Kadek is a college student from Bali who attends university in Jogja. He is intelligent; he has voraciously read all politically critical books –from Soe Hok Gie’s Bible to Achmad Wahid— and protests have become a routine activity. He is one in march of critics who agitated for the collapse of Soeharto’s authoritarian regime. And if there is a discussion on social imbalance or the future of the nation, one can see the veins on his neck pulsate as he speaks as if he were delivering a speech at a protest. His idealism cannot be bargained, compromised or negotiated, it is only an unyielding spirit much like the advice of Wiji Tukul, “there is only one word: fight.”

One evening Kadek arrived at my house, however, not for a discussion about the current elections for governor, the rising price of gas, corruption, or other political concerns. This time Kadek’s visit was for a slightly different, more personal reason. Full of emotion, his long face was desperate and tense. Every so often he would wipe the sweat from his forehead. One could pick up the trace of alcohol from his breath. With pauses and gasps he began to explain his problem. It was a painful story, much like a television soap opera, where five years of romance just got a reality check. His dream girl was an only child, just like our Romeo. This quickly turned into a monumental problem when their relationship progressed towards marriage. The father of his dream girl hoped to adopt Kadek as his blood son in order to acquire a proper heir.

Kadek’s situation is known as Nyentana, a Balinese strategy to ensure that there will be future generations of the family by adopting a male child from another family. This also ensures that the inheritance of property like rice fields or farmland are maintained within the family. This family was fearful because they had no male descendents. If they their daughter were to marry, her new husband would be taken as their own child. The situation became even more complicated because our Romeo too is the only male heir in his family. Kadek was now under a heavy burden–the future existence of both families was dependent on his choice of action. Kadek was beyond confused, choose love or family, be his dream girl’s hero or be a family traitor. The patriarchy that he had always fought against had now given him an impossible test. This is not as simple as reading a book,” he said.

This story is not one that tour guides will tell their guests or that can be found within brochures expounding the beauty of Bali. The amazement that tourists experience looking at the exotic traditional culture of Bali through the windows of their hotels cannot be found in the homes of families that are caught in overwhelming circumstances, like Kadek’s. Within Goffman‘s theory of drama, the world is a split into two stages, center stage and backstage. The beautiful stories of course take center stage, while stories of horror and terror are only found behind the curtain. What is visible from the face of Balinese culture is a naturalized collectivity that is evidently above all others. Disturbances to this harmonious collectivity are then necessarily from outside of Balinese culture, like, for instance, recent Javanese migrants, tourists, or globalization in general. However, if we look backstage, we see that this ‘natural’ collectivity found within tradition can produce demons that are able to alienate a couple in love. Those that believe in this collectivity, a production of tradition, are then able to hide from view such small undesirable stories that are in fact as multiple as grains of sand. Within Kadek’s small story we can see the collapse of collectivity, the imitation of honesty, the fracture of understanding tradition as a safe haven. How can Kadek’s love for his girlfriend be destroyed because of tradition?

The culture of tourism in Bali spotlights a system of tradition because this can stabilize the image of Bali as traditional and exotic. Of course, this is to make sure that the tourist dollar stays where it should. The strength of tradition is not only found in its infrastructure, such as the reconstruction of traditional law, or even in creating a mode to make an educational curriculum based on Balinese culture. Indeed, tradition also gains strength via the deliberate construction of an illusion of mass power that is able to alienate individuals or subjects. Similar to the state, tradition is presented as collective agreement, where choice is implicated like a sanction that must be followed. Tradition becomes a regime of truth that can in many ways be stronger than state power. If a state’s regime is seen as repressive, it is enough to blame the president or parliament. What about within “tradition?” The power of a regime is found within the masses. And the masses are more difficult to accuse because the very meaning of a mass is the collective voice of culture.

Oppression by the state is felt differently than oppression by tradition. Tradition is able to naturalize, neutralize an accusation. Oppression from tradition is often considered the failure of the subject to adapt with certainty and where it is his or her burden to learn how become familiar with the habits of the tradition.

If the state is repressive we are still able to accuse the state through demonstrations, filing reports within the justice system, or some other means to hold it accountable. Tradition becomes an untouchable space and free of accusation. There is no courtroom where tradition can be brought to trial, therefore the state operates within it without being seen. For instance, although the government supports a tradition competition in the village, it is never seen as a state intervention. Instead, it is seen as a sincere effort to help in the preservation of tradition. Pecalang, or tradition caretakers/cultural guardians, who are supported by the state in their efforts sweeping the migrant community, are seen as a natural reaction to preserve a threatened Balinese culture. In the name of tradition, politics becomes invisible. There are already many people who believe that politics is the business of bureaucrats and tradition is the business of the public. In the interest of the state these are split so that their connection cannot be seen.

One must remember, that the tradition of which I speak is not an immortal romantic creation. What I mean by tradition is a contemporary arena of struggle that is not static; it is between the use of repetition of the past that is in synergy with dynamics of social life in the present. It is not outside of contemporary socio-political contexts. Present social dynamics then, in fact, also see the operation of tradition as a wheel of state goals, investors, and the role of the entire Balinese society. Therefore, tradition is a area of contestation. It is not looking at the repetition of the past, that most important. What is most important is understanding the impact on and reactions of the subject that are the result of contestation within the space of tradition. Of course, there will be those who seem to be in love with their tradition and those whose love is denied by it, like the experience of Kadek.

Tradition as an instrument by which to judge is not only within the set of rules established by the collective, like in the banjar, but also assumes a form in a domestic context: family! The discipline apparatus is the father, the mother, and the rest our family members. Tradition is first introduced and preserved through the family. The process of this preservation is more fluid, it is mixed in with the love found between parents and their children, or even within feelings of honesty and loyalty of children to their parents. Tourism ideology is based on promoting harmony and stability, thus there is also the demand for the cultural system to always be harmonious. Therefore, there is the implication that the family too must be harmonized.

According to Michel Foucault, power becomes more and more effective if the subject does not feel punishment by a power outside of her/himself, but in fact only if the subject feels control from within. When there is pain in one’s life because of one’s choice, when one feels like an outcast because of a failure to fulfill obligation to one’s parents, that is when power becomes effective. This is what happened to Kadek. When this happens to each human being, tyranny is unable to be recognized as a construction or invention, it is instead thought to be the destiny of the unlucky and unfortunate caught within anxiety.


[1] Soe Hok Gie was a student activist of the 1960’s who was actively critical of the Soekarno regime. He died while still young due to toxic gas exposure when hiking Mt. Semeru. “Soe Hok Gie‘s Bible” refers to his daily journal. It is considered a staple read for all activists.
[2] Achmad Wahid was a moderate Muslim activist whose daily journal was also published.
[3] The Soeharto regime was one of corruption, nepotism, censorship, and many other forms oppression. The authoritarian regime lasted 32 years and was finally brought down in 1998 amid mass student protests. Many of the protesters remained disappeared.
[4] Pecalang are now ubiquitous, even present for private wedding ceremonies to international political meetings. Their uniform is made up of traditional male Balinese dress and with a black vest or polo shirt that reads Pecalang on the back.
[5] Sweeping entails demanding that all residents of a certain area show their identity card. If they do not have one or are not Balinese they are required to pay a fee. Sweeping has led to the financial success of many banjars (communities), such as Banjar Kedaton Kesiman which acquires US$3,000 per month.
[6] a banjar is an organization of families that exist within a village. The banjar is involved in each family’s ceremonies.