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Why Do Parents Insist On Killing Their Kids In Bali?

July 19, 2013

I don’t really understand why some Balinese parents are so hell-bent on killing their kids here. Oh, they don’t do it deliberately – in many ways they care for their children in a way that far surpasses child-raising practices in westernised countries.

But they allow them to ride motorbikes from a very young age – an age when common sense has not yet begun to develop, when risk-awareness is non-existent and understanding of consequences is totally absent. And ‘road rules’? Well, I doubt that many of the parents who allow their kids on the road have any idea themselves.

So I’m on the road, on the way to brunch, and the road is full of kids on bikes. Many are in elementary school uniforms, all look to be between 7 and 10 years old. They are skittish and impulsive, weaving all over the road, impulsively accelerating and braking without a thought for any other road users. They are dangerous, and unaware of anyone but themselves. I ride defensively, because they show the same the attributes of caution as a cat caught in the middle of a busy road. At least a cat has the sense to be scared; these kids show no fear.

Suddenly, on a bend in the road, a child on a bike – way too big and heavy for him – comes straight at me on my side of the road. He looks to be about 6 years old. He is not wearing a helmet. It’s a blind corner, but he is taking a racing line, cutting the corner at speed, oblivious to the possibility of on-coming traffic. He sees me, but takes no evasive action. Maybe that’s because he has a phone firmly clutched in his left hand and has not yet mastered swerves using only one hand.

I brake hard – tricky on a bend – and manage to get far enough onto the left shoulder to avoid a head-on crash. He deviates not one centimetre from his line on the wrong side of the road. As he passes, he glares at me, his face twisted with anger. How dare I, as a bule, occupy a part of the road where he wants to be? How arrogant of me.

Worse, as he flashes past, his passenger – a little girl of perhaps 4 or 5, who is also helmet-less, just looks at me with that Balinese direct opaque stare, without a trace of fear, or a skerrick of understanding that she was seconds away from death or a horrible maiming.

In the next ten minutes, I see dozens of small children on motorbikes, riding three abreast, chatting to each other and ignoring oncoming cars that have to brake and swerve. I see others cutting corners, stopping without warning, turning right from the left lane without indicating, and entering heavy traffic streams from the left without looking. Just like their elders.

I ride as carefully as I can to avoid them all, because I know that in Bali, if any local crashes into my bike because of their ineptness, inexperience or stupidity, it will be my fault. I am the foreigner; if I had had the sense to stay in my own country instead of coming here, the accident never would have happened. Ergo, it’s my fault. Balinese logic.

And if I do have an accident where a local is hurt, at best I will be expected to pay for all hospital bills, repairs to their bike, ‘compensation’ to the family and a gratuity to the police to avoid further unpleasantness. At worst, I will be beaten or killed by an enraged roadside mob.

So why do Balinese parents allow their under-aged, inexperienced, unlicensed kids to ride the family bike? They know the danger. They know that three people a day are killed on bikes in Bali alone, and that countless others are badly injured. They know that children are more at risk than adults, and they know that children will always promise to be ‘careful’ despite not having the slightest understanding of what ‘careful’ even means.

My feeling is that it’s sheer, uncaring laziness. Or a pervasive fatalism. I was with one family as their very young son jumped on the family bike and rode off to school.
“Why don’t you give him a lift?” I asked the father.
“Oh, I’m too busy”, was the reply.
I tried a different tack: “But he doesn’t have a licence …”
I got a pitying look. “Of course not. He can’t get a licence until he’s 16″. (Unspoken: “You idiot.”)
I thought I’d give it another try: “But it’s dangerous …”
“No. He knows how to ride the bike. He has been practising in the gang outside for two weeks now.”
I have no answer to that.

Finally, I asked the question that I had been avoiding, as I didn’t want to bring bad luck.
“Does he know what to do if he has an accident?”
“Oh, yes”, he laughed. “I’ve told him. Get out of there as fast as you can!”

Oh. I guess that’s OK then.

With growing impatience at my obviously retarded intellect, he also indicates that the young boy had been riding as a pillion passenger practically since he was born, “so he knows the rules”. Presumably by some variant of osmosis. Or worse, by watching his parents, both of whom scare me to death when I see their abysmal lack of road-craft when riding.

Later, as I was writing this piece, I spoke about this problem to a couple of my local friends, who gave me an ever-so-gentle spray. They politely implied that I don’t understand Balinese customs, that “this is what we do”, and that I should not bring my Western preconceptions to Bali. At least this time I didn’t get the time-honoured response of : “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?” But I’m also sure that one will come from the affronted after they read this.

Well, maybe I don’t understand. Maybe I believe that all parents have a responsibility to keep their children from harm, and this includes not allowing them to have control of a lethal weapon  such as a car or motorbike before they are old enough to do so responsibly. Maybe I don’t want to be killed or injured by a child on a bike, or see children badly hurt even if their parents don’t seem to care.

But hey, what do I know? I’m just a bule here.

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11 comments

  1. Reblogged this on 8degreesoflatitude and commented:
    Have a read of this. It might make YOU think.


    • Thanks for that! 🙂


  2. Not that i don’t agree with everything you have written but as with most of us that live on Bali we tend to forget some of the details from “home” where ever that might be. For instance if you think the possession of a drivers license is any guarantee of safety then you haven’t been to any UK, US, etc. city center of a Friday or Saturday night. And as I remember from my misspent youth we all had our drivers licenses in the one hand and a bottle of JB and/or a spliff in the other and that was often before school. Luckily most of us survived to know better. At least in Bali they don’t seem to have acquired the JB habit …. yet.


  3. And that is why, sadly, I am no longer visiting Bali 2 or 3 times a year. I would love to be in Bali and miss Ubud but the traffic is just TOO awful. I rather think it will be the same in other Asian countries too.
    While I am delighted that the locals have more money and can buy all the cars and bikes, they simply do not have the roads to accommodate them.
    More and more accidents are inevitable.
    Bye bye beautiful Bali.


  4. I am at present living in Cambodia and here it is exactly the same,if not worse.So far this year over 2000 deaths already due to vehicle accidents.


  5. On this topic we totally agree Vyt. As the father of three boys with my Balinese wife this is the one area where I seriously “put my foot down” and made it very clear that our boys will not be driving motor bikes until they are age 16 and have been properly trained and issued a license. Even then I might well buy them old beat up VW’s to run around in…and they can learn auto mechanics to keep them running.

    On the upside, the junior high schools in Ubud (not sure about the rest of Bali) do not allow students to commute to school on motorbikes that they drive. Actually the students aren’t even allowed to commute to and from elementary through junior school on pedal bikes.

    Vyt, a contributing problem is that the bemo system in Bali, once a reliable and very cheap form of local transport, has been falling apart in many areas of Bali for some time. That collapse is the result of easy credit and availability of motor bikes, so this seems to be a vicious circle.

    Andra, I’ve been living in Ubud for 16 years and while the traffic has indeed gotten worse I just can’t wrap my mind around that alone being a reason to give Ubud a pass. Also noted during those 16 years is a huge improvement in the quality of the roads in and around Ubud.


  6. Yes, it is alarming and I even try to get into the mindset of “this is how it is in Bali and I am a foreigner”, yet your points are accurate- and I appreciate the risk you are taking in making direct, bold criticisms of this issue. Thanks for the using your courage to post this.


  7. Agree with your article and have been met with the same response from my lovely Balinese neighbours in Geloror Carik. They look at me as if I am stupid — like — This is our village (area) i guess. They wear a helmut to go to Iman Bonjol, but not to the market on Gelogor Carik (1/2 way) .. yet village mentality.

    [Remainder of comment deleted – thank you, good points, but off-topic … ]


  8. I’m indonesian living in jakarta. It’s very common in this country to see children riding motorbikes and imo the traffic in jkt is even scarier than in bali. Yet,parents are letting this happen,even buying the kids their own bikes. Not being stereotype, but usually most are llower middle class or low-educated parents that allow this to happen. It’s also common to see parents having 3 kids(without helmets for sure!) with them on a bike. In less than a month will come idul fitri holiday where is the tradition of “pulang kampung” (going back to hometown) is becoming the biggest concern for the government right now. Yet,the government dont do anything radical about this. They ride their bikes with 2 adults and at least 2 or 3 kids for hours and even 10 hours or more. So, i couldnt be more agree with you, why do parents insist on killing their kids in INDONESIA.


  9. Just a factual comment. The legal age to get a license is now 17. My youngest son just got his recently when he turned 17.


  10. “Not being stereotype, but usually most are llower middle class or low-educated parents that allow this to happen.”

    That is absolutely not true, not even close to being true.

    This problem is endemic to all economic strata in Bali aside from the very poorest (as in East Bali) where they walk to school and very likely don’t even own one motor bike in the entire family.

    In reality it’s more the opposite that is true, meaning that the problem is far more prevalent among those who you would not classify as “middle class or low-educated.”

    It’s therein that lies the greatest frustration, meaning simply that those who we might think should be more careful and using common sense, in fact, are not.



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