Posts Tagged ‘culture’


The Collateral Damage From The Van Der Speck Sting

April 16, 2013

A recent video uploaded by Mr. Van Der Speck, the Dutch ‘journalist’ posing as a tourist to ‘expose’ so-called corruption and extortion practices of the Bali police, went viral, as its maker had hoped. It showed the well-known practice of paying police a small fee when caught in a traffic infringement.

Equipped with a hidden camera, plus an accomplice with a second camera close by, he rode past a police post, sans helmet, waiting to be pulled over. Following the best practices of journalistic entrapment, he effectively offered an inducement to the police officer to avoid ‘going to court’. Readily agreeing to a fairly high pay-off fee, he then intimated that he would love a beer, whereupon the unfortunate cop, perhaps motivated by guilt for accepting such a relatively high payment from a ‘nice guy’, scurried off and bought him a a few beers with the proceeds – which they then both enjoyed.

Reactions to this sting followed the predictable pattern of those who come from a different culture, where all corruption is considered wrong. Ignoring the distinction between ‘minor’ corruption here, and the unacceptable ‘major’ corruption which is endemic amongst Indonesia’s officials, the media, in a fit of unseemly glee, went bat-shit over the issue. No point in explaining to people that ‘minor’ corruption plays an important role in the complex economic and social fabric here, and is actually beneficial given the subsistence salaries that are the norm.

No, uninformed moralists of all persuasions, holding firmly to their belief that ALL payola is wrong no matter what the circumstances, expressed their condemnation with the usual Bali-bashing. This, of course, caused Bali’s authorities to lose face and crack down on a practice that is both complex and necessary, at least under the present system of dealing with traffic violations. The police involved were disciplined as well – a scapegoat was necessary.

And this opportunistic little set-up is now having very expensive repercussions for locals.

A friend – a local person – was pinged by traffic police in Kuta/Legian tonight for riding without a helmet. Yes, it was a silly and dangerous oversight. Normally, in return for a small fee (for locals) of 20,000-30,000, it would incur a safety lecture and an exhortation to stay safe. Most people I know learn from such an experience and remember to wear their helmet – at least for a couple of months anyway.

But this time, the cop apologised for not being able to accept the usual ‘fee’, and said his hands were tied as his supervisor was watching closely. He kept glancing around as if to find a hidden camera. He then proceeded to write out the first traffic ticket I have ever seen in Bali, saying that all police were being watched like hawks since the Lio Square sting by Van Der Speck.

My friend now has to go to the police station in the morning and pay the official fine, which according to the vaguely-worded citation, will be either 100,000, or 250,000, or 500,000 rupiah. Even the cop didn’t know.  That’s a lot of money for a local person. The printed citation form doesn’t even provide an address at which to pay the fine, undoubtedly because this method is so rarely used here that the kinks in the system haven’t even been discovered yet.

I wonder if the holier-than-thou ‘journalist’ ever considered that his actions would have such repercussions? A fine of up to two week’s salary for a local is savage. Loss of discretionary income for a police officer – who has already paid 100 million plus for a place in the police academy, and a further few million a month to ‘buy a franchise’ for a spot on a lucrative ‘fine’ corner will seriously affect his family.

Am I ‘for’ corruption? No. But the system under which the traffic police have operated for years is finely tuned to the society here, and the ‘fees’ paid for vehicular transgressions go straight to the officer to supplement his meagre salary. In developed countries, without a culture of, er,  personal fee-for-service, the money paid in fines goes to Consolidated Revenue for the government to totally waste on airy-fairy social experiments. I know which one I think is the more equitable system. I don’t even see it as ‘corruption’, rather, it is an equitable re-distribution of wealth.

Will this new system last? I don’t know. I do know the police on the street are not in favour of it because of the loss of their income. Their bosses may be of a different mind, suddenly realising that a hitherto-unrealised revenue stream is there for the taking. I know the average local is horrified that they will have to pay up to ten times the amount they are used to.

But I suspect that when the fuss dies down, Bali’s traffic regulation enforcement methods will quietly revert to their time-honoured state, where there is a social benefit for all who get trapped by their vehicular misdemeanours.

And, despite the arguments for and against the existing system here, the fact remains that no-one needs to pay anything to the police or the Traffic Department. Ever.

All you have to do is wear a helmet, a shirt, keep your headlights on during the day, stop before the white line at traffic lights, and carry a valid licence and registration documents. No-one will book you.

And Mr. Van Der Speck – next time you come blundering into a foreign country, ignorant of its culture and social mores, and deliberately break its laws in order to entrap someone – for the sake of journalism – stop and think. You might be happily back in Holland, but the damage your stupid journalism has inflicted remains.


One Person’s Normal Is Another’s Neurosis

September 16, 2011

Back in our home country, our life-styles can feel comfortable and secure, simply because we know the rules of social intercourse – whether we choose to adhere to them or not. Bali feels exotic to us, not just because of the climate,  the scenery and the look of the people, but because everything is done slightly differently here. There is a delightful ‘openness’ here that seems to characterise human interactions. For some visitors, this is a refreshing change from the suspicious and reserved insularity of some of our larger western-style communities. It is a difference that can be seductive and compelling, and one which encourages many to return time and time again.

Other visitors say it feels invasive – at least at first. The natural tendency of local people to be be friendly and curious about the lives of guests on their island can cause consternation, or even offence. A friend on her first visit here came back to the safety of her hotel, exhausted and perturbed.

“One of the locals stopped me in the street”, she related breathlessly. “He asked me where I was going!” She thought about this amazing encounter for a moment. “Then he wanted to know where I’d been!” She shook her head in wonder. “And then, he asked me if I was married! And when I told him no, he actually said, “Why not? The cheek of it! ”

She was upset about ‘being interrogated’ as she described it. It took quite a while to explain that, by Bali standards, this was perfectly normal – an acceptable social curiosity fuelled by genuine interest. I tentatively suggested that a response of “Not yet” to the question about her marital status might have been met with a sympathetic smile instead of an incredulous query. As a single, successful and independent woman, she didn’t really like that, and told me so emphatically. But, a week later, she said,  “I get it now. They value marriage and family so highly, don’t they?” They do indeed.

The more I stay here, the more I like the little differences in cultural mores. They get me into trouble occasionally, but they do keep me on my toes. At first, I was a little put out at finding someone perched on my bike when I came back to it. I used to think, “Hey! That’s my property!” – without actually saying anything, of course.   Now it’s “Hello, how are you?”, followed by smiles all round and sometimes an interesting conversation before I’m on my way. It’s no big deal. Bali sometimes feels like one big shared space, and I’m told it’s good to share.

The role of religion is different here too – it’s a big part of life in Bali. Most of the predominantly Hindu population is quite devout, yet they have no issues with people having other belief systems. Unlike some of the fundamentalist-influenced communities elsewhere in Indonesia, the spirit of religious tolerance flourishes here in deed, not just in word. However, it is still unwise to declare yourself an atheist or agnostic – that will get you some really strange looks. I did once, and the genuinely concerned response was, “Oh, you poor man – I will pray for you.” Even government forms here require you to choose an established religion. Leaving that section blank is not an option.

On a more secular note, I like the way the girls smile and flirt, make direct eye contact, and touch your arm in the course of normal conversation. Here, it’s a customary social activity that has nothing remotely to do with any sexual come-on. The local girls seem to be slightly shocked if anyone takes it as such, because most are quite shy. I just wish that some visitors to Bali would understand that before taking friendliness as an open invitation to proposition and grope. Things can appear quite distorted in the mirror of one’s own culture.

But the social norm thing works in reverse too. I must confess that for all my worldliness (ha!) I am still somewhat startled when I ask a shy and demure local how they are, and they forthrightly say, “Not good. I have my menstruation today. Too much blood!” Yikes! Actually, too much information! Unfortunately, when that happened with one of my domestic helpers,  I seized on it as a great opportunity to demonstrate that I too was an über-cool person who was unfazed by open discussion of natural bodily functions. So I pointed out the cupboard where I keep an emergency supply of feminine hygiene items for villa guests in case she needed anything. She promptly went bright crimson – an astonishing feat for someone with her complexion. The next ten minutes were spent in shared giggles and whispered conversations with her sister, who happened to be visiting at the time. I guess you can’t win them all.

Then there’s the language. Many locals translate fairly literally when using English, which can lead to misunderstandings. I had some business dealings with an agent whose office was a long way away from my home. An attractive woman, she said that she would happily deliver some crucial documents once they had been stamped by relevant authorities.  A week later, when they were ready, she sent me a text message saying: “Is it OK if I come and play at your villa now?” Ye Gods! Do I say I’m busy? Do I break out the champagne and get fresh pool towels? Luckily, my Bahasa-literate friend laughingly explained that the Indonesian word for ‘play’ and the word for ‘visit’ were one and the same. I think I missed an embarrassing encounter by that much.

As I said, the rules are a little different here. I think I’ve survived by keeping an open mind, putting my preconceptions to one side and just riding the complex currents of this society while learning what works – and what doesn’t. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but hey – isn’t that best way to learn?


Peeling Back The Layers Of The Bali Onion

September 26, 2010

A recent email from a friend who has been following my febrile maunderings, both in the Bali Times and on-line, gave me pause for thought. After saying some nice things (always pleasant to hear even if undeserved) she went on to say about my more recent articles: “I seem to detect a note of angst …”

Hmm, I thought – she is not wrong. My earlier articles did seem to focus on the funny, bizarre and absurdist side of Bali life. It was all new, and in the beginning, as a wide-eyed expat, I wrote more about the comedic travails of a bule in a strange land than about the darker aspects of local politics, regulatory shenanigans and endemic corruption. But lately, my posts have been more about the systematised and creeping hostility faced by some foreigners here, and the difficulties that this creates. Not good, I thought. Has my joie de vivre truly been replaced by the dreaded expat ennui? Is the quality of my life now being measured by whatever angst du jour is being served by Warung Bali?

But her next two questions prompted even more introspection: “Are you a bit sorry you made the move? I am curious as to what you are feeling now about making the big move 15 odd months ago.” Oh dear. Based on the increasingly frequent articles where I whinge a lot, one could be forgiven for thinking that disillusionment and regret had set in. So I had a bit of a think about all this while at one of my regular sunset beach sojourns, and tried to crystallise my usually amorphous thoughts and feelings into something more precise, something that could be written down and analysed.

I failed, of course, because trying to distill the essence of one’s relationship with Bali into a few banal bullet points is like using Power Point slides in place of philosophical discourse. Coming to live in Bali is like peeling an onion. At first you just see the whole onion, and think that because you recognise the shape, colour, smell and texture, you know all about onions. My onion was appealing and quirky and I was delighted to play with it for a long time. Then I decided it was time to peel off the outer skin to explore new properties. I found them, but many were unexpected.

Some delighted me – the relaxed, unstressed and cheap lifestyle, the beaches and the people themselves. Some distressed me – the corruption, the difficulty of getting the police to do anything, the nightmare of bringing personal effects to this country, and the belief of many locals here that foreigners are walking Automatic Teller Machines.

Inevitably, peeling off more layers of the Bali onion revealed complexities unheard of in a more ordinary vegetable. There is a depth and richness in each successive layer which can only be found in cultures other than one’s own. And just as inevitably, some of the gems uncovered by my search for underlying structure, mores, culture and practices were delightful – the vibrant cultures of the Indonesian people who live here, creating an eclectic, chaotic and wonderful mix, the vagaries of the tropical climate and the spectacular scenery in places other than South Bali.

Other revelations were less than inspiring. The increasing antipathy of the central government towards expats and their school-aged children, and the refusal to issue and renew KITAS permits was one. The imposition of an internet filter which slows down an already borderline network infrastructure is another. The use of ‘blasphemy’ legislation to attack and vilify ‘heretics’ in direct contravention of both the principles of Pancasila and the Indonesian Constitution is yet another. Throw in tacit government support of the criminal thugs of the FPI and Bali’s shortsighted over-development and you have a number of factors that tend to take the gloss off paradise for its residents.

So in retrospect, I guess I have been writing more about some of these latter aspects, simply because living here for a while exposes one to the broader socio-political issues that affect expat life, and some of these are not amenable to light-hearted writing styles. But does that mean that I have become a curmudgeonly old fart who is disillusioned with life in Bali? Some have unkindly pointed out that I was already one of those before I came here, so Bali life has not changed me one iota. I must reluctantly agree.

Am I sorry I made the move to Bali? A resounding “no” to that question. Bali is a wonderful place to live, despite the chaos of its infrastructure and governance. The emerging democracy in the region is a crucible of frustration at times, but it promises a bright future if it is not hijacked by radical fringe elements, greed and corruption. Of course the place has flaws. But diamonds have flaws too, and their value and beauty is unparalleled.

However, one outcome of all this unseemly introspection is the realisation that I am getting jaded, critical and cranky in my writing. I want to recapture some of the wide-eyed, dopey innocence I had before. I want to see the funny side of intransigence again, to feel the newness of this place regardless of my own ennui. I need a little time to do that. That’s why this will be my last post. At least for a while.