10 Sayings That Truly Represent Indonesia's Culture

© Joan Campderrós-i-Canas l Flickr
© Joan Campderrós-i-Canas l Flickr
Photo of Edira Putri
30 August 2017

Ancient wisdoms help shape a country’s modern-day culture more than we may realise. Indonesia’s ancient communities had many proverbs and sayings that are still perfect embodiments of the country’s local culture, philosophies, and observations. Read on to discover the meanings behind these common sayings that hold a key to the heart of Indonesian culture.

A person who spends more than they earn is biting off more than they can chew – it’s like having pegs larger than the poles. In the end, a tent built with pegs larger than the poles will not provide adequate shelter. Many Indonesians would rather live humbly than borrow money.

Unlike people who live modestly, those who tend to show off their wealth or superiority will attract not only attention, but also adversity because of their very eminence.

This saying is most likely inspired by everyday observations of rice crops, where those with the most contents will be the ones heavy enough to bow down. It means a person who has the most knowledge and experience will be the one who has the confidence to act modestly, but those standing tall are usually of little substance.

There’s always an ideal situation in life in which to achieve results, but even without the perfect circumstances, we can make do with what we have. Different localities in Indonesia have their own variations of recipes, instruments and tools; probably because they used whatever they could get hold of, instead of waiting for the perfect ingredients or materials to come along.

This saying is a rather long way of the equivalent in English: no pain, no gain – it’s better to work hard first and have fun afterwards, than the other way around.

For a community as diverse as Indonesians, unity is crucial. This saying means that in a dispute, everyone is a loser; no one gains anything by quarrelling with another person.

This means that even if you have access to limitless resources or wealth, but you are reckless with it and don’t value it, none of it means a thing – eventually you’ll end your life surrounded by all that wealth that is meaningless, as you can’t take it with you.

This is similar to ‘pride comes before a fall’, and is a gentle reminder that no matter how good you think you are at something, failing is still a possibility, so don’t believe you are invincible.

Like one bad apple can spoil the barrel, this saying means it’s difficult to preserve a good name. Even just one immoral or questionable act can dissipate years of a good reputation, so be mindful of what you do.

Nothing’s perfect, because even the finest ivory has its cracks. Therefore, do not judge others too harshly or have too high expectations.

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