Editions : October-December 2018

JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360 By: Cilla Henriette

Back in April, I authored an essay published in Strategic Review about what may be holding us Indonesians back as a society. It was coming from a positive place to encourage us to reflect on what may be our tendencies as a culture and to build a strategy in our advantage. They say that knowing the issues is already halfway to the solutions. In this follow-up essay, I’m focusing on the other half – the strength of our culture; the qualities that we may not know exist.

Many people do not know their own strengths until they are told, as strengths may be all too natural, innate, or nurtured in our upbringing. Knowing our strengths is just as key as knowing our weaknesses, for they can push us forward. I have chosen the top seven qualities prevalent in Indonesian society – beautiful as they are – that define us as people, form our identity and have become our human qualities.

In good we trust

Indonesia is fundamentally made with abundance: 17,000 tropical islands, 365 if not 366 days of sunshine a year, a constant supply of fruit on the trees and fish in the waters. This abundance of natural wealth instills the belief that life is good. The constant presence of the sun and the absence of winter nurture the idea that nothing can go too wrong today. And in any case, there is tomorrow. There is a common expression in the Dutch language, “Een appletje voor de dorst” (meaning to keep an apple for when you are thirsty or for when you need it) – a culture that reminds people to always be prepared for bad times. In Indonesia there is a saying often used by people in their daily life: “Besok pasti lebih baik” (tomorrow will be better) – a culture that reminds people of a better tomorrow; a culture that inherently believes in good, tomorrow and today.

Some of my foreign friends struggle to get their heads around seeing a family of three on a motorbike riding through the small streets of Jakarta or some other city in Indonesia, wearing no helmets but with big smiles on their faces. In the eyes of the foreigners, this family, especially the parents, may seem irresponsible. From the lens of the family, it is simply a delightful afternoon riding around the neighborhood, feeling the breeze on their faces, buying snacks to enjoy together. For them, the moment is magical and therefore only good comes to their minds – a moment to be enjoyed together within the means they have. They are not thinking about putting on helmets because they are not preparing for danger. Deep down they believe nothing bad can happen on such a fine afternoon.

Our ability to believe in good is a powerful quality. It makes us a glass-half-full people. Without boasting, we have the natural optimism to deal with matters in life. We are more receptive to the magic in life, no matter how simple.

In usefulness, we find meaning

“Be kind, be useful” is one of the best-known pieces of advice Barack Obama gave his daughters. When I heard this phrase, I wondered if this was wisdom he picked up during his time growing up in Indonesia. If in other cultures parents want their children to be number one, or to be smart or to be financially successful, in Indonesia the majority of parents speak more about the importance of having their children be kind and useful. “Yah yang penting anak saya jadi orang yang baik dan berguna,” is a common response by parents when asked what they want for their children. It means, “What matters is for my child to be a good and useful person.”

Being a good and useful person is like a mantra in Indonesia. It is paramount for a child to grow to be a good person; this is beyond intelligence or skills that may only be tools to achieve certain objectives. “Being good” is like the engine of a person – a person with a good engine will move in the right direction at all times. It includes the ability to focus on the well-being of others rather than on personal interests. When faced with a difficult situation, a good person will choose a solution that serves a common interest. Good people build a good society. Being useful is just as important. Being a good person who doesn’t make the effort to be useful is like a car with a good engine but no wheels. The idea of being useful is not about grandiosity; it can be quite simple and relevant – being useful to your family, your community, society and, if possible, to your country. A mother who makes money selling food she cooks, in addition to taking care of her family, will see this as her effort to be useful to her family. A businessman who takes the time to teach at a university on Saturdays in order to share his knowledge and expertise will see this as his contribution to society. The orientation of being useful is more in the direction of others, but it goes without saying that being useful includes the ability to be useful to oneself.  

It is more of a subconscious collective wisdom than a written constitution (it probably should be made into one), but how powerful it is to have such wisdom in raising our children. Imagine if everyone in our country adopted this mantra, this human quality, as individuals, as workers, as family makers and as citizens, how powerful we could be as a society.

Step aside, step forward

My favorite story regarding this topic happened when I was growing up in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi Province. During a speech competition I was participating in, I met a very smart and talented boy named Angki. We spoke a little and I learned that in addition to being a natural orator, he was also the best student at his school. When the competition finalists were announced, I saw his name on the list, but when we pre-registered for the finals, he wasn’t there. The next day, after the finals, I saw Angki. I asked him why he missed the finals even though his name was on the list. With a calm demeanor and a faint smile, he said, “I let my friend who came second from our school participate in the finals. I thought she really wanted it and I will have chances to take part in other finals.” I could see from his eyes that he was sincere. He wanted to give his friend the opportunity to participate in the finals. He understood very well that there would be other finals for him, in speech or other competitions. That has never left my memory.

The explanation of this quality starts with the word “mengalah,” from kalah (defeated), which loosely translates as to yield, to give way or to step aside. Giving way to others is an important quality Indonesians learn from childhood. It is common for a parent to tell the older sister or brother to mengalah to the younger ones, or the other way around. For example, when there is an argument about what to watch on TV, the older sibling should let the younger ones watch what they want. Or when sharing a cake, the younger brother or sister should let the older one have the bigger piece.

A person who is able to step aside and give way to others will learn to grow beyond themselves, to not be selfish and to practice the universal meaning of kindness. For Angki, prioritizing his friend was more important than winning the competition. He taught me that it was great to be a good orator, but it was even greater to be a good person. Angki stepped aside from victory that day, but he took a step forward in being a better person.

This seemingly simple Indonesian quality is probably not something we are proud of, but we should be. The willingness to step aside while enabling others to step forward is a unique quality. We can apply this in our daily lives – in our families and friendships, in traffic, in queues. Imagine the power we could multiply as a society. We can prove that there are times people need to focus more on kindness than competitiveness, and in that way we can all move forward.

Seeing creative solutions

Indonesians are blessed with creativity. We see opportunities in every corner and we have the ability to see solutions in unlikely situations. Jakarta’s streets have a lot to tell and one can learn about Indonesian creativity from them. Look around and see the informal parking attendants (juru parkir), the informal traffic expeditors (tukang atur jalan) and the pop-up street vendors. It’s an ecosystem of informal jobs created on the streets out of spontaneous creativity. Pop-up fruit sellers were born on the empty roadsides where they can park their cars; informal parking attendants were created on empty pieces of land capable of holding a few parked cars; informal traffic expeditors were born on narrow streets where drivers need help to get into the flow of traffic. The organic growth of creativity was born out of simple principles: there is a common enemy, or opportunity, and there are two parties that can mutually fight the enemy or take advantage of the opportunity.

Remember the 3-in-1 traffic system that was in place for many years in an effort to alleviate Jakarta’s rush-hour traffic? Not long after the system was introduced, people found ways to create job out of it. “Jockeying” become an informal job for many people and some made a 10-year career out of serving as the third passenger in cars. It may be a problematic example, but the creativity remains. Our creative minds let us find opportunities when confronted with constraints. We may not opt to confront authority to remove the constraints; instead we see the opportunity for creative solutions. In this case, the enemy was the 3-in-1 system, and the two parties that mutually benefitted from it were commuters and jockeys.

If the jockeys are not a perfect example, Go-Jek is a great one. Go-Jek, the ride-hailing, delivery and online payment company, was a creative solution to a nearly impossible problem. The perfect metaphor for Go-Jek is the magic carpet that makes things happen above the traffic in Jakarta. This is probably the best example of how creativity, with a strong system behind it, can reap success. Fundamentally, the brilliant idea of Go-Jek founder Nadiem Makarim came from the same principle as above: traffic is the common enemy and motorcycle taxi drivers (ojeks) and their passengers are the two parties that can work together to fight the enemy for their mutual benefit. He created a system that enables creativity to grow as a key business asset. The more systems like Go-Jek that exist, the more we can make a difference. Creativity is an important human asset and we need to nurture it to help us grow as a society.

In common goals, we find strength

It is inherent in Indonesian culture to work together to achieve a common goal. Many initiatives are accomplished for the sake of a shared goal. It is interesting to observe that the rise of the global economy actually resonates with one of the oldest concepts of communal cooperation in Indonesia, namely gotong-royong. In essence, this is a form of action taken by a group of people who want to achieve a shared goal. For example, a group of neighbors get together to help a family build a house or local men take turns doing nighttime security patrols. In Bali, the most common communal work is building irrigation systems (subak) for rice paddies. For centuries, local people, not the central government, have managed these irrigation systems in Bali, which benefit farmers needing water for their rice fields at a price that is decided through discussions.

These various examples point to how communities in Indonesia find strength in working together to achieve common goals. Individual ambition may not be something Indonesians can boast about, but working together to achieve a common goal, in other words, collective ambition, runs in the blood of the people.

In times of conflict, the common goal again persists. Musyawarah mufakat, meaning deliberation and consensus, is one of the democratic principles in Indonesia. When two parties have a conflict, before going to the authorities and formally filing a case, they will discuss the matter and try to arrive at a consensus – a common place where both parties can agree. The principle behind this approach is, again, to put a common goal before individual interests. When a common goal is put in place, we get the best out of people. People will make a sincere effort and set in motion a self-organizing system that lets them work together to achieve the goal. We may take this for granted, but it is important to realize that in the service of a common goal we find strength to move forward together. This is one of our fundamental qualities as a culture that we need to nurture, utilize and fertilize whenever possible.

In lightheartedness, we embrace

Indonesians are simple-hearted. We smile, we giggle and we laugh easily to bring lightheartedness to the room as soon as we can. I work for a company with a group of people from about 20 countries around the world. Every year, we gather to share time, banter and knowledge in an event called Pilgrimage. At the last Pilgrimage, one of our colleagues made the comment that the Indonesians in the team giggled a lot when they gathered. It is true that we like to giggle. It is simple to connect through laughter; there is no need to overcomplicate the matter. An annual meeting has a serious tone about it, and subconscious giggles are a way to make it lighter.

Indonesians’ lightheartedness may also appear when someone makes a mistake. When the person is questioned over what they have done wrong, she or he might first giggle, make a small hand gesture and then explain the matter with a smile. When this happens, it is not that the person being questioned is disrespecting the person asking the questions; they are just laughing at themselves, understanding how the mistake happened and probably trying to digest the situation. The giggle is not about taking the matter too lightly, but is designed not to take it too heavily, either. The underlying belief is that there must be a way to resolve the issue. There is an Indonesian proverb that can explain this belief: “Nasi sudah menjadi bubur,” or literally, “The rice has become porridge.” The closest English proverb is, “There is no use crying over spilt milk.” There is a caveat: the English proverb points out that the milk has spilt, so that’s it, whereas in the Indonesian proverb the porridge can still be eaten; although not as originally intended, it is still useful.

This points to the importance of acceptance. Acceptance is useful when we cannot change a situation. There are times that all we can do is accept that a mistake has occurred. Either something can be done to correct it or nothing can be done. But in any case, there must be good that can come out of it. In this spirit, Indonesians set the example of acceptance – there are moments where all we need is to accept a situation and accept each other, and the only thing that can come out of that is good. This is another human asset we must embrace and understand its power.

In food, we celebrate

Almost everything in Indonesia can be explained through food – the diversity of cultures, the access to simple pleasures and even democracy. Indonesians celebrate moments in life through food. Food is present at every gathering, no matter how small. Not every gathering is a happy occasion, but people taking the time and effort to get together is an important moment, and therefore food needs to be there as a sign of gratitude. It is customary for Indonesians to show care through food. It is common to ask, “Have you eaten?” to show that you care about someone. Here, food signifies warmth and a certain closeness in the relationship.

Food is also a celebration of democracy in Indonesia. When fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken entered Indonesian malls, street vendors responded by selling fried chicken à la KFC and locally made burgers not long after. This phenomenon has continued with other types of food, bringing new color to the street food scene. The spirit of bringing trendy, exotic or somewhat exclusive foods to the streets is a sign of democracy. When it comes to food, Indonesians like to make it accessible to everyone. Expensive options are all right as long as there are also more accessible options. We accept that in many areas of life, people may be destined to have different blessings, but when it comes to pleasure, everyone should have equal rights and food helps to democratize pleasure. This has brought significant economic growth to the country, with the celebration of food opening up business opportunities for new entrepreneurs.

Indonesia’s qualities as a culture and our assets as a tribe are the foundation of our identity. It is important that we are proud of who we are, keep nurturing what we have and understand the traps that we may fall into, so we can be the best versions of ourselves.


Cilla Henriette is an international consultant who focuses on decoding cultures and why people do what they do.

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