Bribery, opportunism, corruption – or just economics, Bali style?

October 4, 2009

I don’t get it.  Just about everyone you meet here with something to sell possesses a brain with an in-built calculator optimised for money. Every item and every service is flawlessly quoted in any major currency. Three-way forex calculations are as natural as breathing – most of these people seem to have memorised all the day’s exchange rates before breakfast. Their ability to instantaneously calculate the potential profit margin for any given item based on its wholesale price,  the proposed selling price and the inexperience of the buyer is awe-inspiring.

Why then is there such a gulf between the economics practised locally and that used in the rest of the world? Obviously I don’t  understand the correlation between supply, demand and price as well as I should. Some esoteric component, which I call the “because I need the money” factor, seems to dominate pricing decisions here.

So there I was in a market stall earlier this year. OK, I wasn’t your typical dream customer – all I wanted was one T-shirt. I was quite happy to pay the 30,000-35,000 going rate for the thin, somewhat poorly-stitched, plain black garment being dangled tantalisingly before my eyes. I only wanted to sleep in the thing after all …
“This one is 390,000” says the happy-looking lady. I thought to myself that if I was managing to sell T-shirts for that price, I would be very happy too. A quick check in the mirror confirmed that I did not look even slightly Japanese, so I knew that I must have misheard. But no, even after intensive haggling, the best price I could get was 90,000. Why? Because  “… not many tourists. We not sell many. Must get more money, so price is more.” Ahh, Bali economics. But all my efforts to explain that if the price was less, she would sell more and still make her profit were met with a look that said clearly that I must be truly stupid if I believed that … What does one do? I went away without a T-shirt, leaving her with no money. 

Shortly afterwards, I was looking for a villa to rent for a year. After the usual inspections, I decided on one that was good, at a fair price, and called the agent back within 2 hours of seeing it.
Me: “I’ll take it”
Him: “Oh good” (Long pause) “There is just one small problem. The price is now 300 million”
Me: (After a temporary seizure which had affected my ability to speak) “But your ad said 150 million! We agreed on 150 million! The owner agreed on 150 million! What’s changed in the last two hours?”
Him: “Ahhh … the economic crisis …”
Me: “An economic crisis has hit Bali in the last two hours?”
Him: “Um, well it started a bit earlier, but the owner remembered that he had too much money in Euros, which have dropped you see, and er, he needs more money now …”
Me: “Well, that’s a real shame, because he won’t be getting it from me”

So, miffed but philosophical (a sporadic condition in Bali for me), I started searching all over again – but within an hour, I was interrupted by a call from the same agent.
Him: “Great news! I’ve managed to get the owner to reduce the price just for you! It’s now only 250 million!”
Me: (Quivering with indifference) “No thanks …”
Him: (Aghast) “What? After I worked so hard to get you a 50 million discount?!”

I believe that villa is still sitting vacant. Unbelievable as it may seem, I’m no longer interested. When one rents a villa, like it or not, one inherits a relationship with the owner as part of the deal. At least I now know of  one owner with whom I have no interest in forming any kind of relationship.

Realistically, living here, one expects a range of practices ranging from the opportunistic to the outright corrupt in many places. Most are easily handled by judicious application of caveat bule – but occasionally it still costs you – if not money, then at least some of your equanimity. We’re all familiar with the usual scams, right?
Immigration official: “Sir, to stamp your passport,  there will be … ahhh … a 50,000 “tip”.
Friend: “I don’t think there is a charge, but feel free to call my friend at the KPK – here’s his number, I’m sure he can sort this ou …
Immigration official: (Throwing passport down) ” Arghh, mutter, mumble … go!”

Patroli: “Ahh sir, you were going the wrong way up this one way street. Big problem. You must go to court in Denpasar at 8am tomorrow”
Me: “No, no problem. Motorbikes are permitted to do that”
Patroli: (Patiently, because of long experience with argumentative bules) “Maybe, maybe. But now I have to inspect your registration documents, ownership documents, Indonesian motorbike licence, helmet, KITAS, birth certif …”
Me: (Enlightenment dawning in my forebrain) “Oh, you mean that big problem!” (Slipping him the 50,000 note I keep with my licence) “Sorry – would you mind awfully paying my fine for me” I’m a bit busy tomorrow …”
Patroli: (Beaming) “No problem – have a nice evening!”
Then he asks me to hold out my hand, palm up. I have a sudden vision of being manacled and dragged screaming to Kerobokan prison, but instead, he stamps my wrist with a little purple symbol. A rite of passage? The mark of Cain? No. “If my friend round the next corner stops you, show him the stamp. You will be OK!” See, it was just a receipt for the administrative inducement …

Even in a major department store, one is not immune to the odd bit of opportunism. There I was, buying a guitar, partly because it was a reputable store and partly because it had been marked down from 875,000 to 785,000. The clincher was a free guitar bag and strap with every purchase. Lo and behold, despite a clearly printed discounted price tag, the young entrepreneur serving me strenuously asserted that the original price was valid for today (“Oh no, the discount was for yesterday“). Then he took me into the back room where the accessories were kept and furtively explained that the bags and straps (about 50 of them) actually belonged to him, but he would be pleased to sell me what I wanted. I left, sans guitar.

So the store missed out on a sale and the sales assistant missed out on his commission. But I didn’t get ripped off and the store avoided having its merchandise stolen and fenced to me. As I left, the young man was busy re-attaching the discount tag to the same guitar, ready for the next customer. And I got the impression that no-one really cares, because that’s just the way it is here. But I still have no guitar.

Anyway, who am I to judge Bali practices, Bali mores? I live in this country as a guest. Maybe I should have just gone more with the flow, and paid the (trivial) extra $10, and bought the damn guitar. Maybe I should stop tilting at windmills. I don’t know. I do know that I am learning as I go, and despite my dyspeptic mutterings, actually hugely enjoying the ride.



  1. next guitar you look at, ask for discount because the guitar has old strings and you being a professional musician cannot afford to pay the price for an item fitted with old componentry. It would be like buying a new car fitted with old tyres.!!

  2. Great post dude, maybe i can follow ur suggestion… may i post it in my blog?

  3. I have had plenty of experiences like this since coming to Bali. I don’t understand how property owners would rather have their place sit vacant, rather than negotiating the price a little.

    They would rather wait until they get the price they want, but they don’t seem to realize they are losing money everyday it is vacant.

  4. @Borborigmus, I am really glad I found this site you are almost as jaded as me, but still we fight the good fight and carry on. Looking forward to your next. The Purple stamp is new to me though, do you have any more info?

    @Mike The Indonesian way is unfortunately rather short sighted, as Mr B. said it is just the way it is, and as annoying and frustrating as it is, I cant see it changing in my life time!

  5. Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess I’ll just have to keep checking yours out!

  6. Remember there is no indonesian word for free. Gratis is not an original indonesian word. I often reflect on the meaning of this!

    • No wonder they all look so mystified when I ask for something for free …

  7. Yes, it’s simply the way it is.
    The Indonesians live their own truth!
    Take it light-hearted. Sometimes it’s hard, I know. But if you know how to get along with them and how to parry challenges you might have the best time of your life.

    Excellent blog, Vyt, I have a very good read, thank you!

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