The unwritten rules of Indonesia

Reading Time: 3 minutes
In Jakarta, Java’s metropolis, also called the Big Durian City, every corner has its own face

Through the maddening crush of motorised vehicles thundering about the infamously congested streets of Jakarta, the inherent complexity of the world’s largest archipelago appears blurred by the modern rush of the capital.

By Justin Calderon

Any foreigner hoping to find success in Indonesia should take time to brush up on the island of Java, the undisputed political, economic and geographical core of the country. The diverse peoples and traditional norms that compose this oblong island can lend a glimpse at some of the unwritten rules of Indonesian society.

Java represents 58 per cent of Indonesia’s 242 million people and contributes 57.5 per cent to the country’s total GDP. Such is the historical and contemporary importance of the island that, indeed, Indonesians believe that the country wouldn’t exist in its present form without it – all this while representing only 7 per cent of Indonesia’s landmass. The perspectives of the island’s majority ethnic group – the Javanese –  are so dominant that their opinions sway the bureaucratic, governmental and military balance of the nation.

Formerly a stronghold of Hindu and Buddhist believers with fussed animist practices, Islam later appeared in the 1200s growing to form powerful sultanates that established the foundation atop which the majority Muslim country currently sits.

To talk of Java is to not talk of some homogenous island of cultures with easily demarcated differences in traits, but of a society that is a sewn together amalgamation of diverse ethno-linguistic groups that at times hold opposing worldviews. Besides the majority Javanese people, there is the Sundanese of West Java, the Betawi from the area around Jakarta and the Madurese.

Within the world of the most influential business circles, Javanese customs and etiquette are the most apparent.  When examining Javanese society, anthropologists have observed that contemporary Javanese culture can be divided into three common outlooks the society carries.

The abangan, or the commoner outlook, portrays a member of the culture that associates themselves with the indigenous animist mysticism present in Java and the subservient role that a simple life plays. The abangan are best characterized through their conservatism, resistance to change and favour of fatalism.

Then there is the priyayi, or the nobility outlook, in which members associate themselves with the Hindu-Buddhist mysticism of higher courts. Hinduism and Buddhism both follow variations of dharmic law, which outlines the obeisance of managing society through hierarchical roles, usually with a pronounced leader figure at the front.

Foreigners often have a hard time dealing with the roles of a defined Asiatic hierarchy. The average Westerner may even be tempted to go into situations where he/she would offer help to lower ranking members of a company to work. This move may be seen, however, as lacking taste. To Indonesian business leaders, especially, it is proper for those at higher ranked positions to keep distance and maintain their role.

The santri, or the Islamist outlook, more appropriately referred to as muslimin, is made up of members that see themselves as part of the syncretic mix of Islam present in today’s Indonesia.

While at least 95 per cent of Javanese acknowledge Islam as their religion, there are many more, especially in Jakarta, that have engendered a growing ambivalence of their official religion. This is not to say that religious etiquette related to Islam shouldn’t be practiced, but that a growing number of members in the country’s commercial core are less wont to tether themselves down to traditional norms.

Today although many Indonesians refer to themselves as Muslim, rarely will they adhere to religious duties or structure their lives to the precepts of Islam.

Understanding the traditional and evolutional order of Java, the heart and helmsman of ASEAN’s largest economy, through these outlooks is a tool worth bringing to the boardroom.

 

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

In Jakarta, Java’s metropolis, also called the Big Durian City, every corner has its own face

Through the maddening crush of motorised vehicles thundering about the infamously congested streets of Jakarta, the inherent complexity of the world’s largest archipelago appears blurred by the modern rush of the capital.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In Jakarta, Java’s metropolis, also called the Big Durian City, every corner has its own face

Through the maddening crush of motorised vehicles thundering about the infamously congested streets of Jakarta, the inherent complexity of the world’s largest archipelago appears blurred by the modern rush of the capital.

By Justin Calderon

Any foreigner hoping to find success in Indonesia should take time to brush up on the island of Java, the undisputed political, economic and geographical core of the country. The diverse peoples and traditional norms that compose this oblong island can lend a glimpse at some of the unwritten rules of Indonesian society.

Java represents 58 per cent of Indonesia’s 242 million people and contributes 57.5 per cent to the country’s total GDP. Such is the historical and contemporary importance of the island that, indeed, Indonesians believe that the country wouldn’t exist in its present form without it – all this while representing only 7 per cent of Indonesia’s landmass. The perspectives of the island’s majority ethnic group – the Javanese –  are so dominant that their opinions sway the bureaucratic, governmental and military balance of the nation.

Formerly a stronghold of Hindu and Buddhist believers with fussed animist practices, Islam later appeared in the 1200s growing to form powerful sultanates that established the foundation atop which the majority Muslim country currently sits.

To talk of Java is to not talk of some homogenous island of cultures with easily demarcated differences in traits, but of a society that is a sewn together amalgamation of diverse ethno-linguistic groups that at times hold opposing worldviews. Besides the majority Javanese people, there is the Sundanese of West Java, the Betawi from the area around Jakarta and the Madurese.

Within the world of the most influential business circles, Javanese customs and etiquette are the most apparent.  When examining Javanese society, anthropologists have observed that contemporary Javanese culture can be divided into three common outlooks the society carries.

The abangan, or the commoner outlook, portrays a member of the culture that associates themselves with the indigenous animist mysticism present in Java and the subservient role that a simple life plays. The abangan are best characterized through their conservatism, resistance to change and favour of fatalism.

Then there is the priyayi, or the nobility outlook, in which members associate themselves with the Hindu-Buddhist mysticism of higher courts. Hinduism and Buddhism both follow variations of dharmic law, which outlines the obeisance of managing society through hierarchical roles, usually with a pronounced leader figure at the front.

Foreigners often have a hard time dealing with the roles of a defined Asiatic hierarchy. The average Westerner may even be tempted to go into situations where he/she would offer help to lower ranking members of a company to work. This move may be seen, however, as lacking taste. To Indonesian business leaders, especially, it is proper for those at higher ranked positions to keep distance and maintain their role.

The santri, or the Islamist outlook, more appropriately referred to as muslimin, is made up of members that see themselves as part of the syncretic mix of Islam present in today’s Indonesia.

While at least 95 per cent of Javanese acknowledge Islam as their religion, there are many more, especially in Jakarta, that have engendered a growing ambivalence of their official religion. This is not to say that religious etiquette related to Islam shouldn’t be practiced, but that a growing number of members in the country’s commercial core are less wont to tether themselves down to traditional norms.

Today although many Indonesians refer to themselves as Muslim, rarely will they adhere to religious duties or structure their lives to the precepts of Islam.

Understanding the traditional and evolutional order of Java, the heart and helmsman of ASEAN’s largest economy, through these outlooks is a tool worth bringing to the boardroom.

 

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