The Death of a Thousand Cuts

May 2, 2010

There is a dark, cheerless room somewhere in Indonesia, lacking windows and completely cut off from the realities of life outside. Within that cloistered space are are special group of legislators and regulators, tightly focused on their endless task of driving nails into the coffin of expatriate life in Bali. If anyone had performed an autopsy on the unfortunate occupant of the casket – The Unknown Bali Expat – they would have discovered that the cause of death was exsanguination from a thousand cuts. But of course, there will never be autopsies on the death of expat dreams because nobody cares.

In Bali, expats are seen as a bottomless well of money for both local traders and the authorities. I have no real issue with the differential in prices for bules and locals – that’s just the way it is here, and it helps keep costs down for locals whose disposable wealth is miniscule. Up to now, even the huge swag of foreigner-targeted special charges and procedures have been onerous, but almost bearable – if you can call imposts like a $1,200 USD payment to Jakarta for each year of a KITAS permit bearable. Or the new $50,000 bride price now payable to Jakarta for foreigners who are the marrying kind. Yes, it is expensive for expats to live here when you factor in all the charges, but many of us have been able to manage, albeit with the odd grumble.

But now things seem to be different. Our Indonesian legislators, no longer content with slamming expats with every conceivable charge, and then some, seem to be changing direction. The aim seems to be to discourage us altogether. They simply don’t want us here. The ludicrous cost of alcohol in Bali is obviously aimed at foreigners – locals are not big consumers of imported wine and spirits. The new fines for motorists are simply out of reach of locals, so will obviously be selectively enforced for foreigners. The new rules – unpublicised – for bringing in personal effects now mean that you can’t easily bring your stuff here from home.

Here’s a frustrating little story about importing a few boxes of clothes, sports equipment for a child and the usual memorabilia that can ease the shock of transitioning to a new country. My friend used an Australian freight agent with many years of experience of bringing goods to Bali via Surabaya. The stuff duly arrived in Surabaya, and she was sent an invoice by the local freight forwarder, demanding a copy of her KITAS and payment of $800 USD for import duty. That’s strange, she thought – the rules say that there is no duty for payable for personal effects for KITAS holders, so why does he want both the duty fees and the KITAS? The local agent immediately changed his story and claimed that he had never sent her an invoice in the first place. Hmmm.

The troubles multiplied rapidly after that. The agent continued to demand a KITAS – not an option, as my friend lives here on a different type of long-term visa. Then came a demand for her to mail her passport to Surabaya. Yeah, right. “I’ll come to Surabaya and bring it myself”, she said. “Ahh, no, not possible …” was the reply. Finally came the news that under new rules, she now needs an import permit. However, once the goods have arrived in Indonesia, it is too late for an import permit, she was told. “We can re-export the goods to Singapore, and bring them back using ‘semi-legal’ methods” was the next suggestion. Wonderful – the quote for this scam was another couple of thousand dollars.

Worn down by the ten weeks it had taken to get to this stage, my friend was ready to just ship the goods out again. This annoyed the agent, who suggested that the goods had been left in Surabaya for too long and would most likely now be destroyed. The pressure intensified, with all suggestions from the agent revolving around huge storage, shipping and duty charges, payable, of course, to the agent.

In desperation, my friend said that she would get the required import permit, no matter what it took. Can you smirk via email? This agent did. His response was: “Ahh, but you need to have a company to get an import permit”. “I have a company”, she replied. “Ahh, but do you have warehousing facilities? All companies importing goods must also have a Government-approved warehouse to store the goods.”  She was speechless. “And when did all these ‘new rules’ come into effect? “While your ship was on the way to Surabaya”, was the bland response.

So the end result is that, after more than three months of stalling and inconsistent rule-quoting by the authorities, my friend is shipping her goods back to Australia. Her Australian agent confirmed that it was nearly impossible now to send personal effects to Indonesia and will no longer deal with shipments from Australia to Indonesia while these ludicrous impediments exist.

As I said before, I am beginning to believe that the Indonesian Government just doesn’t want us here. Given that many expats spend perhaps upwards of 400 million rupiah for each year here, it just doesn’t make sense economically. If you don’t want us here, be honest – just tell us that we are not really welcome. It will save a lot of angst for all concerned.



  1. Welcome to f*****g la la land Vyt… so excited that I’m going
    … this place is so repulsively corrupt.
    Honestly … surely there’s other tropical places to reside in the sun (I mean the equator goes all the way around the globe right?)
    Why give them our custom?
    Yay… soooo outa here!

    • Hmmm … I think that’s a tad harsh. But I understand why you would feel like that given the negative experiences you have had here. I’m not yet ready to dismiss Bali, or Indonesia for that matter. I’ll see how I feel in a few years, after more time in the crucible here 😉

  2. One thing I have learnt about living here is not to stress about the little things too much. It’s also not just foreigners that have problems dealing with the government, locals also have to put up with it.

    How many countries do you know that go out and welcome foreigners with open arms?

    • Mike, Australia is much more welcoming. An immigrant granted a resident visa gets hundreds of hours of free English lessons, financial support, medicare, access to all kinds of education opportunities without being wealthy, and the general attitude from government is one of assistance rather than obstruction. The people themselves are also welcoming and, unlike Indonesia where a white person is treated differently based on their skin color and culture, I find most Australians to not hold such prejudices. I put this as an example to answer your question. I do appreciate Australia, but my heart is in Indonesia.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Vyt, Vyt. Vyt said: The Death of a Thousand Cuts: http://wp.me/pyYHq-5X […]

  4. Are you sure that there are actually new rules, or is this another example of corrupt customs/agents? I have heard of similar problems for as long as I can remember. I read on another forum where the expat went through the extremely painful process, including arguing over a high “tax” on bringing the urn in containing his mother’s ashes.

    Indonesia needs to take affirmative action on corruption at all levels. An authority should be set up with real teeth that can deal with any and all complaints of corruption from the top down. It will never move forward until this is stamped out.

    • Couldn’t agree more about the corruption aspect. But those who are responsible for drafting new laws and regulations should also take their share of the responsibility. Re the shipping – one version of the many ‘truths’ told to me about this saga was that new laws have been passed (unpublicised, naturally) but the regulations deriving from those laws have not actually been gazetted. Which would mean that the officials in this case are jumping the gun. Possibly for profit – or am I being unkind to even suggest that?

  5. No, you’re not unkind to suggest the for profit angle. Your friend went through too much for it to have simply been an agent obeying the letter of the law.

    Articles like “The Death of a Thousand Cuts” are a huge help in spreading the word about the corruption, dishonesty, and underhandedness. Exposing an event like this is helpful to people, like me, who are about to ship goods to Indonesia. It is also helpful in at least giving pause for thought by officials if they know they are going to be held up to criticism for their nefarious actions.

  6. I lived in Indonesia years ago and loved Bali and am disappointed by your story of corruption.

    Countries with tropical beaches and cool highlands that are friendly to foreign expats moving in are — so I’ve heard — Ecuador and Costa Rica. Uruguay also is an “easy” expat country, has a good temperate climate, beaches, but no tropical weather.

    But Bali is special!

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