By Vyt Karazija
There is nothing more pleasant than sitting in one of Bali’s thousands of open-air restaurants or cafes. Delectable food, a cool drink, or even a book – in case the passing parade of absurdities begins to pall – and a cigarette or two to enhance the experience. The outdoor ambience, and the fact that ventilating breezes minimise the impact of any occasional wisps of smoke on others, makes Bali a relaxing getaway for those who choose to indulge their habit without nanny-state interference.
Not any more.
The inexorable tide of do-gooder interference has finally reached the previously easygoing shores of Bali. A law implemented in late November now bans smoking in many parts of Bali. Any place designated as a “tourism destination,” or “tourism support facility” is henceforth to be smoke-free. The list of proscribed premises includes some intelligent bans, such as places of worship, health facilities, schools and children’s playgrounds. But this draconian legislation goes much further, enmeshing hotels, open-air markets, airports, restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs in its web. Smoking is to be banned in all of these places. They will also be prohibited from selling or advertising tobacco products as well.
A straw poll taken recently at a local cafe revealed that more than two-thirds of the patrons were smoking. The effect on air quality was negligible. Later in the evening, the staff at a local bar were stunned when I told them about the new legislation. Looking around at his customers, most of whom were smoking, a senior barman summed up Bali’s new bylaw with a pithy “That’s bullshit! They can’t do that! We will lose all our customers.”
Still later, at an open-plan restaurant nearby, I observed most of the customers lighting up after their meals. I asked a few of them for their thoughts, and most responses were tinged with anger. “That’s crazy!” was a typical answer. “We come to Bali to get away from all the stupid laws at home, and now this! Oh well, if they bring it in, we’ll just go somewhere else.” Thailand featured as an alternative destination for quite a few, while Malaysia was mentioned by others. Even the restaurant staff were jolted by the news, saying, “But no one will come here any more…”
Without a doubt, smoking is unhealthy. But it is a lifestyle choice – as well as an addiction – for most of us smokers. It is not up to self-appointed elites in government to presume that they know best, and on that basis to mandate what is “good for us.” For us smokers, it is our choice to smoke. In Bali, where open, ventilated structures are the norm and effect on non-smokers minimal, this legislation is both oppressive and unnecessary. Its implementation will be problematic, if only for the reason that laws in Indonesia are meaningless until wrapped in their subsequent rat’s nest of regulations. Given the inept drafting of most laws here, getting a workable regulatory framework up and running could take years.
So let’s scratch a little beneath the surface of this nonsense to find out what the real motivation is. Supposedly it’s for health reasons. But will it discourage the Balinese population from smoking? Probably not. The overwhelming majority of locals do not sit in bars, frequent cafes and restaurants or play in expensive tourism enclaves. Foreigners do.
The purported “health benefits” look a little shaky when you look at the prescribed penalties. Miscreants who flout the new non-smoking regulations will be banished to languish in the overcrowded Kerobokan Prison for up to six months or pay a fine of Rp50 million (US$5,450).
This is not a penalty aimed at locals, who could never afford it; it’s targeted squarely at foreigners.
Bali’s Governor I Made Mangku Pastika has already foreshadowed the true intention of this law, saying, “I think tourists will understand … it is Bali’s people who often do not understand.” In its implementation phase, it is clear that smoking locals will be ignored by the police, while “rich” bules will be expected to pay substantial bribes to avoid the threat of a costly court case and exorbitant fines for … smoking. You know, a bit like only bules being stopped for not wearing a helmet. No, governor, I don’t think tourists will “understand” at all. They will see it for what it is – another unashamed grab at the wallets of the very people who are part of the underpinnings of Bali’s economy.
The chairman of the Bali Tourism Board, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, clearly understands that officials might have trouble enforcing the regulation for locals. In the local parliament where the law was passed on the November 28, smoking is rife among the lawmakers. “Every time I am invited for a hearing at the parliament,” he said, “members smoke in the meeting room.” I doubt that will change after the law is brought in. And yet he naïvely goes on to say: “But I don’t think we will have a problem with tourists.” Really?
This issue is not about smoking. It’s about personal freedom. I suspect that any implementation of the type of despicable social engineering that Australia’s do-gooders have fallen in love with, and that has made Singapore such an over-regulated nanny state, will backfire in Bali. The people who come here do so because they are, at least temporarily, free from the fanatical zeal of self-appointed arbiters of personal choice. They are willing to overlook the rubbish, the crumbling infrastructure, the corruption and the incessant demands for money because of that sense of freedom, and the magic that derives from that.
What if the loss of freedom to smoke here turns out to be the tipping point that causes a shift in the delicate balance of factors that drive travel decisions? Bali is freedom. But if visitors stop feeling free in Bali, they will simply stop coming.