Punctuality in Indonesia and the dire consequences of being late
What I like about Indonesia: Flexible over time and no one cares if there are last minute changes.
What I don’t like about Indonesia: Flexible over time and no one cares if there are last minute changes.
One of the most essential elements of Indonesian culture is time and how time is treated. Unfortunately, this could also pose a surprising challenge for many coming from abroad or for those repatriated back to Indonesia. It takes a lot of adaptation and patience or “getting used to” to tolerate this element; it is essentially like learning a new language. Growing up, the phrase “time is money” and “time is of the essence” has been hinted at regularly and being late was simply unacceptable and disrespectful.
In Indonesia, it is not unusual to hear stories and complaints from people who have waited hours for someone to introduce themselves. Whether it’s a business meeting, a doctor for your patients, a job interview, or a chat at a nearby café, you may find yourself waiting for what seems like forever. You may also be familiar with canceling plans at the last minute, or with people modifying the plan as you go, sometimes for no good reason.
Jam Karet and Ngaret
So what is so different? After all, we are still on the same Earth and time is a universal language. Yes, in Indonesia there are still 60 minutes in an hour, and there are 24 hours in a day, and 7 days are still 7 days regardless, but the problems are not in the numbers, but in the perception.
A common saying in Indonesia is “Jam karet”. Jam Karet or ngaret is a popular phrase, an excuse, a claim, an idea and an explanation that is used when someone is late. “Jam Karet” and the literal translation is rubber watch, it implies that the hour or minute hand of the clock can be turned and manipulated so that whenever you arrive it is always correct. But the most important thing is that, like a piece of rubber, it is flexible. Being late has become so prevalent, to the extent that a single term has been created to justify it.
The reality is that not everyone is born equal in Indonesia. You may be late for meetings and appointments simply because you are higher up the chain of command than others. Where you are on the corporate ladder is important, and could give you a leave the meetings free card and no one will challenge you. The meeting begins when the head of government says it begins, whether they are late or not. In some cases, time is not perceived at all. But the chain of command goes beyond the workplace: universities, schools, medical appointments also apply the concept of power distance. Professors can be late for college lectures simply because they are the most important person in the room. Teachers may be absent and no student dares to question or challenge, because it can tarnish their relationship with the teacher.
But power is only one piece of the puzzle. After all, there are times when power is divided equally among everyone, like a group of friends, for example. No friend has more power than the other. This brings another feature to the picture: collectivism.
The collectivist society
Indonesian collectivist society means that the opinion of the group is the most important thing and if everyone in the group is not fazed by people who are late, then that becomes the status quo. Indonesia’s communal and clique communication system dates back to the days of “Kampung” (village), where everyone relied on strength as a group to survive.
Individuals are friendly to the group, hoping that the group will take care of them in return. This is more common in social situations in Indonesia, where judging someone for being late is frowned upon and explicit communication is seen as antagonistic behavior. Thus, keeping quiet when someone is late is a defense mechanism, because sometimes we are the ones who are late or have to cancel at the last minute. Blaming someone, calling them for being late is a quick way to lose friends / popularity in your social circle and could backfire against you. It’s a double-edged dagger that could work to your advantage (you might be the one to make last-minute changes and want others to be lenient), but it can backfire against you, especially if you’re the one who is. waiting. .
We understand these two important concepts and open a door that lets us see how time is perceived.
There are no winners or losers when it comes to delays, because everyone loses and perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about punctuality is that it is a two-way street. It is easy to forget that there is an injured party and when we cancel something at the last minute, we indirectly cause a domino effect. Some people cancel at the last minute or are late, simply because it doesn’t affect them as much personally and therefore it won’t affect others as well, but in reality, it is not the case.
Everything requires a certain degree of organization and sacrifice – organizing a person to meet in one place can be tricky, and if you think about it, we humans have yet to develop a perfect communication system to do this. Not only is it disrespectful to make someone wait minutes sometimes hours, but it also has a ripple effect on their schedule.
The practice of being late causes financial loss or compensation for each individual. Time is a sunk cost that cannot be recovered. When we choose to meet someone, we could have been doing something else, but we sacrifice that opportunity for another opportunity. So all that time waiting for that person to show up, we could have been doing something else more important, like finishing that personal project or finding the cure for the common cold.
From the ideas of “power distance” and “collectivism”, it can be seen that there is a trickle-down effect. The first and foremost is that you are setting a bad example to those below you, and the trickle spreads to all levels of society, not to colleagues in the office. Take, for example, the students, who are young, naive, and looking for an adult to follow in their footsteps, but are disappointed by their teachers. Constant exposure to habitual tardiness and absenteeism sows a dire seed in students’ minds that “it’s okay to be late and not even show up for class.” Do you want proof?
Australian Aid and the Indonesian Ministry of Education conducted a joint investigation into teacher absenteeism in Indonesia in 2014 and found that teachers in local Indonesian schools have some of the highest absenteeism rates. The national rate is 10.7%. Imagine if 11% of your time in school, your school teacher doesn’t even show up at all! In a 200-day school year, this would equal 22 days of absenteeism. Most of us would kill to have a 22 day vacation!
So why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?
The answer to the punctuality question in Indonesia is not binary, it is not a Yes / No. answer. Punctuality comes down to honesty and respect. It’s not illegal to be late for a lunch date or coffee chat in a cafe, but being late robs people, not outright money, but time. We can talk as much as we want about distance from power and collectivism, but that’s never going to change. Nothing we can do will change the way thousands of years of civilization have shaped communities. However, we can begin to change our sense of respect for others.
I recently wrote an article on the use of masks and how anti-maskers think, and in a way, anti-maskers and those who are habitually late share identical traits of ignoring consequences and seeing how “it is not a big thing”. The next time you make an appointment, before you cancel or be late, make sure you always remember who the injured party is and that a simple change can mean the destruction of someone else’s time.