On an Island of Plenty, Nothing to Live For

The sad reality of Bali is that as its economy grows ever more robust, generated by record rising numbers of people holidaying here, soaring numbers of Balinese are killing themselves because they cannot afford to live.

Organisations working on the ground have said a staggering 275-percent surge in suicides so far this year has seen 146 people take their lives. This compares with 39 suicides last year.

So chronic has the problem become that Bali now takes note of World Suicide Prevention Day, which this year fell last Sunday.

Untreated mental illness is also cited as a factor in people deciding to end their lives. Unfortunately in Bali societal issues such as nearness to one’s family and a lack of knowledge about psychiatric conditions means many of the mentally ill are chained up or put in a medieval-type of leg stock, as this newspaper has reported. Such situations are not conducive to restorative health.  

It is estimated that more than 200,000 Balinese live below the UN poverty benchmark of US$1.25 a day. The regencies of Karangasem and Buleleng – the latter an unenviable suicide hotspot in Bali – are where most of the island’s impoverished live (and increasingly, choose to die by their own hand).

Debt is the deadly driver: it is encouraging desperate people to end their lives. Last month a woman in the southern tourist fishing village and five-star-hotel precinct of Jimbaran hanged her two-year-old daughter and herself. Such an act is unconscionable. Police said the mother had been stressed over business debts of Rp150 million ($16,800).

With basic qualifications and a little training, including on-the-job, there is plentiful work in Bali. A look at the extensive employment sections of the daily newspapers confirms this. But salaries remain pitifully low: the government-mandated monthly minimum wage is less than $100.

Hindus, meanwhile, face heavy and expensive religious obligations, especially in the preparations of materials for offerings at ceremonies and special days. The costs can be extraordinarily high, up to tens of millions of rupiah for some. So expensive is it to cremate loved ones that many wait until there is a mass ceremony so that the costs can be shared.

The widespread and illegal practice of gambling – traditionally on cockfights but also involving cards and, lately, “numbers games” – racks up astounding losses for some, debt mountains from under which losers cannot extricate themselves. 

It is no surprise, therefore, that the depraved business of loan-sharking is rife and thriving in Bali. Even for everyday temple ceremonies, the faithful aim to create the most lavish offerings they can, often attempting to outdo those of neighbours in a perverse competition for spiritual status. Some turn to local people offering loans with high interest rates and quick repayment terms.

Hindu leaders have for some years been cautioning about the vast sums spent, saying that outlandishly expensive offerings are not required for ceremonies. It appears they are not being heard.

Meanwhile, families are hard-pressed to educate their children in a primary and secondary school system that is meant to be free but in which corruption is endemic, leading to all sorts of unofficial “fees” – ranging from entry to exam-taking.

And so we have a tragic duality: An island awash in billions of dollars in foreign investment, a place thronged by well-off foreigners holidaying in luxurious accommodations; and a Bali of extreme poverty where large numbers of people with no money at all opt to needlessly end their lives.

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