Consensus is So Often Spelled Coercion

The extensive formalities, long discussions, in-depth explanations and rounds of consultations that are precursors in Balinese society to decision-making and even to minor changes to process take some getting used to.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (again) was never a favourite childhood game. And adulthood was largely spent in the Western corporate world where deadlines rule supreme and time is money; where everyone rushes about executing decisions that are made on the run.

So it is with frustration and self-imposed patience that I’ve tried to accept the seemingly inclusive and infinitely time-consuming Balinese Way.

Before moving to Bali I was exposed to similar modes of conduct in other Asian cultures; so it isn’t a case of culture shock. It is more of a niggling ripple that something is not quite as it seems. In Bali, the inclusivity is too … pronounced.

I tell myself that Bali is part of quite newly democratic nation struggling, admirably, to adjust to a different system of government and perhaps being overly attentive to process in its quest for a successful transition.

I see, prior to elections, entire villages deck their public service buildings, bale banjars, streets and homes with the paraphernalia of one or another particular political party. And I wonder how this blatant show of whole-of-community support for one party sits with the right to vote according to individual choice.

The ripple of doubt niggles away while I delve a bit deeper, trying to work out yet another enigma of Balinese society. What I find shatters me with the force of a massive aftershock: The consultation and inclusiveness, and certainly the exemplary show of courteousness that prevails in Bali, is, in many cases, a facade. It is a cover for coercion to achieve control.

While you can argue that this is what all business and government is about – going through process to get people on side in order to do a deal, win political power or change a law – I fear in Bali it may exceed boundaries that are acceptable elsewhere.

It’s a bit like that exceptionally helpful retail assistant with the beautiful smile and sparkling eyes: eyes that go dark with distaste as she spits on the floor as soon as she thinks you are out of the door. All is not as it seems.

I come to suspect that in parts of Balinese culture, especially in business and politics, the sometimes highly deceitful means are readily justified by the end. The end is predetermined and the means, in the guise of consultation, are whatever is required to get it.

I toss this ugly thought about, counter it by considering the genuine and highly valued friendships The Playmate and I think we have with a small handful of Balinese, delete that with recollections of the many disappointing and costly associations we’ve had and finally try to conclude that my thoughts about deception and coercion are unworthy.

But I’m edgy. A new “friend” and business proprietor shows herself comfortable with disturbing my life, day after day, by arriving at my home to demand my audience while she relates detailed variations on the theme of: I am stressed; I am suicidal; my bank is closed for a ceremony/my husband is in Borneo with my ATM card/the bank wouldn’t give my money to my staff … I need to borrow your money. 

There’s no end to the time, energy and tears she is prepared to invest in the process, while she should, according to her stories, be changing her bank and her husband. Actually, she should be re-organising her ailing business.

We lend her the money twice. Repayment is not as promised, for a string of bizarre reasons. We refuse a third plea for a loan of triple the earlier amounts. After more lengthy and dramatic accounts of why we should play banker to her suicide-prone self, communications dry up, and presumably the friendship too.

Immediately after this slightly wounding recent experience I find, in The New York Times, the following assessment from Balinese anthropologist  Degung Santikarma: Balinese society “appears to be orderly, but it’s really coercive. In Bali, culture is to control people.”

The comments are in the context of kasepekang, traditional Balinese punishment of ostracism or exile-in-place for breaking customary law. The article attributes a re-emergence of kasepekang to the greater regional autonomy and deference to customary law that came with democratisation after the end in 1998 of Suharto’s centralist dictatorship.

The New York Times reports that in one village banjar last year, 16 people were initially sentenced to kepesang for violating the tradition of collective decision-making by not supporting a particular political candidate.

So is Bali using a freedom restored by democracy to oppress democracy? The enigma deepens.

When I have persisted with asking a Balinese why something that doesn’t quite gel should be so, I have often been told: “Because this is how it is done in Bali.” The answer has been abrupt, after consultation/coercion has failed to “control” (me).

Does it indicate an underlying conviction that Balinese culture and its customary laws take precedence over national law? If so, the enigma may point to a troubled future.

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