WITH beautiful beaches, budget flights and even cheaper food and drink, it’s little wonder that Bali is the holiday destination of choice for 16,000 Australians a month.
For as little as $3 a day plenty of Aussies hire a scooter to explore the island, but what many don’t realise is that it can easily come with additional costs — in the form of on-the-spot “fines” to police officers for breaking a road rule or for more obscure “offences”, such as wearing thongs while driving a motorbike or stopping inches ahead of a stop sign.
On a month-long trip to Bali, travel blogger and photographer Brendan van Son rented a scooter to get around and was approached by police for a bribe three different times.
“Police have made it a task to grab tourists riding since they know they can likely grab a bribe to pocket,” he writes on his travel blog Brendan’s Adventures.
“As soon as a foreigner even forgets to signal, they’ll jump all over him or her. Hell, they jump on tourists even when they’re driving properly.”
On one occasion Van Son was forced to pay a “fine” of Rp 50,000 (about $AU5) but the next two times he was pulled over he argued that the police had no right and demanded a ticket to do his bit to stop corruption.
“When [the policeman] insisted on seeing the license I told him that he needed to provide me with an explanation or he was impeding my rights,” van Son said.
“[I told him he] was welcome to write me a ticket for not complying and I would go to the office and pay it, which is the point he gave up. He had no interest in upholding the law, just with lining his pocket.”
In a particularly frightening case, a group of Melbourne men at a buck’s party were forced to pay $25,000 to corrupt police who had allegedly tasered and pistol-whipped them before threatening to send them to jail if they didn’t pay the bribe.
But it’s not just tourists who have to pay bribes. Kim Chalmers, 31, was in the back seat of a car with a hotel manager returning from a trip to hospital for a suspected broken ankle when they were pulled over and asked to show their licence and registration papers.
The policeman looked into the back seat where Chalmers, with her ankle in a cast, was sitting with her partner, then started arguing in Indonesian with the driver.
“It was really intimidating — I was worried because I’d heard horror stories about people being bribed and having to hand over everything they had,” she recalls.
“But he handed back our papers and we went on our way.”
It was only then that the hotel manager told them that they had handed cash with the registration papers — an occurrence she said was common for locals — and that he’d wanted more cash but had let them off after the argument.
“She said that if it ever happened to us again we should just pay them otherwise they could put us in jail and it isn’t worth it,” Chalmers recalls.
WHY DO BRIBES EXIST?
It’s easy to assume that police ask for bribes to fill their pockets and supplement their income, but Dr Paul Thomas, co-ordinator of Indonesian studies at Monash University, told news.com.au it’s actually more complex than that.
For starters, the government never traditionally provided a lot of funding so there is a history of the military and police having to raise their own funds. On top of that, breadwinning Indonesians often have to support their extended family, so the police officers are often under a lot of financial pressure.
“In Indonesia, the responsibility of family extends beyond just their immediate family — they’d be expected to help out their cousins or aunty or uncle,” Dr Thomas explains.
“When you’re looking at the police force, we’re talking about a wage of between about $100 and $200 for the lower-ranked officers a month, so that’s not very much. Even the higher ranking officers are not getting that much.”
While being pulled over is intimidating, Dr Thomas says it would be “extremely rare” that someone would be pulled over for a traffic infringement and find themselves in prison.
“Most of the time the police are enforcing rules that aren’t generally enforced,” he says.
“It’s that inconsistency that confuses tourists and Indonesians alike, with people saying, ‘Today I went out without my helmet and there was no problems and then tomorrow I go out and suddenly I’m pulled over and have to pay a fine’.”
While some police will accept bribes for more serious charges like marijuana possession, Dr Thomas says many won’t.
“With traffic infringements, it’s almost seen like you’re tipping them as you would a waiter in a restaurant … ‘I’m going to provide you a good service by clearing this up right now and you’re going to give me a tip’,” he explains.
“But everybody knows that once they move into taking money to forgive infringements about drugs, they’re crossing a line that is totally different. There are going to be officers who are prepared to do that and there are those who are not.”
The Indonesian government has set up the Corruption Eradication Commission to work on high-level corruption, but Dr Thomas says they are also trying to eradicate low-level corruption too.
WHY DO PEOPLE PAY?
Many tourists opt to hand over cash for an on-the-spot traffic fine, figuring it will be quicker and more painless than arguing or to be taken to a police station to be dealt with “officially”.
“If you’re not going to pay the bribe, you’re going to lose a lot of time, standing on the side of the road chatting to the policeman and they might then find more things wrong with your bike or your car,” Dr Thomas says.
It’s for this reason that Victorian surfer Ryan, 40, says he’s taken to carrying Rp 300,000 (about $30) cash in his pocket on his annual trip to Bali so he has something to hand over to police if they pull him over for not wearing a helmet or not having the right registration papers.
“It’s not really stressful — it’s what you come to expect if you hire a motorbike,” he told news.com.au.
“They never offer you a helmet when you hire a motorbike so you just don’t really end up wearing one.”
Dr Thomas points out that most of the time the police are pulling tourists over for legitimate infringements.
“Tourists have to remember that most of the time they are in the wrong — they didn’t indicate, they weren’t wearing a helmet, they didn’t have a licence,” he says.
“Often Australians are on holidays and feel they should have complete freedom and are almost surprised when people start applying the rules.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU GET ‘FINED’?
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) warns that Australians are subject to the local laws of any country they are visiting so ought to brush up on things like road rules.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises against paying bribes overseas,” a DFAT spokesperson told news.com.au.
“Not only is bribing a foreign public official likely to be a criminal offence in the country where it occurs, it is also a serious offence under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, including where the conduct occurs outside of Australia.”
If you’re feeling pressured to pay a bribe, DFAT recommends contacting the nearest Australian consulate.
Van Son says you can save yourself some hassles by getting an Indonesian motorbike license from the Denpasar police station for anywhere between Rp 150,000 and Rp 300,000 (roughly $15 to $30), while Dr Thomas says it is a good idea to find out what the official fines are when you arrive so you can subtly confirm this with the police officer.
“There are plenty of cases where people have maintained a friendly approach and simply paid the official fine,” Dr Thomas says.
And if you do find yourself paying a bribe, you ought to be subtle because it’s ironically seen as impolite to flash money around.