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Beyond Baggies and Bogans in Bali

07 Dec 2016
By Professor Tim Lindsey AO FAIIA
Kuta_Beach. Photo Credit: Farley Roland Endeman (Flickr) Creative Commons

Last month’s strange incident involving Jamie Murphy and a bag of white powder in Kuta was the latest in a steady stream of Australians getting into trouble in Bali over the last 15 years. However, in that time a huge number of Australians—almost one in four—have visited without incident. The overwhelming majority spend big and return home happy, with suntans, souvenirs and good memories. It signifies the symbiotic relationship between the Balinese and visiting Australians.

The strange case of the recent arrest of Jamie Murphy in Bali swung from tragedy to farce with bewildering speed.

After white powder was allegedly found in a baggie in his bumbag at the Sky Garden nightclub in Kuta on Monday 21 November, the media was full of reports that the Perth teenager faced years in prison. But within just a few days, Murphy, 18, was released by embarrassed police. They said that that the ‘drugs’ turned out to be crushed paracetamol and other over-the-counter medications. Urine tests proved negative too, so he was free to go.

It is hard to be sure what really happened. There are plenty of theories circulating. Was the baggie really his, or did security guards plant it on him? If so, why did it not contain narcotics? Was someone trying set up a foreign tourist? Did they see Jamie coming and try to turn him into an easily-extorted ‘ATM case’? Was it an extortion attempt? Did someone fiddle the test results? Or did Jamie really try to buy drugs and by a stroke of weird luck end up with headache tablets?

We may never know what really happened but one thing is sure—Jamie’s narrow escape will become another in a long series of horror stories about Australians finding their holiday in tropical paradise turning suddenly to hell.

Not that there is in any shortage of these stories. In fact, we have seen a constant stream of them on our TV screens and newsfeeds for a decade and a half. To give just a selection: Bali bombing I, Bali bombing II, Schapelle Corby, Michelle Lesley, the Bali Nine and the execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, tourists blinded by moonshine alcohol, robberies, housebreaking and sexual assault, the ‘Black Widow’ murder of Bob Ellis by his Javanese wife, and the recent killing of a Balinese policeman by two tourists.

The list goes on, and it has created an image of Bali (and, by extension, Indonesia) as a high-risk destination, a view supported by DFAT’s travel warning that tourists ‘exercise a high degree of caution’ in Bali.

This is, in part, fair enough. Bali is not a holiday resort off the coast of Queensland. It is a distant province of Indonesia, a huge developing country of 270 million people. Bali is the site of a major tourist industry but has all the problems Indonesia shares with developing countries around the world, including ramshackle government, clunky bureaucracy, corruption, crime and incompetent law enforcers—and large numbers of desperately poor people.

People visiting a developing country—wherever it is—take some level of risk and need to have their wits about them. It is not the place for parents to send their children unsupervised for ‘schoolies’ coming-of-age indulgence and rule-breaking. Surely that should happen closer to home, in safer conditions? After all, if Australian teenagers do get caught with drugs instead of powdered panadol they face far more severe punishment than they would in Australia. Penalties range from decades in prison, to life imprisonment or death in serious cases. And the Indonesian government has repeatedly stated its policy of ‘no mercy for drug offenders’—and especially not for foreigners, who most Indonesians wrongly believe run the drug trade there.

But the horror stories are not the full picture. In fact, the image of hordes of intoxicated bogans running wild in Bali is inaccurate. A huge number of Australians have visited Bali—almost one in four, in fact—without incident. The overwhelming majority spend big and return home happy, with suntans, souvenirs and good memories. Many return year after year.

In fact, the Australian Embassy’s statistics show that of the more than one million Australians that went to Bali last year, just 60 per year had direct contact with police over issues or charges—that’s 0.006 per cent! On average, 81,000 visited every month last year but only two were ever arrested.

Likewise, a total of just 500 Australians sought consular assistance in Bali last year. They included people needing help because of lost passports and tickets, deaths from natural causes, traumatic relationship breakdowns, accidents, family emergencies, etc. That amounts to just 0.05 per cent of the million or more who visited last year, which is a very, very low incident rate.

The conclusion? The perception that Bali is a ‘Yobbo Paradise’ and a dangerous place to go is actually quite wrong. With a million people visiting for the express purpose of letting off steam and having a good time, there will always be a few who get into trouble, but the vast majority of Australians in Bali act responsibly.

Equally, the view that the Balinese are sick of Australians coming and breaking their laws is not accurate. They are more worried that bad news stories will harm the tourist trade, something that would have a devastating effect on their economic well-being.

The good news for them is that this is unlikely to happen, at least so long as Bali offers cheap holidays. Australian arrivals did dip after the Bali bombings but recovered quickly. Since then, the stream of horror holiday news has had little impact on tourists. The calls for to ‘boycott Bali’ after the horrific executions of Sukumaran and Chan was understandable but misplaced, as Balinese authorities generally opposed the killings. It was the government of President Joko Widodo in Jakarta that was determined to see them dead, largely to shore up the president’s domestic political position.

In any case, the calls for a boycott had little discernable effect on the numbers boarding flights from Australia to Denpasar. Australians still like going to Bali, almost as much as the Balinese want them to keep coming. It is a symbiotic relationship.

Tim Lindsey is Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law at the University of Melbourne, where he heads the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society.