Cultural Issues

The majority of Indonesians are Muslim, whilst there are also Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and animists.

In Indonesia, there is an expectation that everyone has a religion. Therefore it is important to be respectful and accommodating where religion is concerned. Some Muslims (the more devout) pray five times a day and will interrupt other activities to do so. This is especially so at Friday midday prayers and so it is best not to organise important meetings at this time.

Very few Indonesian Muslims support or approve of violence in the name of Islam, which they (like most Muslims) regard as a religion of peace. They are nevertheless generally sympathetic about what happens to Muslims in other places, such as the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, and may be critical of policies and actions of ‘the West’ in general and individual countries, sometimes including Australia, in particular.

Ramadan and fasting
It is very helpful for visitors to have at least a basic understanding of Muslim practices, including the annual fasting period known as Ramadan, which ends in the feast of Idul Fitri or Lebaran.

This period changes each year and lasts a month. During Ramadan, most Muslims rise at 3 am, eat breakfast and say their morning prayers. They do not then eat and drink again until around 6 pm, regardless of what they have to do during the day.

Language and communication
The Indonesians that most visitors meet are speaking in a language (English) that they do not use every day. Many nuances will escape them and they may have no familiarity with the Australian idiom. Visitors should use plain English—and should speak slowly and clearly. They should repeat important points in different words. They should always listen carefully and be ready to say: ‘I did not quite understand your last point, do you mean…?’ They should take time to discuss proposed arrangements and confirm them in writing. They should ask for a written response but should not be too concerned if it takes time to come. The situation may be clarified on a subsequent visit. Amongst other things, Indonesians will want to know how serious their counterparts are about developing business linkages. They work in a challenging business environment and are very conscious of making the best use of their time and effort.

Hospitality and gifts
It is always polite to return hospitality or at least offer to do so. The custom about gifts is variable but, again, reciprocity is important.

When yes means …
Be aware of the fact that ‘yes’ does not always mean ‘yes I agree to sign up to your proposition’. It may merely mean ‘yes I heard what you said’. Indonesians are polite and very conscious of ‘face’.

Indonesia sometimes gets bad press in Australia but Indonesians, no less than Australians, are proud of their country and its achievements. Critical comments by Australians about Indonesia, as well as unsolicited advice or ‘preaching’ (there is a special word for this in Indonesian–menggurui) will be seen as bad manners or worse.

Some dos and don’ts
Indonesia is a diverse country—so it is risky to generalise too much about dos and don’ts. Nevertheless, the following points are worth using as a guide when visiting Indonesia:

  • Use the right hand in social encounters e.g. to offer or receive something from another person.
  • On average, Indonesian handshakes are softer than the Australian average—so it is better not to use bone-crushing handshakes.
  • Keep both feet on the floor when sitting; don’t sit with legs crossed.
  • Avoid sitting on a table or desk.
  • Avoid showing the sole of the foot or pointing the toe at another person.
  • When pointing, use a generalised gesture of the hand (not a finger).
  • Don’t touch a person’s head.
  • Avoid raising the voice unnecessarily.
  • Don’t express anger or frustration physically.
  • When eating or drinking as the guest of others, don’t start until invited.
  • Make way for more senior / older people in doorways and at formal gatherings.
  • If you discuss politics or religion, do so in a respectful way.

When in doubt
Indonesia is a multi-cultural country with many different languages and customs. The general rule is to be friendly, courteous and respectful. It rarely, if ever, fails and will be returned in kind.

Getting the basics right
As noted elsewhere in this guide, relationships are very important in Indonesian business and there are some special cultural issues that need attention. But there are many universal principles about operating in or selling to the Indonesian market that should not be forgotten:

  • Offer value for money – Indonesian buyers expect the right quality, packaging and delivery, as well as a competitive price.
  • Be consistent and reliable – Indonesian buyers look for suppliers who are competitive, consistent and reliable. They expect the best service, as well as the best products and prices, and will instantly recognise poor performance or presentation and judge suppliers accordingly.
  • Don’t dump – some suppliers try to pass off second-grade products to Indonesian buyers on the basis that Indonesia is just a ‘developing country’, but its buyers shop the world market for the best products available at a given price. Any attempt to pass off second-rate products will reflect badly on the supplier and be long remembered.

Doing the basic things well
One Australian exporter of processed food products has worked hard on the Indonesian market for the last few years. It has focused on selecting the right products for the market and makes the effort to get the packaging ‘right’. This might seem elementary, but its major United States rivals are just sending their standard product into the market making no effort to meet the specific market needs. As a result, the Australian company is now the category leader in Indonesian supermarkets.

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