Debt, as a concept, appeared early in Island Southeast Asia. The common term in Indonesian languages for debt — utang/hutang or a close variant — has been traced back to Proto-Austronesian (Wurm and Wilson 1975, p. 53). Local customs for dealing with certain types of indebtedness must be equally venerable. By the time of European contact, these customs, mixed with borrowings from the major legal traditions of South Asia and the Middle East, had long been codified into law.
Although the law codes of much of western Indonesia and the Malay peninsula had been adjusted by the sixteenth or seventeenth century to accommodate Islamic legal traditions, certain law codes that survived in Bali (Pigeaud 1967, pp. 307–08) were said to have been based upon the law codes of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century state of Majapahit in Java, which were, in turn, modelled in part upon Indian law codes. These Javanese-Balinese texts may thus provide considerable insight into the law relating to debt, credit, and debt bondage in parts of maritime Southeast Asia during the pre-Islamic period. Since, however, these codes survive only in later copies, their contents must be tested against earlier sources.
A few such sources have survived. The contents of a number of inscriptions written from the ninth century onwards, found across a region stretching from western Indonesia to the northern Philippines, indicate not only that local custom relating to debt had been codified into law, but also that those early states from which written records have survived shared a very similar legal culture. In part, this uniformity of legal framework was due to the fact that early codified law in the region was influenced, at least in theory, by the law codes of India. But the detailed regulations relating to debt and its consequences in early Island Southeast Asia also appear to have drawn heavily upon local customary law.