Reading Time: 7 minutes
A criminal code banning pre-marital sex and cohabitation was passed by Indonesia’s Parliament at the end of last year. Although some later clarification indicated the law wouldn’t be enforced against international visitors, will a move so starkly conservative End up altering the vivacious fabric of the free-spirited destination? Here’s a collection Of thoughts from a writer based in Asia, and some locals, tourists and expats alike.
A perky blonde shimmers under the midday sun at the beach, her noticeably itty-bitty bikini catching stares as she takes momentary dips in the Canggu shoreline to cool off. Before long, the back and forth she’s been doing between her towel and the ocean has captured the attention of one of the locals who just caught his last wave of the day. They make small talk, see each other again, and again… things evolve naturally, as they so often do. But, a twinge of anxiety runs through them every time they meet, slowly they begin scheduling their rendezvous to avoid prying eyes.
An old-timer cruises the streets of Kuta, finding a local female comrade for his late- night escapades, which involve hollering at sports bars, reminiscing about his glory days and knocking back Bintangs. Without sharing the finer details, they know the further nuances of their evening together. But, more than ever, they keep their trans- action under wraps, shrouded in secrecy and well away from any questionable gazes.
A couple pencils in a well overdue tropical holiday, the anticipation of some alone time under the sun leaves them giddy with excitement. Although besotted with one another, their relationship hasn’t made it down the aisle yet. They’re young and the pressure for couples to marry is not what it once was so it’s not at the forefront of their to-do list. However, the distinct absence of wedding bands, and their public displays of affection don’t go unnoticed at the hotel’s check-in counter, making it ever so obvious that before long they’ll be testing the sturdiness of every surface in their villa.
These are scenarios played out daily in the Bali synonymous with beaches, bikinis, and boozed shenanigans – but has the liberal bohemian paradise become some- where you’ll now have to think twice about getting your kicks, or so it seemed for a hot minute. That’s at least what the media circus that had the world in a chokehold last December had you believing.
The end of 2022 saw Indonesia’s parliament approve a new criminal code, banning everyone in the country from partaking in extramarital sex, a law that would apply equally to locals and foreigners alike, including tourists visiting the country. However, two weeks later, after a snowball of international scrutiny, tourism officials declared “tourists and foreign nationals living in Indonesia will be exempt.”
“I did think it was blown way out of proportion, it came up a few years ago as well, but the media must have had bigger news at the time to push,” suggested Aussie businessman Levi Brown, while sipping on his early morning espresso. Levi, who owns Fresh Boy, a surf-vibe açai shack and shop in the heart of Canggu, shared my surprise at just how much coverage the story got in the global media cycle.
Brice Reavaille, an avid French surfer who’s lived in Bali for the past nine years agreed with the sentiment, “I didn’t pay attention to it (the law) until international media communication went so viral. The sensationalism definitely got the better of the press.” Meanwhile, locals and expats seemed to be in solidarity on the subject, “I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration, causing panic among the ones living here, and the tourists,” commented Annisa Devianda with a chuckle. Annisa recently made the move from Jakarta to Bali and was getting used to the amount of ‘bule’ she had to deal with on an average day.
Few were aware that sex outside of marriage was already banned prior to the new law’s introduction. However, it was less than regularly enforced, mainly because the old law defined adultery as ‘sex between a married man and someone who was not his wife’, whereas the new law outlaws all sex outside of marriage, including that between unmarried couples. Under the new legislation the jail term also increased marginally from nine months to ‘up to one year’
“I think it was reported in a way that that implied it was more applicable to international tourists than it actually is,” commented Josie May, a Sydney local who makes the trip to Bali every few months when the swell picks up. “Headlines may have led tourists and expats to believe they could end up in prison for having a screw outside of marriage,” she continues.
The criminal code has also ushered in a new ban, that’ll see six months in jail for unmarried couples caught living together.
Some see it as concerning that the change in laws comes in lockstep with the rise of religious conservatism within the Muslim- majority country. Historically Bali has avoided enforcing the harsher Muslim laws by distinguishing itself as a predominately Hindu island.
I asked Levi if he believed more conservative laws may follow, “I think, for Java and other Indonesian islands with a majority population Muslim outlook, it’s looking that way. There’s a lot of foreign investment from wealthier Muslim countries pushing this motion forward so let’s wait and see. Hopefully I’m married before then!”
Surfers who’ve made trips to some of Indonesia’s less tourist-centric islands such as Sumbawa, Java and Sumatra will already be privy to the more Islamic demographic that makes up the wider country. And while experiencing the shift in cultural customs is one of the wonderful parts of travelling outside of Bali, the implementation of more conservative laws could mean couples are more cautious and inhibited when travelling through smaller more traditionalistic communities.
Unsurprisingly, the unlikely passing of the criminal code sent the world into a frenzy; and simultaneously managed to educate the majority of Americans that Bali does actually reside in Indonesia.
Although the law won’t come to fruition for another three years, and with that the likely chances of this affecting Westerners being incredibly slim; the frontal impression and stereotype it’s leaving with the wider tourist economy is one of a less free and easy tropical paradise.
“I definitely believe this’ll impact people coming to Bali, especially those who follow the news they’re reading or watching blindly; which for us it a bit sad as Indonesia is just barely recovering from the pandemic. Also, this isn’t the first time it’s happened, a few years back it was wrongly reported that a law banning alcohol would come into effect,” indicated Brice.
Add into the mix the relaxing of legislation a hop-skip-and-a-jump away in Thailand and their unexpected decriminalisation of marijuana, and a wide proportion of Bali residents are rightly spooked that this’ll lead to a drop off in holidaymakers, in a country that pre-pandemic welcomed approximately 16 million tourists a year. Levi agreed, “I think the regulars to Bali won’t be fazed, but newcomers will definitely take alternatives like Thailand, the Philippines or Sri Lanka.”
In the same way your mind convinces your self that the kelp shadow swaying under the break could very well be a White Pointer, the fear of the new law is there, even though the threat is really just some overgrown seaweed. Realistically a typical holiday in Bali under the new laws won’t land you any time in Kerobokan jail, but you may feel a hint more uncomfortable, maybe enough to make you question just how much you like that girl you met at the bar an hour ago. As Levi joked, “No one wants to end up in jail abroad for a sneaky one night stand.”
The intricate fabric that meshes the vibrant domestic community with the revolving door of Westerners, many of whom are Australian, could however be in the firing line. The law is enacted when a local friend or family member reports on said adulterous behaviour, thus the characteristic union between the two nations, which has produced many an incredible surfer such as Bronson Meydi and Lee Wilson, could very well cease to exist under a weighty cloud of fear.
But, as is always the case, as quickly as the law was thrust into the media, it was fizzled out of the public’s collective conscious, leaving the whole thing feeling like a very odd fever dream. “Perhaps the headlines have changed a perception or two of Bali, but I think that mainly applies to people who have never visited,” noted Josie while cocking a cheeky smile. “I don’t think it’ll change the views of the majority of people who’ve come before.”
That said, with three more years of legislation to be passed before the law can be enforced, it may be time to get your Indo holidays in while you can still be that little bit more liberal and adventurous. For now, blonde bombshells and local chargers can bonk away, young couples can check into hotels with unadulterated glee, and Kuta can continue being, well Kuta.
Sun, surf and… celibacy? Doesn’t sound like Bali and probably never will be.