Mila Shwaiko, born to Australian and American parents, grew up from early infancy in the village of Ubud in Bali, which today is more of a town and is a major tourist destination on the island. After finishing her studies in International Relations/Political Science in Sydney and Georgetown, she returned to Indonesia to work in development.

An organizer for TEDxUbud, Mila was given a scholarship fund by the Gates Foundation to attend TEDGlobal in Edinburgh in 2013. Her immersion in Balinese culture from a young age has given her quite a unique perspective on the island and the changes it is undergoing. She talks to Rio Helmi about Ubud, and about being between two cultures:

RH: You were raised in Bali from early infancy. Though very close to your own parents, you were effectively your parents’ Balinese staff’s foster daughter. In your childhood, did these two approaches to raising children clash in such a way that made it confusing?

MS: Not really. My mom made a decision very early on that with all things Bali, as well as anything that would make my Balinese family feel comfortable about me growing up within the Bali context, was their call. As a result, my cultural education was left to the experts on both sides. The confusing part came later in life!


Mila with her friend from infancy, Dayu

RH: When I look at you sometimes I see an Indonesian wrapped in Australian packaging. At other times less so. What is the reality?

MS: That is the reality. It depends who I am with, where I am, what is coming up in a particular day or week. If I have to be more Balinese or Indonesian, I can slip that into that mode and vice versa. Even after 30 years I still can’t tell where one ends and one begins. That’s the blessing and curse of growing up between two worlds. I always feel slightly foreign, no matter where I am, but I see so much more as a result, so I can’t complain.

RH: You have extensive experience working with social issues regarding development and so forth in eastern Indonesia through your employment with BaKTI (Eastern Indonesia Knowledge Exchange) in places like Makassar. Your perspective on what is going on in Bali and Indonesia is an educated one. Are you interested in contributing significantly to the ongoing debates about the environment and social issues here in Bali?

MS: It was an incredible opportunity for me to go work in Makassar and eastern Indonesia for so many years. I went there with very little knowledge of Indonesian government, development and, more importantly, the cultural issues of that region. I found a special type of freedom and acceptance by my colleagues and people I worked with that I hadn’t experienced before. I got to learn so much in an environment that is a lot more open and flexible than Bali’s. The more I learned there, the more confused I became about Bali. I had always assumed Bali was more advanced, more sophisticated, but in reality it’s stuck in a time warp, coasting on its tourism success. The government and leaders seem unwilling to learn from other places, despite the huge exposure to outside forces. Some of the most successful local governments I have seen in the eastern regions are among the poorest, most isolated, and most ‘left behind’, but their desire to try new things and learn from others lets them move ahead so much faster.

I’m glad I’m not working here. I think the imbalance between the influence of tourism dollars and community voices would be incredibly challenging to work with. Not to mention the cultural aspects.

RH: Do you think as that as a woman and an expat it would be tough to have your voice heard in the community here if you did? Too tough to be taken seriously?

MS: Yes, even the ‘normal’ Balinese community members have a tough time, I think. I don’t think there is enough information being made available to anyone about the possibilities and opportunities they have access to, as individuals, families or communities. Most people don’t realize there are different ways of doing things without upsetting cultural norms or traditions.


RH: As a TEDxUbud organizer who was given a scholarship from the Gates Foundation to attend TEDGlobal 2013 Edinburgh, do you see Ubud growing into a hub of innovation, social and otherwise?

MS: Hasn’t it always been? I just assumed that is why outsiders started to come here! Ubud tends to attract some amazing people, but personally, I would love for more Ubud (Balinese/Indonesian) community members to be involved. Not just ceremonially at events or discussion panels, but really doing something for their communities to address some of the major issues of Ubud. That’s why I get very excited when I hear about what is happening in Padangtegal (a part of Ubud which is more progressive). I hope that sort of innovation spreads further north to central Ubud as soon as possible.

RH: Coming back after university (in Australia and the US), what was the most striking change in the people of Ubud that you noticed from your interaction with Balinese society since childhood?

MS: Only one? Tough! Separation from the land and environment. My Balinese parents and their generation are walking encyclopedias of information about the environment, agriculture and the invisible world connected to that. And I can see that this huge body of knowledge hasn’t been passed down to the next generation. I don’t want to romanticize life in Bali 40 years ago – being a farmer is brutal work – but it makes me so sad to see that knowledge disappearing. Sometimes it is deliberately excluded by the belief that university degrees and modern knowledge are better than any of the ‘old stuff’. I spend a lot of time trying to convince older people that their knowledge is just an important as that of their university graduate relatives’. I don’t believe that Bali should stand still and we should keep everything perfectly preserved, but I do believe that the younger generation doesn’t have the knowledge they need to make an informed decision as to the best way forward. Maybe that’s why we are getting bulldozed by all this unchecked and uncontrolled construction. I refuse to call it development, especially when so much of it is probably just corruption and money laundering.

RH: For you personally, what is the most irritating thing about Ubud society in the 21st Century?

MS: Regarding Ubud in general: the huge numbers of ‘spiritual’ tourists and expats who come here and don’t make any effort to learn about Balinese culture, religion or history. Or think that one conversation with a driver gives them the whole picture. And don’t even get me started on the hybrid rituals that keep springing up as a result. As for Ubud village level: again, the lack of information and communication from leadership to community, and the sense that Ubud people have no say in what is happening less than 200m from their doors to a town that they built.

RH: And what is the most endearing thing about Ubud society today?

MS: That behind the gates and storefronts, the Bali life is still going strong, undisturbed by the noise, in its little bubble.

RH: Some people say that Ubud is becoming a kind of Disneyland. What do you think Ubud needs most to avoid this ‘fate worse than cultural death’, in order to move forward?

Disneyland would never have let this happen. They pay much more attention to details like design, presentation, service and transport! Ubud needs an inter-village planning council and some form of spatial planning. It needs someone willing to say no and implement an actual vision. Not what we have now, which appears to be ‘how fast can we become like Kuta, but with yoga’! And then it needs some real community discussions that address people’s right to make money, but within an Ubud identity.