Bali without a Bunch of Ugly Boxes

By Richard Laidlaw

UNGASAN, Bali ~ The Eagles sang about them – ugly boxes – in a slightly different context, in their now vintage and ironical anthem to greed, avarice, blind vision and moral lapse, Hotel California. It’s an irony too that its strains still echo through the many establishments that employ local minstrels who, with a happy smile, will cheerfully murder for you almost any fondly remembered lagu barat (western song) you name.

But beyond the irony, the point is well made. It is profoundly appropriate to a debate Bali must now have. The Eagles’ lament for mountains laid low while the town got high sprang to mind when on reading Hannah Black’s cri-de-coeur in one of her recent My Compound Life columns. She wrote about to yet another “sudden villa complex”; this one being erected near her husband’s kampung in non-tourist Bali.

Do the Balinese really want these ugly boxes – all so beautifully designed that they capture the essence of the island’s culture and heritage (tosh!) – springing up among them willy-nilly? The answer must be “No.” And that’s “No” even if the cash-today-and-bugger-tomorrow mentality says “Yes.” But it’s not the only answer. It is merely a part of a hugely complex response to the challenge of making rational decisions today that will help preserve a recognisable Bali into the future and permit its culture to adapt at a pace of its own choosing.

Tourism benefits Bali by bringing in investment and consumer spending that would otherwise be absent. There’s no argument about that, except from a minority of long-stay foreigners who have already made their pile and dislike the thought of anyone else getting some action.

But tourism and its extended family of service industries create a dilemma. There must be a defined community benefit – and crucially, it must be definable against agreed norms – that channels value, in both cash and other terms, to the local people concerned.

Today, such benefits are minimal where they are not entirely illusory. What must end, for the greater good, is promiscuous enrichment, so often short-term and almost exclusively short-sighted, of individuals, families or clans, via offloading land to moneyed foreigners (through their Indonesian nominees who are just as culpable) for a handy infusion of cash.

What is needed are enforced and escape-proof planning laws, mandatory area development schemes, compulsory offsets to bring health and social infrastructure to local communities; and commitment to infrastructure that meets both actual and forecast demand. The crying need is for practicality expressed through an agreed plan. This could usefully start by actually sorting out land title instead of just claiming to be doing so.

More than that: planning laws (and their enforcement) must include a codified agreement on what constitutes acceptable building standards and styles. This is not to say western (or “international”) building styles should be outlawed. Far from it: The world progresses in a continuum, through constant exchange of values, ideas and principles, between communities everywhere.

At the same time, Bali is Bali as much for its culturally attuned built environment as for its natural or agricultural landscapes. Taking the Tuban-Kuta-Legian-Seminyak corridor deeper into glass-and-steel territory – and for that matter, sections of it even further down the Patpong road, so to speak – would grossly insult Bali’s culture and history and present further dangers to its own complex network of social compacts; just as the experiment of turning the beach at Nusa Dua into some sort of prototype Sentosa (Singapore) experience has by many measures failed.

For example, the vibrant local community in Bualu village – just “outside the wire” as people, foreigners and Balinese alike, now refer to the gated and guarded boundaries of the international hotel precinct there – tries very hard to attract custom from within the wire to its many shops and restaurants.

So often it fails, through no fault of its own. Many visitors of course understand that there is little point in going anywhere if all you do is stay within the confines of a hotel complex that could just as easily be in your own country. But many do not and on the evidence, this travel-ghetto idea is increasing in appeal.

As with fly in-fly out tourism, so with residential development: southern parts of Bali in particular are now blotted with unfortunate and profoundly unsympathetic architecture, especially in new residential complexes. These spring up in all manner of places – there’s one in a former quarry on the southern Bukit, tailor-made of excessive air-conditioner use by virtue of being sunk in an airless hollow – owing virtually nothing to the architectural heritage of the island on which they are built.

Of course, enclave development is inescapable. It isn’t culturally alien to Bali either: Balinese villages and compounds are themselves enclaves. Yet building designs and landscaping concepts do need to fit in, or else the Bali people come to see will eventually exist only as the digital age’s equivalent of yellowing sepia prints.

The political debate that needs to happen (urgently and in good faith) is one for the Balinese people, not for foreigners. And Bali’s leaders, elected and communal, must begin it.

Richard Laidlaw lives in Bali and is a former Australian journalist and political adviser.

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