Waiting and Winning in Indonesia

September 1, 1998
The recent events in Indonesia are nothing short of a political and economic meltdown. Millions of people have been thrown into a desperate financial struggle, just at the moment when Indonesia’s eternal promise looked like it might, indeed, be fulfilled. However, while economics and politics collapsed, a cultural meltdown did not occur.

The rich diversity, unique lifestyles, and complex character of Indonesia’s people did not disappear -- in fact, they may have grown even stronger. Combine this with the predictions of many economic and geopolitical thinkers who believe Asia is still the world’s greatest potential market, and you have in Indonesia a land of immense opportunity. As your employees work to establish your company in the midst of this opportunity, they’ll need to understand several key aspects of Indonesian culture, especially those that can affect a Westerner’s ability to succeed in business there.

Agrarian cultural background.
Indonesia is a developing world. Over the span of thousands of years, it has adopted ways of viewing life from an agrarian perspective. Any culture primarily shaped by this reality looks very different from places like the United States, a country shaped mostly by the modern, technological world.

Traditional agricultural values in Indonesia have produced a lifeview that emphasizes communal effort (harvesting rice fields is a group project), subordinating personal agendas for the greater needs of the community. Smooth working relationships are an essential prerequisite for any task, and the world is structured in clear castes of more or less privileged individuals.

Time is always less important than maintaining relationships -- this attitude might be related to the Indonesian belief that there are fate and forces one can’t control, but may sometimes be able to placate.

When this worldview meets today’s Western business practices -- in which people try to accomplish as much as possible within a given period of time -- it results in a land of cellular phones, highly rigid class distinctions, high-rise office towers next to unimaginable poverty, and large-scale social dislocation. The result is also a unique way of doing business that combines elements of both worlds.

Management style.
Classic business problems between Westerners and Indonesians usually revolve around the American management-style that assumes individuals seek to be and should be empowered to make decisions and take action on their own. Once American managers have laid out the goals, they usually take a “hands-off” approach, allowing subordinates to demonstrate their competencies by taking charge of the project.

In Indonesia, and many other status- and rank-oriented cultures, this kind of managerial behavior usually results in a vacuum in which nothing gets done. Oftentimes, subordinates won’t risk taking action unless the action clearly meets with the superior’s approval.

“You have to give Indonesians a full plan, step by step, and then the job will get done,” says Raviv Chopra, director of business development for a multinational electric power company, who has been living and working in Indonesia for more than two years. “Indonesians don’t challenge authority because they feel you know better. So they will not go beyond what you’ve instructed,” he explains.

Western managers need to learn the art of establishing and defining strategies, staying in the game from start to finish, and clearly directing key subordinate activities to ensure the project is completed successfully.

Even when you correspond in writing with someone who ranks above you, this hierarchical communication style prevails. Chopra recalls a time when he highlighted some important items on a three-page letter with a bold typeface. He was told politely that the recipient would not appreciate his efforts because the higher-ranking individual would already know what’s important.

Also, don’t praise individuals too highly in front of their peers. Instead, praise the group when things go well, and consider praising Allah for blessing the business with good fortune. Equally, never criticize in public. If someone has made a mistake or if things are going badly, speak with whom you must in private, be available for guidance, and demonstrate caring, determined leadership to turn things around. Don’t waste your time placing blame. “Indonesians feel you should be able to manage problems without having any confrontations,” adds Chopra.

Time? What time?
Time is secondary to almost everything. Historically, Indonesia has lived with rubber time: The clock stretches to fit the needs of the people at any given moment and in any given situation. Therefore, it’s best to remain flexible in unpredictable Indonesia. Until and unless you’re extremely familiar with the players and situation, set one appointment per day. Expect people may arrive late and meetings may not begin on time. “Indonesians are usually on time, however, Jakarta is famous for traffic jams, and that’s often an excuse for being late,” says Chopra.

Respect for religion.
Most Indonesians are Muslim. The sabbath is Friday, and many businesses start to slow down or even close on Thursday evening. Businesses may open again on Saturday and Sunday.

It’s important to note that most Muslims place great importance on observing Ramadan, a month-long celebration of when Allah first revealed the truth to the prophet Mohammed. Observing Ramadan includes, among other things, abstaining from food and drink during the day. Devout Muslims usually stay up late with family and friends over meals and conversation in the evenings, and day life is limited. This means doing business during Ramadan can be difficult: The minds of your Muslim associates are simply less focused on work.

Interpersonal communication and body language.
Over time, many of the principles of Islam have resulted in secondary behaviors, such as never touching individuals on the tops of their heads because they consider this the holiest part of the body.

Other secondary behaviors have evolved from religious principals to help maintain smooth, positive relationships. For example:

  • Expect and give a “soft” handshake instead of the sometimes brutal Western “grip and pump.”
  • A slight bow or dipping of the head is a sign of respect when someone is being introduced to you.
  • Eye contact patterns often require lower-ranking individuals to look down or away from their supervisor’s eyes.
  • Be sure to greet others with their titles, and expect them to do the same with you. If a man is an engineer, he might be referred to as “Mr. Engineer” or “Engineer Hasseen.”
  • Non-confrontational speech usually builds and maintains relationships. Remove the word “I” and replace it with “we” and “us” whenever possible.

The ethnic Chinese community.
Chinese immigrants first arrived in Indonesia seeking economic opportunities during the mercantile era when the Dutch owned the archipelago. As a result, doing business in this Asian country often has meant working with the Chinese Indonesian community.

Shaped by another ancient agrarian society, the Chinese culture includes some behaviors similar to Indonesians. In addition, Chinese Indonesians exhibit the traits of immigrants: tough-mindedness, a willingness to work hard and take risks, an acquisitive nature, flexibility and persistence. Perhaps Americans will find these traits are more familiar and easier to work with.

As the economy recently collapsed, many Indonesians blamed the leaders of their economy, the ethnic Chinese. Built-up jealousy toward the successful newcomers has erupted in this period.

Indonesia is larger than the United States, and its natural resources are astounding. It straddles a geographic area that is essential to trade with the Pacific Rim. Despite its current troubles, Indonesia certainly should not be discounted. Though it’s not quite a phoenix, Indonesia’s traditional Garuda bird similarly resurrects and reinvents itself. Though it may be resting now, it will surely rise again.

Global Workforce, September 1998, Vol. 3, No. 5, pp. 28-30.