Neo Colonialism in Bali

Feb 6th, 2008, in Opinion, by

Patronising neo-colonialist attitudes by westerners in Bali.

I once read a section on Bali in a guide book popular among backpackers and low-budget travellers. I won’t state which guide book, because I no longer have it in my possession and thus cannot give the exact quote. But I can assure you, I did not misread it. I was so taken aback by it I read it over and over again aghast at the mentality of the author. There was a paragraph which seemed to be lamenting the fact, or the author’s perception rather, that these days more and more Balinese would rather sit in front of the television in cafes (warung) or at home, rather than partaking in traditional Balinese pursuits such as gamelan music and dancing. The tone of the lament was one that seemed to imply that the author considered such modern luxuries as products of the West, having negative impacts on society and as such represented indirectly a sort of neo-colonial intrusion on ‘The East’.

I couldn’t help but gain the impression that this author represented a different kind of colonialism – I suppose you could call it something like “reconstituted colonialism” or “implied colonialism” for want of a better suggestion. It is not limited to this one example. I hear similar sentiments all the time – “colonial” sentiments such as –

  • “They are such peace-loving people, so warm and generous…” (Who isn’t? Think about it; why do you feel the need to patronise other ‘quaint’ societies?)
  • “It’s such a shame that these people are letting go of their traditional culture…” (Doesn’t every society? Do you still wear corsettes and play harpsichord music in the drawing room?)
  • “It’s good that someone has finally published a (insert name of endangered language) dictionary. Who will help to preserve these people’s language if we don’t?” (Honestly, I read this one on a western forum for traditional Indonesian music). Language death is a natural part of life. Get used to it.

By this I mean the mentality among sections of western society who feel legitimate concern for the effects of traditional colonialism – 18th and 19th Century colonialism – and who then confuse it with technological progress which brings about natural social change.

To me this sort of attitude translates into –

“You are Balinese. You have a rich traditional culture. We are tourists who bring money. We don’t want to see you sitting around watching television. We are coming to your country to experience “The East”. If you sit around watching television, you are victims of the West. Go…get back into your traditional costumes and play us some gamelan music.”

Related to this emerges the –

“We consider you to be wonderful, generous, peace-loving people. We can’t have you being exposed to western technology which will bring out your badness… (we will study your country for you, using our paradigms and theories, we will preserve your language if you can’t or don’t want to, we will decide where you sit on the morality spectrum…)”

Exaggerated? On the face of it, yes. But if you really think about the absurdity of the sentiment represented by what was in that guidebook, then really, what else can it possibly mean?

It is unfortunate that tourism has brought this about. It is unfortunate that the West has come to view Bali as “Paradise”. Do the Balinese see it as Paradise? Does the struggling rice farmer contending with water shortages and hotel development see it as Paradise? Does anyone see their own land as Paradise?

How would a full-time Bank Clerk in Australia manage if he or she were expected to leave the office, go home, change into traditional costume and be at the tourist venue on time, on a regular basis, in order to show off that little bit of “Paradise” to cashed-up tourists? Yet we expect the Balinese to do it all the time.

Am I wrong if I say that the Balinese are in between a rock and a hard place? On one hand they are expected to contribute to the economic development of their nation, trying hard to catch up with the developed world, and on the other hand they are expected to find the time to maintain their traditions to a suitable degree that will keep attracting the tourists.

Some may ask at this point “Isn’t that the benefit of tourism?” Perhaps. But what about harga diri, personal dignity and self worth?

Must every Balinese conform to this cultural stereotype?

Must every Balinese be forced to go against human nature to preserve an unnatural façade of the friendly, peace-loving, non-violent utopian inhabitant of the paradise that The West is not?

Must all Balinese be banned from watching television in the cafes, to be encouraged back into the traditional music and dance studios?

Must every Balinese be dependent on tourism and thus forced to conform to the desires of the modern nDoro Tuan (colonial master)?

47 Comments on “Neo Colonialism in Bali”

  1. Aluang Anak Bayang says:

    Mbak Janma, one more question:

    which Australian state you spent most of your time in?

  2. Odinius says:

    I asked that, because say 30% of balinese (fat and thin ones) might say they want to play gamelan for bules”¦.. and asian tourists etc”¦. they might think it’s their big break to get that job”¦. 30% might say that it shouldn’t be done and gamelan should be reserved for trad ceremonies and 30% might think it’s ok to play for pay as long as it’s a mundane repotoire not sacred”¦. so then who gets to decide? They are all Balinese, but they all have a different take on it.

    About golf courses etc”¦. that could be the same thing”¦. 50% yes, 50% no”¦.. all I’m saying is that the statement “the balinese should decide’ just doesn’t sound practical to me”¦.. because obviously they don’t all want the same things.

    Yeah I’m saying it’s up to the relevant individuals. If a troupe of individual balinese want to play gamelan, go for it. If others don’t want to “lose” their culture by playing–if indeed any would feel this way–that’s their right too.

    As for the hypothetical golf course, I’m saying leave it to the locals. Want to make some rupiah? Go for it. Don’t want to sell your land? Don’t. But the days of the state exapropriating land for Tomy’s or someone else’s pet project should be long gone.

    Also I think it’s a bit schoolyardish to keep putting people down as ‘fat’ or ‘pasty’ simply because of their race. It doesn’t really have anything to do with whether or not they ‘deserve’ to watch gamelan performances or not.

    It’s a joke, bro, about the stereotypical wobbly-kneed tourist, initially meant to be juxtaposed against the stereotypically bearded anthropologist/backpacker. If you’ve ever read Robert young Pelton you’d recognize the reference 🙂 Being technically a bule myself, one who’s lived in Jakarta, and who fit somewhat the description of the anthroman in his youth, I feel fully able to make reference to each tourist subspecies 🙂

  3. Odinius says:

    (sorry Janma, just realized from context you are a women. should have called you “sis” instead of “bro”)

  4. dewaratugedeanom says:

    Odinius said

    All jokes aside, let the Balinese decide what they want to see happen to their land and how (or if) they want to sell their cultural and material goods to Jakartans and foreigners, bules and anthropologists.

    And what if the Kalimantans, the Sumatrans et al. want to cut all their forests and sell the wood to Jakartans, foreigners, bules etc.? After all, it’s their territory, isn’t it?

  5. Odinius says:

    Have you been to Kalimantan and spoken to people there, dewa? Dayak activists want rubber trees: the government is instead giving a 1,000 hectare plot to Malaysian and Chinese palm oil plantations. Palm plantations destroy the soil for anything except for palm trees; rubber does not. Destroying this primary forest would release more methane into the atmosphere than all the cars in Indonesia combined. Labor on the plantation would be largely imported; rubber tappers are locals.

    What the locals want is far, far more sustainable than what the government is going to do.

  6. Janma says:

    Mbak Janma, one more question:

    which Australian state you spent most of your time in?

    I grew up in Melbourne, till I was 15, then I went to NSW, Byron Bay, then to Cairns, Darwin, plus lately have spent some time in Perth…. and a long time ago spent some time in the far north of WA.
    Personally I find Indonesians are pretty racist, so I really don’t see how anyone gets to point the finger. It’s human nature to be racist, but it’s our responsibility as humans to control our base nature with our intellect and spirit.

  7. Well, well, interesting discussion, but anyone care about mindset, propaganda, and fantastic modern culture package penetrate any traditional culture anywhere? I still eating with my hand and sit on the floor but I do drink wine. 🙂

  8. Erin Bliss says:

    I just found this site and conversation. Exelent!! I’ve never been to Bali but my wife is central javaneese. I agree with the tittle and your veiw points exept one. I don’t believe the label peace loving is inacurate or patroniseing and no the rest of the world is not nessaserally peace loving. Even in San Francisco home of hippies and homoes supposedly the most gentile of Americans I cant walk 2 blocks down hill from my appartment after 8 at night without REAL danger of getting mugged or stabbed by some gang banger. Ive had freinds killed simply for being in the wrong neiborhood after dark. Accross the bay in Oakland in 2004 their was 124 murders by hand gun alone. Statistically I am safer anywhere in Indonesia than I am in any major city or their suburbs, in America.

    some of the idea about saveing the old cultur comes from what we have done in the west. I grewup out side a small town in the “gold country” in California named Columbia. We call towns like it Old Towns, main street and one block in each direction from it are closed to motorized traffic. All the shops on the street are traditional. There are saloons handycraft makers and sellers a real working Blacksmithy, gun smith selling replicas, the Candy Kitchen that you can watch them hand make ALL the candy, museums a traditional theater, a stage coach ride through the forest…. The town also pays people to dressup in traditional clothes and act the part From the accent and period correct conversations to the ocasionall unexpected gun fight.

    This gives the tourists a pristien traditional experiance without inconveiniancing the rest of the town. What makes this possible is that we have a four teir govt. country, state, county, city Indonesia doesn’t have the county level wich is vs very important to this type of city because while the tourist money comes in to this city the financial and commercial buisness happens 15 muinets away in a much larger city, the money is localized instead of being spread all the way to L.A. .

    I’ve just returned from Java and I dont think that saving the culture is the biggest of worries that a hippie (aka backpacker) should have. The trash and wast problem are in my opinion the largest problem in Indonesia especially in the tourist areas.

    Achmad, Susi great comments

  9. ausdag says:

    Try posting again, but with additional information –

    I don’t believe the label peace loving is inacurate or patroniseing and no the rest of the world is not nessaserally peace loving.

    Thankyou for your comments. Every sane human being desires peace; it is one of each individual’s basic human needs – food, water, shelter and love. Do you not agree?
    My point is this; so often we hear people harping on about how people of another culture are wonderful and peace-loving, (which is true) as if they are somehow special in that respect (which is not true). Then when people like myself, who know better, relate instances that clearly contradict such statements, they react – “Oh…but I never experienced that…I was always treated sooo kindly and generously. (That’s good, but…)

    There is an article in the journal ‘Inside Indonesia’ ( about the experience of a western academic I think and his young children, who, when in Bali, witnessed first hand a brutal killing of two children by local ‘security’ members (pecalangan). The article was about how they could reconcile this incident with the general notion that the Balinese are peace-loving. It was in fact the job of these local security groups to ensure the ‘peace’ of the community even to the extent of ‘murder’.

    The article concludes by stating –

    While the presence of pecalangan in Bali parallels in many ways the rise of militia groups in other areas of Indonesia, the Bali case presents some important differences. Rather than being demonised in the national and international press, as have so many other militant �security� groups, especially those who draw upon religion to legitimise themselves, they have been lauded. They have become a kind of model militia. Most recently, pecalangan from villages across South Bali were assigned by the police department to assist with security for a United Nations conference. A police delegation from Japan visited Bali to learn about its �traditional security system.�

    Even when the pecalangan become involved in killing, �culture� is drawn upon to explain their actions. Today �Balinese culture� is often viewed as a kind of precious object that can be marked with a price tag and sold to tourists through �cultural tourism.� With culture being reduced to an object, an anxiety has arisen among Balinese who fear that this valuable possession could be lost or stolen. Now that culture has become like an expensive antique preserved in a museum, the pecalangan have become the museum guards. Those who might try to damage or destroy or steal this culture are �outsiders.�

    This sense of being under siege translates into a resentment against ethnic others and a belief that all thieves must be non-Balinese. Killing a thief becomes sensible, even honorable, as a defence of culture. Thus nobody who participated in the killing that night in front of my friend�s house thought to raise the question: were these boys really thieves even though they were empty-handed? It was enough, in the end, that they were outsiders, for there was far more than private property at stake. What was at stake that night was culture. The killers of those two boys in front of my friend�s house that night have not been perceived in Bali as killers for they acted in defence of culture � the culture sounded by the kul-kul drum.

    Does this mean they’re NOT peace-loving? No. Does this mean they are not prone to human emotions such as anger that may result in something that we in the West consider vastly out of proportion with the crime committed? No. Sounds fairly human to me – so in that respect, the Balinese are no more human, nor less human than the rest of us. Peace-loving, yes; but to the extent that they fit our utopian ideal that we wish they are?

  10. dewaratugedeanom says:


    Sorry I overlooked some of your remarks of February 8th.

    Soekarno – what an old hypocrite. There are stories of him hovering over fields in helicopters to check out glisten brown boobs as their owners took a mandi.

    He didn’t need a helicopter. In Tampaksiring he built an istana (presidential palace) on a hilltop with a balcony overlooking the ‘Thirta Empul’ temple. This temple contains a big basin with water sprouts where all year round hundreds of Balinese – men and women – come to take a ritual bath (melukad). The story goes that on this balcony Soekarno had a telescope installed to have a peak at the proceedings below. I visited the place but the telescope is gone. The istana is still in use as presidential palace but I don’t see SBY, who even seems to be allergic to belly buttons, playing peeping tom when he stays there. Anyway, the women now bath with their cloths on, which imho can be even more enticing, if you know what I mean.

    Even so, can’t they take off their kebayas now that it’s merdeka ? What could piss off the Islamists more ?

    You may be surprised to learn that there are chartered busloads of munafiq coming from Java to feast their eyes upon topless tourists on Kuta and Sanur beaches. I once accompanied a group of students from Jakarta on a study trip through the island; all they were interested in were the ditches and canals at mandi-time. Since then I’m playing with the idea to start a travel agency called Dewa’s Magical Mandi Tours specialising in mandi-watching excursions for the poor souls who never had the chance to enjoy one of nature’s most ‘uplifting’ sights. These trips would take them to rivers and ponds amidst lush tropical rainforest where they will be given the opportunity to have a glimpse* of young naked Balinese cewek frolicking playfully in the water whilst taking care of personal hygiene.
    * Binoculars provided at extra cost.

  11. Janma says:

    Dewa you could start a site….. ….. but beware, plenty of old ladies also bath naked…. you can’t be candid and picky.

  12. dewaratugedeanom says:

    Janma, in this case participants will get a discount.


    There is indeed a danger that private militias like the pecalang – although they don’t carry firearms – become too powerful.

    The ICG (International Crisis Group) Asia Report N°67 of 7 November 2003 states in its Executive Summary and Recommendations

    The devolution of authority over some police functions to civilian auxiliaries and private security organisations should be a source of concern to those concerned about police reform in Indonesia. While much donor aid is going into community policing, the trend in parts of Indonesia seems to be to allow local civilian groups, untrained and unaccountable, to provide protection or fight crime instead of the police. The trend is worrisome under any circumstances, but particularly so given political tensions in the lead-up to the 2004 elections.


    In Bali, traditional ritual guards – pecalang – have taken on both a security role, as a police partner, and a political role, as the protectors of President Megawati Soekarnoputri’s party, the PDI-P. But as an ethnically Balinese force at a time of growing anti-migrant sentiment on Bali, the pecalang may prove to be a liability in maintaining law and order.

    Fact is these pecalang carry in general a greater trust and confidence from the communities because their members are solely composed of men from their respective banjar (hamlet) and hence are under direct control of the adat (traditional organization) authorities which are in Bali still of utmost importance because of the intertwining of social and religious life. This in contrast to Polri (official Indonesian police force) personnel who are generally considered corrupt and self-interested. It is a public secret that Polri members can only be moved to investigate a crime like theft after receiving a bribe or at least are rewarded with a part of the result of their interference. It is even so that after hours Polri members become private investigators who use their official intelligence network to solve crimes, at a price of course. Some of them even go as far as to take temporary leave in order to pursue their private police work.

  13. Aditya putra says:

    Dear all Friends
    Om Swastyastu…
    I appreciate all of your good ideas for our lovely island Bali.
    According my poor opinion that all Balinise activity will be done well IF Balinese can Think Globly / following all of delovelopment but act localy /or increase all of the activity with their knowledge.


  14. Has anybody read an essay book by Gede Aryantha Soethama called ‘Bali Tikam Bali’ or in simple English is ‘Bali Stabbed Bali’ is an honest compilation of daily happening in Bali and it’s affect to the culture of Bali.


  15. zekky says:

    This article is spot-on. But in fairness, it is partly the fault of tourism boards that keep advertising ‘traditional’ Bali and Java and give tourists a false expectation.
    If I go to France, I don’t expect to see men wearing berets and playing the accordion, because that’s not the image shown in tourist brochures.

  16. Open Golf says:

    hello all’s very nice to read all this sections and read a section on Bali in a books popular among backpackers and low-budget travellers.

  17. Anna says:

    I was searching for writings on this neo-neo colonialism, which in fact does exist. Perhaps you have to have come from “Paradise”, Lose it, then go back and forth a few times, before you have the objectivity to understand this subtle effect, but the writer of this article is right on target. He got it, from reading one of those guide books. I have also read such descriptions, especially in America, where it is showing up more and more among the so called “liberals”, who, in my opionion, are the absolutel worst of the neo-neo colonialists.

    I had to experience it, and then re-experience it, before I understood what it was, I did not want to believe it could exist. But it does, and it’s more deadly than the outright form of straight-up imperial flavored colonialism, which is in-your-face, and easy to spot. This flavor is far, far, more dangerous, because it is so subtle.

    So good on you, author of this article, for spotting it right off.


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