Illustration for Lateness Culture - Traffic - Commissioned from Ibrahim

You see all those cars around you? Yeah, it’s traffic. Yeah, you’re late. (Illustration: Ibrahim Yussop)

So, this one time, I was half an hour late, and no one else was late, and being late actually mattered.

It involved underestimating 5pm traffic, and forgetting that I’m not too familiar with Kota Batu. The event was full of formally-dressed people. The event only kicked off only after my arrival. I was mortified.

And yet, I do not know if this is unusual in Brunei. I do not know how often instances of lateness are met with shame. You would even say that lateness is unashamedly rampant.

In some social circles, 5 to 15 minutes’ lateness may be accepted. But I’m amazed at how tolerant we are, when:

  • “late” means half an hour late, or even an hour late
  • a latecomer to a meeting doesn’t let you know they’ll be late
  • a rehearsal or a launching starts more than an hour after the stated time.

Surely this can’t be normal. I’m not talking one-off lateness, I’m saying that perpetual lateness is a habit. I’m talking about how we perpetuate this unnecessarily in all our social and work groups.

How are we constantly letting others wait for us? How can we be happy to throw around the excuse “Janji Melayu”, allowing it as a cultural habit, and masking that it’s actually an inconsideration to others?

I can’t answer the above questions, but I can propose some measures to make life better, for those who often find themselves waiting. Read on…


Lateness in Brunei

Here are the different ways in which this continual lateness manifests itself:

Event programmes where all the events up to a certain point (cough GuestofHonourarrival cough) have estimated starting times, but everything afterwards is a mess of assumption and wishful thinking:

Aturcara Majlis (Event Programme) showing that programme items after Guest of Honour arrival are not given specific times

10.00 am – A scheduled time-suck that will make you late for any lunch plans you have. You’re welcome.

Collage of event programmes all with the same pattern

Event programmes. It’s like they’re following a template.

People drive and park more recklessly because they are late. My theory is that when you don’t leave on time, you drive above the effin’ speed limit to make up for time. And then, you park recklessly because you’re too rushed to bother looking for legitimate parking spots.

Adjusting for latecomers just results in more lateness. “Let’s say the event starts 8.00 to 8.30, so for people who tend to come late, they’ll come by 8.30”. Guess what? They’re going to come at 9.00.

Here’s a phrase by Jay M. Johar that I hope catches on:

It’s even obvious to people visiting our country:

Photo originally from The Brunei Times: Bruneians described, amongst a list of rather nice attributes, as 'not punctual'

Photo originally from The Brunei Times: Bruneians described, amongst a list of rather nice attributes, as ‘not punctual’.
(Source: Jenesys programme now open to older participants, 21 Dec 2015, The Brunei Times. Retrieved Oct 2016)


Cropped and edited version of the above picture: Bruneians, not punctual.

(Any more examples where lateness has permeated our society? Please do comment!)

And please, don’t be swayed only by that last example; don’t let that be the only reason you care about lateness. Lateness is a bad habit that affects all of us. Lateness affects productivity, and road safety, and who knows what else.

No, it’s not the end of the world, it’s not going to ruin our economy, but it’s just plain unnecessary.

How do we deal with Lateness Culture?

Rewards & Reinforcement

Rather than asking people to come on time, maybe we should stop rewarding people who come late.

It isn’t necessarily punishing them – well, a little bit – but to not give them a positive reinforcement to their late habit.

And yeah, inb4 reasons for lateness: Yes, of course, latecomers sometimes have valid reasons. If you believe you cannot help your lateness, then you can work that out with your family and friends – because yes, they’re probably annoyed with your lateness – this article won’t help you with that. This article is for dealing with lateness in social situations when you can help being late.

Consider the Kota Batu event at the beginning of this article. The function essentially rewarded my tardiness by waiting for me. I could continue my bad habit of being late to events, thinking that they do not ever start on time anyway. And oh, sometimes, they will even wait for you, no matter how late you are.

Illustration for Lateness Culture - Meeting - Commissioned from Ibrahim

It’s 8 pm and your meeting was hours ago, but it’s all right y’know? (Illustration: Ibrahim Yussop)

Could we also give some consideration to the people who were not late?

  • Did they arrive early, or on time, because they were helping to set up the event?
  • Did they arrive on time because they have another engagement after this event?
  • Did they arrive on time because they live a little further than others, unable to be as flexible as those who live closer?

Oftimes, people who are early – with reasons we should consider equally to the reasons offered by latecomers – only get rewarded by being asked to wait longer.

Let’s give them more respect and consideration. Let’s give a little positive reinforcement towards the habit of being early.

The point is for everyone to have a better feeling of time well-spent, and this can be done if we weren’t so tolerant towards the habit of lateness.

Scenes & Seconds (that pass you by)

Here’s some scenarios that you might be familiar with.

Lunch date:

  • Lunch date at 12.30.
  • Someone texts to say they’ll only get there at 1pm.
  • No one orders because they want to be polite.
Illustration for Lateness Culture - Food - Commissioned from Ibrahim

This is the most polite friend ever. Please belanja friends that who wait! (Illustration: Ibrahim Yussop)


  • Sports session at 5pm.
  • Only four players have arrived by 5.30.
  • In team sports, you need a minimum number to play.


  • Meeting at 7pm – and I’ll bet that no one argued with you when you set the time!
  • Actual arrival time: 8pm.

Goals & Guidelines

You have two goals with regards to lateness:

  1. Stop rewarding latecomers
  2. Respect those who arrived early – let’s call them the “early birds”

Even with a small number of attendees, it is possible to make it less frustrating for early birds.

Some guidelines we can follow:

How do you Stop Rewarding latecomers?

  • Don’t wait for a full party.
  • Don’t apologise to the latecomers for starting without them. This may seem impolite, but letting people wait is also impolite.
  • Remember what you were there for: Sports? Play sports. Lunch? Eat lunch. Not sitting around.

How to Respect early birds:

  • Just start.
  • Don’t make them feel like their time and presence isn’t as important as those you are waiting for.
  • Thank them for coming on time.

For Meeting Organisers & Early Attendees

So, following the guidelines, in the above scenarios:

Lunch date:

  • Don’t wait too long to order food. Stop Rewarding Respect
  • Text or call the latecomers to explain that everyone is ordering without them. They can expect everyone to be eating when they arrive. Stop Rewarding
  • You could soften the blow by asking if they’d like you to order for them. So nice of you.


  • Start the session! Do warm-ups, and lighter drills. Find ways to play with smaller groups. Respect
  • In some cases, once the time is up, some latecomers may try to extend the time because “inda puas main” (translated: I’m not satisfied because I haven’t played enough). Even if the time is extended, those who arrived early are perfectly entitled not to join in. Stop Rewarding Respect


  • Start the meeting anyway with those who are already there. Respect
  • Make decisions without latecomers. Stop Rewarding (See Exceptions, below.)
  • You know how, in some meetings, when latecomers finally arrive, and the meeting is paused to update them on key conversation points? This is fine, but there’s the next bit: Are they allowed to weigh in, or even reverse decisions that were made before they came? Yeah, stop doing that. You’ve validated their lateness and wasted the time of those who came early. Be firm and stick to what has already been decided. Stop Rewarding Respect
  • Alternatively, tell latecomers that they’ll get an update or meeting notes after the meeting. Stop Rewarding

For Latecomers

So, you’re going to feel slighted, and I can only suggest to you: Please accept the consequences of your lateness in grace!

In the above scenarios:

  • Lunch date: Please accept if people have started stuffing their faces without you – maybe some people are at this lunch date because they want to eat lunch. (See Exceptions, below.)
  • Sports: If the rest have started playing without you, you may have to do your own (sometimes rushed) warm-ups and stretches.
  • Meetings: Accept if decisions have been made without your input. Even if you feel if the ideas are not the best, your chance to participate in decision-making has already passed.

I hope this goes without saying, but one more thing you can do: If you know you’ll be late, let your party know. Maybe it’s embarrassing to admit that you slacked off while getting ready, or that you haven’t actually left the house. But some people might prefer knowing how long they’ll be waiting for you, instead of waiting indefinitely.

Illustration for Lateness Culture - Sports - Commissioned from Ibrahim

Luckily your back-up tennis buddy there is so cheerful and accommodating! (Illustration: Ibrahim Yussop)

You will argue that these measures are socially unfriendly or antisocial etc. Well, being late should be socially unacceptable!

If the dynamics of your social circle (including family or work) cannot allow for it, then feel free not to take my advice.

However, if there is a little room for you to gently remark on others’ lateness, and to start taking the above measures, then why not make a start?

Exceptions & Considerations

 Social Harmony

You might ask: What’s wrong with directly punishing latecomers?

It’s possible that people’s gripes about lateness may be less important than everyone getting along. I’m going to call this “social harmony”. And again, I do not know people’s reasons for being late. It may be okay to accept their lateness and whatever reasons they give, if social harmony is the goal.

In one of my previous sports circles, latecomers would be punished by doing mandatory burpees. This seems appropriate for this case – it enforces discipline, especially onto a sports team that needs a certain level of discipline to reach their goals. In this case, discipline was a goal that outweighed the tolerance for latecomers.

(This is a burpee, btw. Also see: How To Do a Burpee – Popsugar)

For more casual groups, discipline would probably be less important. Instead, your goal would be social harmony. There may be cases when lateness doesn’t matter as long as the latecomers turn up in the end, for example, having a meet-up with friends you rarely meet. The lateness could be forgiven as you likely might not see them again soon.

But I still want to stress, that lateness is an unnecessary bad habit that can be dealt with, especially with social groups that meet more frequently.

 Waiting for Key Persons

For meetings, there is a tendency to wait for “key persons”. They are decision-makers; or perhaps they have important items to share. (Question: Why is the key person late?)

Sometimes the answer to prepare the meeting beforehand. Create an agenda, and share it. Tell key persons that they are key persons and shouldn’t be late.

If they are late anyway, start without them. Use the agenda to find issues that do not need their decisions or input. If possible, make firm decisions on these issues.

You could even do smaller admin tasks, such as sorting out who takes notes, plan out future meeting dates, and so on.

 Very Important Persons

As many of us working adults in Brunei know, there are people who we continually reward for being late. I’m talking about VIPs and VVIPs. This a norm that I wish we would stop perpetuating, but it is difficult to influence.

It could be that they are late because they are allowing for the general lateness of normal attendees. This avoids the situation of, oh horrors, making the VIP wait for them before starting the event.

On the other hand, this perpetuates the idea that events with VIPs never start on time, so everyone involved in organising the event will also relax and also not commit to time. It becomes a cycle of reinforcing lateness.

As younger people step up to fill the shoes of VIPs, I hope things will change. If you are a VIP and earlier than others, for goodness’ sake, please start anyway.

In a wedding, the bride and groom are arguably the VIP of the event. Our Brunei-Malay weddings are notorious for never following schedules. However, I once attended a friend’s wedding where, to everyone’s surprise, the groom came out to do his ‘ziarah’ on time, and left for the bride’s side on time. This shows to me that it is absolutely possible to buck the trend and put our foot down on lateness – we don’t need to accept the excuses of “Janji Melayu”.

 It’s Our Culture

Lastly, if you’ve heard of Bruneian culture/atmosphere being described as laidback – yes, we know, a nicer word for “lazy” – you might use this to explain the indifference to punctuality.

Sure, many places in Brunei are so close to each other, lateness isn’t a huge issue. We don’t have huge traffic jams, or public transport on tight schedules (yet), there seems to be nothing to “rush” for.

Yes, our atmosphere might feel a bit more laidback than in other countries. But, y’know, “laidback” just means an event scheduled for 8.00 can start at 8.15. If it instead starts at 9.30, it’s not even sloppy. It’s badly managed.

Timely Conclusions

Lateness, at the very least, is disrespectful to people’s time. It assumes our schedules – that our time to work or study, to spend time with our families, to rest and recreate, to do charity or to carry out religious duties, to live and to do things that give us meaning – are not important.

Lateness, as a habit, can and probably does cost us over time. We exercise less effectively; we don’t take the time to bond with others, because we arrive in the middle of an activity; we drive more recklessly; we waste hours needlessly if every committee meeting starts an hour late.

What does this mean for latecomers? As I mentioned, there are valid reasons to be late. If you are tied down by errands or the schedules of other people (e.g. picking up children, family errands), that may be understandable. Make your choice – either make the effort to be earlier, or accept gracefully that arriving late comes with consequences. Coming late means you might miss out, so deal with it. Late for lunch? You’ll only have a brief time to talk, as some people have to leave on time. Late for sports? You’ll miss the warm-up sessions.

The takeaway:

If you cannot make everyone come on time, make changes to stop rewarding the habit of lateness, and make the time worth it for those who were not late.

Credits and Acknowledgements

Illustration by Ibrahim Yussop

  • The fun and delightful illustrations used throughout this article were commissioned from: Ibrahim Yussop (, a talented young Bruneian artist. Please check him out if you liked the illustrations! 
  • Other images are as per respective sources, credited or linked in-line in article.
  • Photos of programme booklets were taken and edited by me.
  • This article idea was top-voted on my HelpMeWrite profile in Aug 2016, and that was why I went ahead to finish writing this. Thanks for the votes: Kathrina, Khairunnisa, aniriaz, IA, KaRTiNi, Faiq, Ariffin, Christian, nadiebytes, Joshua, Yvonne, ?, and Azi.