Punctuality in Indonesia and the dire consequences of being late

Posted on 7 April, 2021

By: Fahry Slatter – AIYA National Blog Editor

Translated by: Gabriella Pasya – AIYA National Translator

Graphic Design by: Dinda Rialita – AIYA Graphic Design Officer, oversight by Vania Djunaidi – AIYA Communications Coordinator

Bahasa Indonesia version, click here.

What I like about Indonesia: Flexible with time and nobody minds if there are changes in the last minute.

What I dislike about Indonesia: Flexible with time and nobody minds if there are changes in the last minute.

One of the most quintessential elements of Indonesian culture is time and how time is treated. Unfortunately, this could also come as a surprising challenge for many who come from abroad or those who repatriate 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 regularly pushed unto me and being tardy was simply unacceptable and disrespectful.

In Indonesia, it is not unusual to hear stories and complaints of people who have waited hours for someone to show up. Let that be a business meeting, a doctor for his patients, job interview or a chat at a nearby cafe, you may find yourself waiting for what seems like forever. You might also be familiar with cancelling plans at the last minute, or people who alter the plan as it goes – sometimes for no good reason.

Jam Karet & 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 is still 7 days regardless, but the issues aren’t in the numbers, but in 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 used when someone is late. “Jam Karet” and the literal translation is Rubber clock, implies that the hour or minute hand on the clock can be twisted and manipulated so anytime you arrive is always correct. But what is most important is that much like a piece of rubber, it is flexible. Being late has become so prevalent, to the extent that a unique term has been created to justify it.

Power Distance

The reality is, not everyone is born equal in Indonesia. You can show up late to meetings and appointments, simply because you’re at a higher position in the chain of command than everyone else. Where you are in the corporate ladder matters, and it could give you a get out of meetings free card and no one will challenge you. The meeting starts when the head honcho says it starts, whether they are late or not. In some instances, time isn’t perceived at all. But chain of command goes beyond the workplace: universities, schools, doctor appointments also apply the concept of power distance. Professors can show up late to university lectures, simply  because they are the most important person in the room. Teachers can be absent, and no student dares to question or challenge, because it may tarnish their relationship with the teacher. 

But power is only one piece of the puzzle. After all, there are times where power is equally split between everyone, like a group of friends for example. No friend has more power than the other. This brings another trait into the picture: collectivism. 

The collectivist society

Indonesia’s collectivist society means that the opinion of the group matters most and if everyone in the group is unfazed by people coming late, then that becomes the status quo. Indonesia’s communal, cliquey communication system can be traced back to the “Kampung” days, where everyone relied on strength as a group in order to survive

Individuals are friendly to the group, in hopes that the group will take care of them in exchange. This is most common in social situations in Indonesia, where judging someone for being late is frowned upon, and explicit communication is seen as antagonistic behaviour. Thus, remaining 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 out for being late is a quick way to lose friends/popularity amongst your social circle and could backfire heavily against you. It’s a double edged dagger that could work in your favour (you might be the one who has to make changes in the last minute and want others to be forgiving), but can heavily backfire against you, especially if you are the one who is waiting. 

Understand these two important concepts and we open up a door that lets us see how time is perceived.

There are no winners or losers when it comes to tardiness – 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 arrive late, simply because it does not affect them personally that much, and therefore it will not 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 at a single location can be tricky, and if you think about it, us humans have yet to  develop a perfect communication system to do this. It is not only disrespectful to keep someone waiting for minutes sometimes hours, but it also has a domino effect on their schedule. 

The practice of being late causes an economic loss or a tradeoff in each individual. Time is a sunk cost that cannot be retrieved back. 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 up 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 it is setting a bad example for those below you – and the trickle extends at all levels of society, not colleagues at the office. Take for example, students – who are young, naive and are looking for an adult to follow in their footsteps, but are let down by their teachers. Constant exposure to habitual lateness and absenteeism plants a nefarious seed inside the mind of students that “it is okay to be late and not even show up to class”. Want proof?

Australian Aid and the Indonesian Ministry of Education conducted a joint research on teacher absenteeism in Indonesia in 2014 and found that teachers in local Indonesian schools have some of the highest rates of absenteeism. The national rate being 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 equate to 22 days of absenteeism  – Most of us would kill to have a 22 day holiday!

So, why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?

The answer to the question of punctuality in Indonesia isn’t binary – it’s not a Yes/No type answer. Punctuality all boils down to sincerity and respect. It’s not illegal to show up late to a lunch date, or a coffee chat in a cafe, but tardiness robs people – not of money directly – but time. We can have as much talk about power distance and collectivism as much as we’d like, but that’s never going to change. Nothing we can do will ever change how thousands of years of civilization has shaped communities. We can however, start changing our sense of respect towards others.

I wrote an article recently about mask wearing, and how anti-maskers think, and in a way, anti-maskers and habitual late comers share identical traits of being both ignorant of the consequences and seeing as “it’s not a big deal”.  Next time you make an appointment, before cancelling or showing up late, make sure that you always remember who the injured party is and that a simple change, can mean destruction for another person’s time.