Indonesian Punctuality and the Cost of Being Late

One of the things I appreciate most about Indonesia is how accommodating the people are when it comes to scheduling and last-minute changes.

My pet peeve with Indonesia: Its lax attitude toward deadlines and willingness to accept last-minute alterations.

In Indonesia, time and the way it is viewed are two of the most fundamental aspects of the culture. Sadly, this may also be a surprise for many foreigners or Indonesians who return home from abroad. Tolerating this element requires a great deal of patience and adaptability, like learning a new language. As a child, I was constantly reminded that “time is money” and “time is of the essence,” and that being late was an act of disrespect.

The stories and complaints of people who have waited for hours for someone to arrive are common in Indonesia. Even if it’s a business meeting, doctor’s appointment or job interview, you might find yourself stuck in a long line. People who change plans midstream, sometimes for no apparent reason, are another common occurrence.

Bands Jam Karet and Ngaret

So what makes this one unique? It’s not like we don’t all live on the same planet, or that time is universally understood. No matter how many minutes, hours, or days there may be, there are always 60 in a single hour and 24 in a single day in Indonesia. The problem isn’t a lack of numbers; it’s a lack of understanding.
In Indonesia, “Jam karet” is a common expression. One of the most common excuses for tardiness is the phrase “Jam Karet” or “ngaret.” When you arrive, the clock’s hour or minute hands can be twisted and manipulated so that the time is always correct. “Jam Karet” and its literal translation is “Rubber clock.” Even more importantly, it can be moulded into any shape you desire. As a result of the prevalence of tardiness, a new term has been coined to describe it.

Amount of Influence

The truth is that not all Indonesians are born equal. People in higher positions of authority have more leeway when it comes to arriving late to meetings and appointments. It matters where you sit on the corporate ladder, and no one will challenge you if you use that as a get out of meetings free card. Whether or not attendees are on time, the meeting will begin when the meeting’s host declares it to be so. The passage of time may not be noticed at all in some situations. The concept of power distance is not limited to the workplace; it is also used in universities, schools, and doctor’s offices. Because they are the most important person in the room, professors can show up late to university lectures. No student dares to question or challenge a teacher when they are absent for fear of damaging their relationship with that teacher.

However, this is only one piece of the puzzle. When a group of friends gets together, for example, the power is split equally amongst them. There is no such thing as a superior friend. Collectivism enters the picture as a result.

Collectivism in the modern world

This means that Indonesia is a highly collectivist society and that if everyone in the group is unfazed by people arriving late, then this is accepted as normal. Since the days of the “Kampung” (village) in Indonesia, where people had to rely on one another’s collective strength to survive, Indonesia has had a communal, cliquey communication system.

People are friendly with the group because they believe the group will look after them. In Indonesia, judging someone for being late is frowned upon, and explicit communication is viewed as antagonistic behaviour. As a result, remaining silent when someone is late or cancels at the last minute is a form of self-defense. It’s easy to lose friends and popularity in your social circle if you point the finger at someone else for being late. As a double-edged sword, it can work in your favour when you have to make last-minute changes and you want others to be forgiving, but it can also backfire heavily against you.

We can see how time is perceived if we understand these two fundamental concepts.

Nobody wins or loses when it comes to tardiness because everyone loses and the biggest misconception about punctuality is that it is a two-way street. When we cancel plans at the last minute, we set off a chain reaction that may have unintended consequences. Some people cancel or arrive late at the last minute because they believe it won’t have much of an impact on others, but this isn’t always the case.

Everything requires some degree of planning and sacrifice, and if you think about it, we humans haven’t yet developed a perfect communication system to accomplish this task. Keep people waiting for long periods of time not only disrespects them, but it has a domino effect on their schedule.

Economic losses or tradeoffs result from the habit of being late. Time is a non-recoverable sunk cost. When we choose to meet someone, we give up the opportunity to do something else in order to meet someone else. In fact, we could have spent all that time working on our personal projects or searching for a cure for the common cold while we waited for the other person to arrive.

When considering “Power distance” and “Collectivism,” it is clear that there is a “trickle-down” impact. First and foremost, you’re setting a poor example for those who look up to you, and that includes those at all social strata, not just office coworkers. What about students who are young and impressionable but are looking for a role model? They are let down by their teachers in this regard. As a result, students begin to believe that “it is okay to be late or not show up at all” due to their constant exposure to habitual tardiness and absenteeism. If you want proof, here it is!

Teachers in Indonesian schools have some of the highest rates of absenteeism, according to a study conducted jointly by Australian Aid and Indonesia’s Ministry of Education in 2014. There is a national rate of 10.7 percent How would you feel if your school teacher didn’t even show up for 11 percent of the time? 22 days of absenteeism equates to a 200-day school year. A 22-day vacation would be ideal for the majority of us!

So, why is nothing being done about it?

In Indonesia, the answer to the question of punctuality is not a simple yes or no. Sincerity and respect are the only two factors that matter when it comes to being on time. Showing up late for a lunch date or coffee chat in a cafe is not against the law, but tardiness deprives people of time rather than money. This will never change, no matter how much we talk about power distance and collectivism. We can’t undo the effects of thousands of years of civilization on communities. We can, however, begin to alter our attitude toward others in terms of respect.