Life Without Consequences

March 7, 2010

The concepts of consequences and responsibility seem deeply ingrained in village culture in Bali – especially in its ceremonial, spiritual and community aspects. Yet this awareness often seems to fail to make the transition to everyday, secular life. For foreigners at least, certain social norms here seem puzzling at best and downright annoying – even dangerous – at their worst.

People park their motorbikes on both sides of narrow gangs, completely blocking the passage of even the smallest car – then look surprised and slightly miffed when asked to shift them. Cars, trucks and motorcycles, their drivers oblivious to potentially deadly consequences, overtake on blind corners as a matter of course. Speeding school children on motorbikes, ignoring even the rudimentary road laws here, plough into other riders and pedestrians – then ride off without even offering basic assistance to the injured.

In commerce, suppliers take orders, and a deposit, for goods to be made by a certain date, then say: “Sorry, was too difficult to make, could not do” after you have travelled a long way to pick up the product. And then they want to keep the deposit for “administration”. Tradesmen make promises to come over and fix things, then don’t turn up. Not until you have gone, anyway …

Then there are the consequences of disorganisation, delay and outright dishonesty. One of my friends finds out, by accident, that her first Bali phone bill has been prepared by the  local carrier and is waiting to be paid at the neighbourhood office. Despite the fact that several of her staff know of this, no-one has seen fit to inform her until the last day before the bill must be paid before disconnection. So she gives her pembantu the money to pay the bill and asks her to return with the receipt and change. The maid duly returns without a receipt, or change, and a vague story about the payment having being made and everything being fine – no receipt needed. No change needed either, apparently. Further questioning results in the pembantu completely forgetting that she can speak English. 

Naturally, my friend’s phone is cut off the next day. By the time she realises she therefore has no internet and is not getting emails, she has missed a critical business communication that results in a loss of  a substantial amount of money. Then a bemused villa manager drops in to ask why the pembantu has just asked him to pay the phone bill with his credit card.  The phone eventually gets reconnected after a week of disrupted business. In the end, when it all gets sorted out, the pembantu admits that she has stolen the money, but doesn’t seem to understand that her actions have had consequences. Serious consequences. In fact, she is staggered by the mere suggestion that she should even return the money. After all, the problem is fixed now, isn’t it? And as a sad coda, a few days later, she actually has the effrontery to become angry that her monthly pay has been reduced by the amount that she has misappropriated.

While there was obviously a lack of understanding of consequences in these examples, I suspect that sometimes there is a very shrewd grasp of the concept, especially when it means there is money to be made. A expat family recently shipped a load of personal and household effects from Australia to Bali via Surabaya. The first communication from the freight forwarder demanded a huge amount in clearance fees, admin fees – you name it, it was there, some in duplicate. After being challenged, the amount dropped, but the family were warned that any delays in payment would incur a daily penalty rate for ‘storage’.  The next six weeks were a continuing saga of demands for paperwork – all of which had been correctly supplied at the beginning. There were conflicting demands for different types of visas, letters, documents and other administrivia – which when supplied, turned out to be unnecessary. The latest demand was for the family to send their original passports to an unknown recipient in Surabaya – “just for a few days”. They have to be kidding, right? So what happens during all these delaying tactics? The penalty storage charges just keep going up, and up …

So maybe I’m being too hasty in thinking that there is a lack of understanding of consequences here. Maybe I’m falling into the trap (yet again) of judging other cultures by my own cultural markers. But if it’s not a lack of forward-thinking, then what is it? The glib answer is that people do things here because they either willingly discount the consequences as irrelevant, or because they can profit in some way. And that’s a scary conclusion, because it’s just too similar to what was happening in Australia – and one of the reasons that I left to come here.



  1. Seems by your last couple of blogs, that maybe now you kind of get what I was saying the first few times we spoke, when you hadn’t been here too long and I seems so jaded.

    Your worst suspicions are of course, correct.

    Every story youve mentioned Ive heard hundreds of times over, with different players, same attitude and same result.

    They do of course play on the “I don’t understand” thing, when they totally understand. What they’re doing is taking advantage of our arrogance, as we find it so easy to believe that they don’t understand.

    Look them squarely in the eye and call them on it.. play hardball and you will see how quickly the slightly confused, “I dont get it” expression is replaced by a hard look of total comprehension, and dislike at being called out for their game.

    The only true consequences, repercussions and responsibility in Bali, are for the Bulees

    • Perhaps I’ve seen too many “Harden up, Princess” T-shirts and it’s starting to work 😉
      But I’ve still got a little bit of Pollyanna in me. Maybe that too will pass …

  2. Seems to me it’s pretty similar in all countries where education, er, is in need of improvement. Cause and effect is an important life lesson that should be taught in kindergarten….

    • It’s long way from the SODDI defence (Some Other Dude Did It) to “I accept responsibility for my actions”. Bali denizens are certainly not alone in ignoring responsibility – it’s just that the results of that seem to be more visible here. Or perhaps my expectations of ‘paradise’ are a little too high … 😉

  3. Maybe you are approaching or looking at things differently.

    First, you come and live here (just like other expats) making Bali an extension of your perceived definition of paradise, including the modern amenities you enjoy. And these things come into conflict with their lives. They used to have good moments without the internet or motorbikes.

    I was there in Ubud last Nov, I was surprised of the rapid influx of motorbikes. Most of the riders do not follow the traffic rules. I told some people there, they have to address it. It will ruin the peaceful atmosphere of the place.

    Second, maybe your approach is your western/modern approach & that’s not how to deal with these people. Maybe it is better to talk more with them, get to know them and their ways. It is not a matter of education. It is the Asian way. We are very respectful of other people and we treat foreign guests accordingly. I’m not saying you may be rude. But it is a matter of connecting with the local people as well. You’ll be surprised to see the patience and cheerfulness of the people.

    These are my two cents. Cheers! 🙂

    • Exactly. I agree with what you say. We are guests in this country and it is up to us to make the necessary adjustments. Bear in mind that a lot of what I write is tongue in cheek too! I think keeping a sense of humour while respecting local customs is part of the secret of living here successfully. 😉

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