Adat – Handling the Double Edged Sword

originally published in the Jakarta Post’s supplement, Bali Daily as part of a ‘conversation’ between Made Wijaya, Diana Darling, and myself under the title of “I Love Bali – Handling the DOuble Edged Sword of Adat”

Adat is a double edged sword. On the one hand if it is used in the service of the well being of members of the community it provides structure and strength; on the other hand if it becomes an ideal which dictates that it be served mindlessly, it becomes a tool for the wily to manipulate to their own benefit.

Let’s get it straight: Adat is a social convention, a community contract. Adat is no more sacred than constitutional law in a democratic process. It’s not the sacred utterance of a prophet, for example.

Yet adat has been used as an excuse to avoid adhering to a range of things from human rights to environmental responsibility. And worse, there have been many documented cases where adat was the premise for violence. Anyone who has lived closely enough to Balinese society know this. To put it into context: with few exceptions, outside of the traditional dictates of adat, the sense of civic responsibility in Bali now is at an all-time low. Community money is corrupted. Ceremonies regularly disrupt and reroute major traffic arteries “because they can”. People dump garbage wherever they want. One Desa Adat near Denpasar has even allowed part of their Pura Dalem’s land in the mangrove to be used for an illegal dump. Another Pura Dalem in Mengwi appears to be using garbage for landfill. In Ubud the community garbage trucks having been dumping the trash in an illegal site in a ravine in Pejeng. Forests and rivers are desecrated. People behave selfishly.

Drivers are inconsiderate on the roads. 99% of Balinese are not interested in helping unfortunate fellow Balinese who are not in their Banjar or Desa Pakraman or even clan. The Pecalang (adat “policemen”, no female pecalang so far) in Ubud chase off beggars from Muntigunung whenever they can. The only group helping this poverty stricken Balinese region is driven by Swiss citizens – not by any wealthy Balinese communities looking to give their less fortunate bretheren a leg up. And let’s not start on universal human rights.

In answer to Diana’s statement that expressing an opinion on adat is like judging another person’s mother, sure. But what would you do if you saw your neighbor’s mother stabbing her child with a knitting needle? Am I, as an Indonesian citizen living in my own country, not allowed to state any opinions on the culture of an island on which I have resided for more than three and a half decades? Should I succumb to a romanticized view?

If I live here and am committed to being here, pay my taxes, penanjung batu etc, I do feel that I am part of the situation. Obviously it is not my place to lead any charge on the establishment of adat if indeed any frontal approach would lead to any positive result. However I feel I certainly should have the right to express my views – that’s how it works in the Petri dish of culture – even if no Balinese heeds it.

It’s all well and good not to judge another’s mother, but it so happens that the “other’s mother” spends a lot of time judging ‘us’. In quite a few Desa Pakraman ‘outsiders’ living in their boundaries are subject to very high tithes which really amount to shakedowns. Outsiders are never rarely accepted completely as equals within the community though of course those who have married in are accepted by their families. To be sure it is a two way street with many expats just wanting to “Ibiza-nize” Bali with no sense of context at all. It’s a strange dance.

In truth there are Balinese who are forward looking, caring and engaged in projects focused on bettering the minds and welfare of their brethren. For example the late AA Made Jelantik, the late Ibu Gedong Oka, architect Popo Danes, poet Ketut Yuliarsa to name just a few. But these are largely Bainese who have been well educated and have been exposed to the outside world in deeper ways. It boils down to a higher standard of education and more universal values. And none of their activities were directly supported by adat.

Adat is obviously something which is important – a system by which the community is held together for acitivities for the common good. But it has to adapt and change in this century just as it has throughout the centuries past. Adat was never static: it is a myth to think that Balinese adat has been the same all this time. Its implementation requires more transparency, checks and balances. Yes change has to come from within, but it will come as a result of interaction with new ideas, fresh views. Adat has many things going for it but it must evolve simply because the environment in which it is is no longer – and will never again be – the same.

Rio Helmi, aka I Belog, has been stuck in Bali for decades and doesn’t seem to have any other place to go to.

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