: No matter how high a squirrel jumps, it will eventually fall.

Meaning: The poor squirrels actually have nothing to worry about here. This proverb is most often used to describe criminals (or at least very sneaky people) who, eventually, will always be caught!

A Squirrel in the Grass

11. Sudah jatuh tertimpa tangga.

Literal translation: To fall and be struck by a ladder

English equivalent: When it rains, it pours. 

Meaning: Not only did you fall down the ladder, but then the ladder fell on you—and who knows what else might happen next! This idiom describes those situations where various misfortunes all arrive at the same time, or directly follow each other. 

12. Besar pasak daripada tiang.

Literal translation: The peg is bigger than the pole.

Meaning: This saying is often used to describe a person who is spending more than he/she earns. If the peg is bigger than the pole, you won’t be able to build a very good shelter, will you? This saying reflects the culture, as many Indonesians would rather live humbly than borrow money.

13. Ada asap ada api.

Literal translation: If there is smoke, there must be fire.

English equivalent: Every why has its wherefore.

Meaning: Well, this can mean two things. Pretty obviously, there cannot be an effect without some cause. The second meaning is: If there is a rumor, it must have some foundation in truth!

14. Tak ada gading yang tak retak.

Literal translation: Every ivory has its cracks.

Meaning: Nothing’s perfect, as even the finest ivory has cracks!

15. Dikasih/diberi hati, minta jantung.

Literal translation: You give them the liver, but they still ask for the heart.

English equivalent: You give him an inch and he will take a yard.

Meaning: This refers to a situation in which someone is taking advantage of someone else’s generosity. 

16. Air tenang menghanyutkan.

Literal translation: Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water runs calm. 

English equivalent: Still waters run deep.

Meaning: Like its English equivalent, this proverb means that a calm exterior probably hides a passionate nature, and that silent people can actually possess a lot of knowledge and be very intelligent.

A Crocodile against a White Background

17. Seperti kacang lupa kulitnya.

Literal translation: Just like the peanut forgets its shell

English equivalent: To bite the hand that feeds you

Meaning: The Indonesian version is not quite as aggressive as the English one, but both refer to someone who is being ungrateful. It can be used when someone who’s become successful forgets about his origins, his family, and his friends.

18. Berakit-rakit ke hulu, berenang-renang ke tepian.
Bersakit-sakit dahulu, bersenang-senang kemudian.

Literal translation: Rafting to the headwaters, swimming to the riversides. It is painful at first, but victorious in the end. 

English equivalent: No pain, no gain.

Meaning: We all know what this means… In order to achieve something, suffering is necessary!

19. Buah jatuh tidak jauh dari pohonnya.

Literal translation: The fruit falls near the tree.

English equivalent: Like father, like son. 

Meaning: This saying is used when a son’s or daughter’s behavior or nature resembles that of their parents.

20. Pikir dahulu pendapatan, sesal kemudian tiada berguna.

Literal translation: Think first your idea, for later regrets are useless.

English equivalent: Look before you leap.

Meaning: Don’t act until after you’ve thought about the possible consequences and dangers of your actions. 

21. Lebih baik satu burung di tangan daripada sepuluh burung di pohon.

Literal translation: Better one bird on hand than ten birds on a tree.

English equivalent: One bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Meaning: It’s better to hold on to something you’ve already secured, rather than taking the risk to get something better that is not guaranteed.

22. Sekali merengkuh dayung, dua tiga pulau terlampaui.

Literal translation: One stroke at the paddle, two and three islands have passed.

English equivalent: Killing two birds with one stone

Meaning: This saying is used when you’re able to accomplish two different things at the same time, or solve two problems with a single effort.

Someone Rowing in Still Waters in Indonesia

23. Tak ada rotan akar pun jadi.

Literal translation: If there is no cane, use the root instead.

English equivalent: Better than a stick in the eye

Meaning: You don’t have exactly what you need? Well, just use what you’ve got. It’ll be better than nothing.

24. Harimau mati karena belangnya.

Literal translation: Tigers die because of their stripes.

Meaning: Those who tend to show off their wealth or superiority will attract not only attention, but also adversity—just as tigers attract attention and are killed because of their stripes. 

A Tiger Sunbathing on a Big Rock

25. Mulutmu harimaumu.

Literal translation: Your mouth is your tiger.

Meaning: Speak carefully, because words are a reflection of yourself.

26. Di mana ada kemauan, di situ ada jalan.

Literal translation: Where there is a will, there is a path.

English equivalent: Where there is a will, there is a way. 

Meaning: Determination will overcome obstacles. If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way!

27. Bagai air di daun talas.

Literal translation: As the water is on the taro leaf

Meaning: Water on a taro leaf slips away in a moment. This saying describes a volatile, flaky person who can’t be trusted.

28. Bagai pinang dibelah dua.

Literal translation: Like a betel nut split in half

English equivalent: Like two peas in a pod

Meaning: Identical; very similar.

29. Bagai pungguk merindukan bulan.

Literal translation: Like an owl yearning for the moon.

Meaning: To wish for something impossible or unreachable. 

30. Karena nila setitik, rusak susu sebelanga.

Literal translation: With only a drop of indigo, the whole pot of milk is ruined.

Meaning: Be careful, because even a small mistake can ruin an otherwise perfect work.

2. Conclusion

“All good things must come to an end…”

But it’s not really the end, is it? There’s so much more to learn about the Indonesian language! 

As they say, “Practice makes perfect!” So continue practicing your Indonesian skills on IndonesianPod101.com. With all the features we offer (audio podcasts, videos with transcriptions, word lists, a dictionary, and more), you’ll pick up this beautiful and interesting language in no time. 

And remember: Your mouth is your tiger, so learning to speak like a local is going to pay off big time!

Which of the Indonesian-language proverbs from this list is your favorite, and why? Let us know in the comments! 

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