Is it just me? Or do we have a total system crash here?
I wrote the following rather long piece start to finish without stopping, in response to two heartfelt comments on the Jakarta Post reader’s forum. In those comments, the writers were giving voice to their concerns as visitors, about Bali and the issues that this island faces.
While their comments were valid, I doubt these two writers understand the unprecedented and bizarre situation which Bali finds itself in now, being all at once many things, among them: a beloved tourism mecca; a crossroads of global and regional cultures; a development boomtown; a small province in a country beset with serious structural, economic and ideological crises, many of which are not especially salient in Bali but affect it nevertheless; and a hotbed of internally generated and internally felt conflicts that are unique to the island. All of this is Bali now.
Internal conflict can result in internal injuries, or economic and social ones.
The issues mentioned in these two readers’ comments touched on various themes often noted by visitors, like long queues on entry at the airport, bad sidewalks and garbage strewn hither and thither. I agree entirely with their comments, but felt compelled to go a bit further.
Why Bali Might Need a Total System Reboot
Bravo to both Jakarta Post readers for speaking up. I have the same concerns that they do. As well as several others. Where to begin?
The traffic jam problems in Bali point to chronic corruption and mismanagement. Getting around the popular areas of the island (Ubud, Jimbaran, Tuban, Kuta, Legian, Seminyak, Kerobokan, Umalas, Canggu) means averaging less than 20km per hour. Often far less. And it means sitting in long queues and chaotic logjams at many intersections (more like rugby scrums on wheels). It’s frustrating. This island needs more roads, better roads, parking bans, parking violation enforcement, road repairs and public transportation. If they don’t get going on these issues, then the tourism industry will grind to a halt, stuck in a steamy jam of exhaust fumes and road rage.
The daily mash up on wheels in Seminyak.
My next concerns are crime and law enforcement. Crime levels in Bali have skyrocketed in the past five years. Robbery, bag-grabbing, vandalism, vehicle theft, assault, prostitution, widespread use of drugs by the local population (notably MDMA, heroin and crystal meth), fraud, rape, firearms offenses, and murders are becoming commonplace, to the point that the local daily newspaper doesn’t even put them on the front page. But they’re in there. And they are tactically sidestepped by the English language media, lest the truth dampen the enthusiasm of the world’s deep-pocketed tourists.
The crime situation here will strike a devastating blow to tourism if it eventually breaks the surface and emerges into the international press. It will certainly strike a devastating blow to quality tourism, at any rate. When I first came to live here almost 15 year ago, Bali was safe. Completely safe. It certainly is not now. Staying here, even for just a week, requires vigilance. Doors must be locked at all times, personal security guards must be in place, and valuables must be either locked in a bolted-down safe, or carried out of sight when one ventures out of the house.
Touching on the broad issue of law enforcement, in addition to the serious crimes mentioned above, lighter ones, like driving offenses (including driving under the influence), are so commonplace as to be normal, rather than extraordinary. On my 8 kilometer journey from office to home, I made a daily ritual of counting all of the traffic offenses that caused me to brake or swerve during the journey. The lowest count was 27. The highest was 48. The journey takes 15 to 20 minutes. Do the math. That’s 3 to 6 dangerous violations per kilometer, or about 1.5 to 3 per minute of travel. Daunting indeed.
The number of traffic deaths in Bali is a grave disaster. According to a local newspaper, the death toll on the roads averages more than one a day (that was in 2007 – – certainly it will be higher for 2008). This means that more people die unnecessarily on the roads each year in Bali, than all of the victims of Bali Bombs I and II. In addition to road deaths, the numbers of injuries and disabilities due to accidents is enormous. Certainly more people are seriously wounded or incapacitated annually on the roads, than were injured in both Bali bombs put together. Think about that for a moment. In Bali there is more terror on the roads than there was in all of the bombs that have ever exploded here. But no one is holding memorial ceremonies or erecting monuments for these victims. Perhaps they should be. Unlike the bombs, the traffic terror is certain to recur, every year, ad infinitum, unless something changes.
Turning a blind eye to the poor quality of Bali’s health services.
My next concern is the dire state of public health, and of health care facilities in Bali. This island is now experiencing an active rabies outbreak with numerous human deaths, ongoing avian flu infection in poultry, occasional localised cholera outbreaks which killed many during the past year and devastated numerous villages, an exploding bomb of HIV infection, continuous problems with TB (including TBC and drug resistant forms), and widespread seasonal epidemics of dengue fever. Last year Chickamunga was added to the mix, felling scores. Typhoid and salmonella infections are commonplace as well, and even tourists visiting for a short time have been infected. According to a paper delivered recently at an international medical convention, 80 percent of the population is chronically infected with heliobacter, which causes gastrointestinal distress, wasting syndrome, tropical sprue, and is the root cause of stomach ulcers.
Add to all of this the local population’s sad statistics for diabetes and serious complications related to it (kidney failure, gangrene, blindness, etc. ), high blood pressure and complications related to it (stroke especially), and infant mortality. Public health and health education here are minimal at best. Just today I read on the front page of the Bali Post that it is almost impossible to get the local population to enact simple household mosquito eradication techniques, or to wash their hands after using the toilet (remember, this is a non-tissue-using culture). This top-of-page-one article bemoaned the lack of cooperation on the part of the general population in basic public health matters and no light was glimpsed at the end of the tunnel.
Despite the prosperity and the abundance of luxury in Bali, poverty is a gnawing problem, and is ever more acutely felt by increasing numbers. Poverty and its symptoms are familiar neighbours to the Balinese: malnutrition, gambling, child prostitution, panhandling, crime, and suicide. Just today, the newspaper reported three suicides in poor areas. This is not unusual.
If one man’s trash is another one’s treasure, am I rich yet?
So the pretty picture in the travel books and brochures clearly does not accurately match the picture on the ground. The disconnect between the tourism rhetoric, and the voices of those who are suffering from these myriad problems is surreal. Paradise? For whom? For millions it’s not paradise at all, particularly when they fall ill, which is often, unfortunately.
As for the quality of health care facilities here, it is astonishingly poor. While Bali’s neighbours (Singapore, Thailand), are enjoying a big economic boost from medical travel and the foreign exchange it brings, Bali is still a hardship posting in terms of health issues. You don’t come here for medical services. You get out of here for medical services.
The poor state of public health and health care facilities in Bali and Indonesia as whole is one of the reasons that Singapore and Thailand are enjoying such an economic boost from medical travel. Those who fall ill in Bali are rushed to Mt Elizabeth or Gleneagles in Singapore, or Bumrungrad in Bangkok, and they’re not just tourists. Local residents if they have the means (or can scrape the cash together or borrow it), high-tail it to Singapore and Bangkok as well. No self-respecting professional class Indonesian would check into a local hospital for a hip replacement or bypass or kidney stones or cancer treatment or even for diagnostic work. This is a truly tragic situation for an island that could be enjoying the benefits of its popularity and prosperity in the form of improved health care facilities staffed by skilled and conscientious professionals.
Not a happy camper. An injured tourist tests his luck at a local clinic.
Where does the blame lie? Much of it lies in the protectionist stance of the Indonesian government, which bans foreign doctors from practicing here. The rest probably lies with lack of public investment in basic services like health care, the toll of corruption on all public services, and with the extremely poor quality of education in Indonesia.
Medical schools here are generally decades behind the rest of the world. They lack quality faculty, facilities, and information. And they are rife with corruption. Exam scores can be bought or negotiated, and frequently are, since a medical degree is seen as a magic carpet ride to easy money and respect. Parents pay. It is also important to understand that most M.D. candidates (and practicing doctors) lack adequate language training, and so are unable to participate in ongoing international professional education and conferences (mostly conducted in English). Nor can they read The New England Journal of Medicine, or The Lancet (English, again), or use normal online resources (English). While Latin was once the lingua franca of medicine, now English is. Without rigourous language training, starting long before formal medical training, there is scant hope for Indonesia in terms of health care.
Regarding its health issues, Indonesia and Bali could look to Singapore or India for examples. They haven’t yet, and show no signs of doing so. There seems to be little interest in putting the people’s wellbeing before petty nationalistic pride (or disguised shame mixed with a misplaced sense of self-importance?). And so cooperation and collaboration with foreign medical professionals and agencies is effectively blocked. Occasionally one wonders if perhaps there is a conscious policy being carried out which is based on the notion that the population of this country is already huge, and therefore health care should not be promoted lest the population balloon further. In that case, every death would be seen as a boon. We certainly hope this is not the case.
Where are we going? And will there be room for all of us when we get there?
To sum up health concerns here in Bali, if you come to the island, don’t get hurt or sick, and take sensible precautions not to. Certainly take care on the roads and practice safe sex, at any rate. And don’t take animal bites or scratches lightly.
Among this constellation of troubles, there are the added tribulations in Bali of excessive duties and poor distribution channels for imported foods and beverages. While certain factions in the government hold that severely restricting and taxing these imports will stimulate domestic enterprises, history and the wisdom of the world’s wisest economists have shown otherwise.
If imports are restricted because they have become preferred (being of higher quality, or being more appropriate to the market), then what happens is a widening of the local producers’ competitive disadvantage and decreased ability to export, as well. With fewer higher quality or more advanced products in the local market, local enterprises have no high water mark to strive for, and quickly fall behind. They also have no examples to follow (or emulate and eventually improve upon). The current unwise policy of erecting fear-based trade barriers will hurt Indonesia, not help it. I hope that the leadership here can brush up on what even economics undergraduates elsewhere are expected to understand, otherwise the country is putting itself in a very tight corner, from which it may be impossible to extricate itself later.
This last point is relevant to tourism, because the tourism “product” of Bali depends on delivering an experience that meets and exceeds expectations, and compares favourably to other tourism “products” on offer elsewhere. The most lucrative target markets around the world are made up of people who enjoy quality and expect to find food and beverages of a global standard readily available when they are on holiday – – particularly when they are on holiday.
Do they look like deliberate destroyers of domestic wine and food industries to you?
Most of these people work hard to enjoy their leisure time, and they want to use it to relax, and enjoy the refined pleasures of life – – eating well, drinking fine wines in good company, perhaps sipping a well-mixed cocktail on the beach at sunset. It would be nothing short of a tragedy if Bali loses out to the competition in its ability to provide what this discerning and wealthy clientele expect in a tourist destination. Especially since Bali already has all eyes on it, and is becoming a darling of the moneyed and educated elite. What a waste it would be to repel such an opportunity.
Bear in mind, that neighbouring countries limit duties on imported food and beverages (wine in particular), in order to be sure of providing equivalent (or a higher) levels of culinary, enological and cultural experiences than their competitors do, and at prices that represent good value (more important than ever in these belt-tightening times).
Thailand, Myanmar and Singapore are case studies to consider carefully. We can purchase fine Australian and French wines in the supermarkets of Yangon for the same price, or less, than they cost at home, and for one-tenth of the price they cost in Bali. People who appreciate the finer things in life are the ones you want to attract, not repel.
Ill-advised trade barriers are a vintage problem that could leave the economy corked.
Singapore and Thailand have been very proactive in addressing this particular matter. They are both intent upon establishing their countries as centres of not only local but also global high culture, understanding that it is advantageous to attract the interest and investment of cultivated, educated, and refined populations from the whole world over. And they understand that meeting the expectations of the world’s cultured and educated populations ultimately supports and fosters conservation – and development – of their indigenous cultures.
This is a far better strategy than making gross arrival numbers the target (as Bali has). In aiming for gross arrival numbers, what happens is just that: gross. To get the numbers, this small and precious island has abandoned its almost automatic claim to quality, and gone down-market. It seems intent on becoming a Circle K franchise instead of being a Bergdorf’s. What a grand mistake. And how avoidable.
Bali by numbers. What you get when you go for gross arrival figures.
My background is in marketing. We certainly know from long experience, that if the client has something rare, desirable, widely known throughout the world, something forever and always available only in a very limited supply (like diamonds), the only strategy to take is to market it “up”, not “down”. The only possible strategy to follow is to cultivate and maintain quality, and to offer it to those few who can appreciate it.
In this regard, it seems, this little island has gone terribly astray. If Bali can’t get back on the right path soon, it will be too late. Perhaps it already is. Looking around the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak area, I rather think the toll of midnight has already struck for Bali, and the vampires, werewolves and “living dead” are about to take control.
Eager to learn, but what’s on the beach curriculum?
My greatest concern and greatest hope for Bali is education. The quality of education here is terrible, and there is absolutely no excuse for that, given the amount of money sloshing around this island and the levels of international interest and attention focused on it.
The availability of education here is terrible. There is no free education. From gradeschool up, there are monthly and annual fees, books must be bought, uniforms must be bought and washed, and transportation to and from schools is not provided. This is effectively like levying a tax on the working class and the poor, and pressing them down further.
The physical condition of schools here is awful as well, with many buildings leaking, filthy, and some on the verge of total collapse. Given this, one wonders about the quality of the facilities and equipment inside the schools. Don’t ask. Don’t even dare to ask.
Maybe the kid’s are alright, but Mum’s feeling marginalised.
Meanwhile, there are cries and protests daily in the local newspaper about unemployment among the Balinese themselves on their own island. All I can say is put out an advertisement for a position that requires a moderate level of education and skill, and see what it yields. I have done this, innumerable times, and also resorted to recruitment agencies, and the results were daunting and depressing. Now try putting out an advertisement for a fairly-paid manual or heavy labour position. There will be no Balinese people applying whatsoever. Why not? I can’t quite fathom why not. It seems that the local population deems any hard work beneath them. Construction and labour jobs are left to the Javanese, Lombokers, Sumbanese, and other outsiders.
And now we have the next big issue that claims so much space in the local press. The Balinese are griping that their island is inundated with arrivals from elsewhere in Indonesia, and that most of them are a pretty rough lot, not to mention the fact that they are eroding the hegemony of Balinese culture as we know it, which has been the island’s tourism bait for the past eight decades or so (since it was reinvented and embellished collaboratively with foreign Bali groupies). This is a tricky problem indeed. The tension about arrivals from other islands, unfortunately, tends to crystallise around ethnic and religious differences, which are not in fact the real mechanism at work.
The mechanism at work is socio-economic. The Balinese, seem to have been convinced by their own PR over the past 80 years, that they are very special indeed, and therefore no longer take menial jobs. It’s nearly impossible outside of Karangasem or Buleleng to find a Balinese person willing to work on a building site, for example. These projects are all manned by outsiders, because the Balinese seem allergic to pouring concrete or nailing down wood. The result is that the most prosperous and desirable areas for development are inundated with labourers from outside, sucked in to fill the insatiable demand for construction workers. With so much building going on in Bali, they just can’t get enough of them over here to get the jobs done on time. Meanwhile, the Balinese are complaining loudly that they haven’t got jobs, and that non-Balinese people are infiltrating the island, and setting up home in their midst.
Something here doesn’t jibe, and I think it’s pretty obvious what it might be. The local labour force cannot, or will not, meet either the demand for skilled workers, or for manual labourers. There’s not much left in between, unfortunately.
Interestingly, at a time when Balinese people are crying out publicly about the plight of the farmer, and the need to preserve agrarian life, the Balinese no longer harvest their own rice. I suppose it’s considered beneath them nowadays. So they hire itinerant labourers from East Java to set up tent camps and harvest their fields. And then they complain about the influx of non-Balinese people in their midst. This sounds like a typical migrant agricultural labour story, one that re-runs ad nauseum all over the world (grapes, apples, cherries, olives, sheep shearing and such like). But here in Bali it could have, and should still, play out differently.
Would Balinese farmers prefer migrant Aussie labourers to Javanese ones?.
What is the upshot of all this? It appears we are looking at a socio-economic software conflict, which is about to crash the system. The local labour market has strata that operate on a global scale, with global-scale incomes for certain people. It also has strata that operate on a rural Indonesian scale, with daily wages under five US dollars. There are also many other strata in between (and some below and above). There are so many points where conflicts could result in a total system crash, that it would exhaust any amateur (or professional) economist to analyse or solve them. Is system crash inevitable? How do we reboot?
My personal opinion is that back in about 1998, the whole island should have changed to another operating system (and the chatter in the local media seemed to already acknowledge that the old paradigm was dying). It’s like the Windows-Mac story. The old paradigm was clearly dying, way back then, but too many people hadn’t the basic courage or adequate information to jump. Those who did rejoiced. They were the few, the outriders, the iconoclasts, and they have vanished from view.
Now Bali seems to be stuck with a set of Vista disks it bought at a dear price, and simply cannot use, because they are practically useless. The system will crash unless it is changed. What can one say?
Can they learn a new operating system without the benefit of a Genius Bar™?
To think differently, one must already be trained to think well in the first place. That’s what good education does. It trains the brain, helps the hardware work to best advantage, and cultivates the ability to make difficult decisions wisely. And we do not have good education here.
I must add as a footnote, that in tandem with the basic problem of bad education, there is the pernicious problem of corruption. Corruption is the other head of the serpent. The two heads live as one creature. Education cannot be fixed without fixing corruption, and vice versa. With corruption as rampant as it is in Bali now, nothing can be fixed. Nothing can be changed.
Corruption is theft. It takes many forms – – not just graft and nepotism and collusion, but also disregard for one’s responsibilities as a public servant after being elected or appointed. Not working is the norm for government employees and officials here. Not working, in this context, is theft. It is theft of the services and leadership that the people struggled to pay for and shape.
Government not working. TV screenshots of house of representatives during assembly.
Not working – – this special form of theft – – is institutionalised here. So rarely do government officials turn up for debates, votes and office work, that the governor of Bali has crafted a special squad to go out and find them when they are loafing off during working hours, and tooling around in government cars. Some very embarrassed individuals have been hauled before the public with very dirty hands, caught gallivanting about on work time, in government vehicles, on personal errands, in scandalous trysts, gambling, and generally goofing off all over the place, blatantly abusing the powers and resources that are at their disposal and inteded for public service. Shame on them. But they have no shame. It’s all considered normal. That’s how dysfunctional the whole operating system is here. I’m just saying . . . reboot or perish.
I’m not trying to get harsh here, I’m just saying . . .