the Dire Consequences of Being Late

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

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