Understanding Different Ethnic Cultures in Indonesia and How They Do Business: Part III

by | Dec 17, 2020 | Study Insight | 0 comments

Part III: The Buginese and Butonese.

Source: Lukisan Makassar Blogspot

Home to over 1,300 ethnic groups, international companies might notice differences when conducting business in different parts of Indonesia. While the country possesses a certain national culture, ethnic groups in Indonesia conform to it to different degrees. We have covered some of the cultures in Java, Bali and Sumatra in our previous articles, along with the culture of the Chinese-Indonesians. In this last part of our Ethnic Business Culture article series, we will venture to the East part of Indonesia, covering the unique cultures of the Bugis and Buton.

Unfortunately, due to the extensiveness of the number of ethnic groups in Indonesia, we were not able to cover all of the ethnic groups and decided to focus on these two. More specifically, we will look at the uniqueness of each culture to understand how they would do business. In the end, we will give a final set of recommendations for international companies.

The Buginese: Sipakatau, Sipakalebbi and Sipakainge’

Source: Rakyat Rukun

The Buginese people are one of the dominant ethnic groups in Indonesia’s eastern business landscape. They originate from the Southern province of Sulawesi, the third largest island in Indonesia. The province’s capital, Makassar, is also a port city. The Buginese are present in multiple industries, most notably in those relating to natural products such as cacao. They also have a quite strong presence in Indonesian politics.

A notable fact about the Buginese is how in the past, most of them were skilful sailors who loved to sail to various regions in the archipelago in their famous Phinisi ship. Their history as sailors highly influences their ethnic culture as shown through many of their proverbs that involve seas or ships. Like many of the ethnic cultures in Sumatra, as we previously mentioned in our second article, the Buginese abstain from returning to their village before reaching success from their trip overseas.

The Uniqueness of the Buginese Culture

Similar to Indonesia’s national face-saving and hierarchical culture, the Buginese highly uphold honor and self-respect. They manifest these in the form of lineage, economic wealth and social position or status. As a whole, the foundation of Buginese cultural values is based on the concept of siri ‘na pesse, meaning the maintenance of one’s pride and stance. They have a traditional saying that compares the two (one’s pride and stance) to the pillar, the roof and also the wall of a house, highlighting their utter importance. Siri guides the way the Buginese behave and conduct business, and is the reason for their strong personality.

The Buginese also have very strong solidarity. Their three principles, sipakatausipakalebbi and sipakainge’, guide the way they interact with one another. According to the three principles, humans must respect each other by acting politely with no discrimination, appreciate one another with proper praise, and remind each other that they are not perfect as each person have their own shortcomings. These principles might explain why Buginese have a strong sense of camaraderie, especially between friends and families. To those they are close with, they aren’t hesitant in helping each other out in business as well.

The Buginese Way of Business

In business, the Buginese are known as people who are straightforward and hold strong principles. These principles are best illustrated through their proverbs where many of them are inspired by the philosophies of sailors due to their history:

“Teai mangkasara’ punna bokonna loko”

This proverb highlights how the Buginese must not run from a problem, especially in business. All challenges must be solved by facing them directly. Therefore in negotiations, they are more likely to address conflicts rather than avoiding them like some other ethnic cultures in Indonesia.

Ku alleanngi tallanga na toalia

The direct translation of this proverb is “it is better to drown rather than to return.” It highlights how their people persist in achieving their goals and do not fear risk or failure. The Buginese create a direct comparison to a sailor who chooses to sink his ship instead of returning with no results. The importance of succeeding is also highlighted in the two other proverbs below.

Bajikkangangi tattilinga naia tallanga

This proverb translates to “it is better (for a boat) to tilt rather than to sink.” The ‘boat’ in this proverb represents a business. The Buginese believe that it is not easy to start or maintain a business, and it is better to experience some losses rather than going bankrupt. In principle, it is okay to lose money, as long as you don’t go out of business.

Le’ba kusuronna biseangku, kucampa’na sombalakku, tamassaile punna teai labuang.

Again, this proverb also highlights the importance of reaching success. It means “Once I have pushed the boat and expand the sails, I would not look elsewhere besides the port that I am headed to.” The Buginese focus on what is ahead; looking back is a symbol of giving up and letting go. This also means that when analyzing a business deal, they are very careful in considering whether or not the deal will lead them to their end goal. Constrain from proposing a deal that goes against your Buginese partner’s goals to prevent wasting time.

Lastly, the Buginese greatly value honesty and intelligence. They say that dishonest intelligent people will only give birth to cheaters, and honest non-intelligent people will be fooled and have their innocence exploited. A limitation on the Buginese people however, according to research done on Buginese cacao traders, is that they are sometimes not careful in calculating and tend to be speculative.

The Butonese: Pobinci-Binciki

Source: Authentic Indonesia

The Butonese, which comprises a number of sub-ethnic groups from Buton, represent another dominant group in Eastern Indonesia’s business landscape. According to Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistics, they are present mostly in industries related to commodities such as mines, fisheries and forest products.

Historically, the Butonese were vital for the shipping and trade in the archipelago making them skilled seafarers (like the Buginese). They were also the main network for Arab scholars in spreading Islam. The Islamic era of the Buton Kingdom began in 1542 when Buton became a sultanate (Islamic government) ruled by Sultan Kaimuddin (1542–1568) who created many philosophies still upheld by the Butonese people today.

The Uniqueness of Butonese Culture

The social values of the Butonese people include gotong-royong (mutual cooperation), building togetherness, showing sincerity and empathizing with one another. These values highly conform to the national culture regarding the importance of relationships. Additionally, due to their historical roots and how the majority of Butonese people are Muslims, Islamic values (particularly sharia ethics) are strongly embedded in Butonese business ethics.

The connection between Butonese cultural values and Islamic values is manifested through the local wisdom “pobinci-binciki” that guides Butonese entrepreneurs to achieve prosperity both in the material world and the afterworld. Its literal translation is “pinching each other’s skin.” To understand how this wisdom guides how the Butonese maintains social relationships and harmony, we need to dive in past the literal translation.

The wisdom of pobinci-binciki was passed on from generation to generation through a legend about a conflict between royalties, Dungkun Cangia and Si Jawangkat, from two different kingdoms in ancient times. Their conflict created no loss to either party as both agreed to negotiate mutually. The two then became friends and realized that a dispute or quarrel brings only harm. Since then, they invited each other to their respective kingdoms and were committed to working together to maintain peace. The values that they held (mutual shame, mutual support and mutual respect) were passed on under the umbrella of pobinci-binciki.

The Butonese Way of Business

How does the pobinci-binciki wisdom and the values it incorporates translates to how the Butonese do business? Well, first of all, they uphold harmonization through mutual shame (which prevents them from losing face), mutual care, mutual support (to lift one another) and mutual protection. Therefore, trust is essential since, for these values to work, one needs to trust the other.

In their ethnographic study in 2019, Hasaruddin and Abdullah quoted their interview with a Butonese which greatly highlights how pobinci-binciki still persists:

“I always remember my father’s words that we must always maintain good relations with other people. Being hostile is not an ethical act; do not hurt one another and what we have, is also thanks to other people. Remember that life is not only in this world but also in the hereafter.”

The study also discovered another local wisdom: if one fails, one should not think or believe that it is because of someone else but instead, should introspect one’s self on his or her weakness and what needs to be improved. Similarly, if one is successful, it is not because of bringing other people down, but it is because of one’s good effort and answered prayers. International businesspeople should note this, especially for business collaborations or partnerships.

Implications for International Companies (Part III)

Overall, the Buginese and Butonese value relationships in business and are face-saving cultures, conforming to Indonesia’s national culture. The values they uphold are strongly based on their history as sailors and from values passed on for generations through, for example, legends. Therefore, learning about their history is a great way to better understand the cultures that influence their business practices. Always be polite and treat them with care and respect as they highly value trust and reciprocity.

Although some Buginese and Butonese businesspeople (usually distributors or importers) might have already been accustomed to doing business with international companies (and therefore understand their culture and the way they communicate), others might not and may expect you to do things their usual way. Hence, having local wisdom is always a great advantage to better build trust and prevent violating something taboo to the culture. Another reason for obtaining local wisdom is because Indonesians, no matter their ethnicities, are very proud of their heritage and traditional cultures which they maintain until now and enact in their business practices.

Unlock the Challenges with BRIGHT Indonesia

Indonesia’s diverse culture, business culture, language barriers, and the need for a good connection are challenges for those who want to enter the Indonesian market. By knowing the differences, it can be one of the strategies to unlock the challenges in entering the market.

BRIGHT Indonesia can help you to enter and run the business expansion smoothly. Our Market Insight Research, Business Registration and Establishment, Business Partnership Engagement, and Business Incubation and Accelerator services can help you in expanding and developing your business, register and establish your products and company, as well as obtain the work and stay permit in Indonesia ((expatriates utilization plan (RPTKA), expatriates utilization permit (IMTA), limited stay permit (KITAS)) easier. 

We focus on supporting private sector clients with the development of corporate or business unit strategies and helping public sector organizations with public policy. For further information, email info@brightindonesia.net.


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