Chris Wren, Executive Director, British Chamber of Commerce Indonesia: Interview

Interview: Chris Wren

How would you describe the lifestyle in Indonesia for business travellers and expatriates?

CHRIS WREN: Visiting and living in Indonesia are two very different things. The visitor’s experience is limited to journeys between the hotel and offices or factories. After-hours activities are usually carefully moderated by a host, client or prospective business partner, and are unlikely to be a surprise. The experience of business travellers is often limited to higher-end Indonesian cuisine or Jakarta’s elegant wine bars and international franchise restaurants. These visitors rarely have the opportunity to see the less contrived side of Jakarta or experience the daily lives of their colleagues. Indonesia’s capital city is the entry point for 90% of business travellers; while most leave having experienced the frustration of the city’s horrendous traffic, they also leave with the perception of a country with tremendous business opportunities on the brink of major advances. For those hoping to live in Jakarta, especially as a couple or as a family, there are many lifestyle challenges and choices that need to be considered strategically. The traffic means the choice of where to live and whether to rent a house or a flat become important decisions to make. Everything is available in Greater Jakarta, including schools, supermarkets, fantastic sports facilities, malls and office complexes, formal and casual dining, bars and cultural centres. It is all here, but invariably it will not all be conveniently accessible at the same time.

What local practices and lifestyle habits should foreign residents try to adopt in order to assimilate?

WREN: The sooner a foreign resident can stop thinking of themselves as distinct from the local population the better. While I have been here, the most useful and enjoyable things I have learned have come from Indonesians of all walks of life. An exciting aspect of this wonderful country is its diversity. Money is trickling down to more and more of the population, including both the fast-growing middle class and the working class. They are all around you every day and in every capacity. Take part in conversations, make friends and accept invitations from people. Be as interested in your hosts and their lives as they will be in yours. In short, take every opportunity to avoid getting stuck in the expat bubble. There really is no need and you would miss out on a wealth of enjoyable experiences.

In terms of etiquette, are there any particular issues that business travellers should be aware of?

WREN: Visitors who come to the country on business for the first time often experience quite significant differences from the work culture they are accustomed to. Relationships are developed more slowly. It is important for you to find common ground during the initial chat when you first meet someone, as well as allow potential partners or clients the chance to talk. You should be prepared for behaviour you may find irritating or rude, such as a disregard for punctuality, interruptions by mobile devices and people unexpectedly joining your meetings. Most importantly, one should take on board the cultural principle of avoiding conflict; this means never directly saying “no” to someone’s face, but rather using the word “maybe” instead.

Which sectors of the economy do you believe investors should keep a close eye on?

WREN: While people are right to be interested, I am reluctant to say anything that may imply there is less or no opportunity in certain areas. The reason for this is the sheer size of the country, its large population, its current level of economic development and its ambition to move up the value chain. There are obvious opportunities in infrastructure, retail, education and health care, but niche products, services and technologies also have potential. The best advice I can offer is that whatever your interest, provided you already have international trading experience, seek and invest in professional counsel at the earliest stage of engagement.

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