A grog ban in Indonesia!

Nov 19, 2020

Hard hit by the pandemic, Indonesia is in recession. The government is desperate to revive the economy and draw overseas investors, particularly into the tourist industry which earned almost AUD 20 billion a year before Covid-19. So not the ideal time to tell potential travellers that prohibition is proposed.

Undeterred by the economics, two Islamic political parties and the nationalist Gerindra (run by failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto) are pushing new laws to turn the archipelago dry.

Proponents in the House of Representatives argue that grog is banned for Muslims and causes harm to all, so everyone needs protection. The usual caveat that ill-effects come through over-consumption are ignored.

Politician Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal has been quoted as saying prohibition will protect society from the ‘negative impacts of alcohol’ and ‘create awareness among the public of the dangers of alcoholic beverages’.

The bill covers producing, importing, storing, distributing, selling and consuming alcohol. Offenders could face fines of up to AUD 6,000 and two years behind bars. If they’re caught drunk in public the sentences double.

The radical Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders’ Front) is demanding penalties include public floggings. These are currently only allowed in the province of Aceh at the top of Sumatra for offences like bedding before wedding and being gay, a favourite whipping boy. They draw crowds of camera-clickers keen to witness medieval torture.

The FPI has supporters but no seats in Parliament. Although its extreme ideas are drawing headlines they’re unlikely to be implemented. However, the bill may give the fanatics, now re-energised with the return of their firebrand leader Rizieq Shihab from self-exile in Saudi Arabia, the chance to stir.

Ironically there are no proposed restrictions on the greatest threat to public health apart from Covid-19. As reported in this column earlier, tobacco use is killing an estimated half a million men (women rarely smoke) a year in a country where more than 60 per cent are regular users. Indonesia has one of the highest consumption rates in the world according to the World Lung Foundation.

The Majelis Ulama Indonesia (the peak law-making body of Islamic scholars) is backing the draft prohibition. A few years ago is passed a fatwa (edict) that nicotine was haram (forbidden) according to interpretations of verses in the Al-Quran and Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

MUI’s readings were rapidly reviewed and withdrawn when the tobacco industry whipped up mass protests of tobacco farmers and factory workers.

There are four breweries in Indonesia. The largest is owned by the Dutch company Heineken which makes the top brand Bintang (star). However, the industry is small and doesn’t have the political clout of the cigarette manufacturers so complaints won’t resonate. As the populace believes only foreigners and ethnic Chinese citizens drink, there’ll be little public sympathy for those against prohibition.

Another argument for making Indonesia dry is to attract halal (religiously permitted) tourism. Most cities now have sharia hotels where couples must prove they’re legally married, no pork on the menu, cool drinks only in the bar fridge, and sex-segregated pools and prayer rooms. It was supposed to be a growing market before the virus hit.

Apart from Western tourists in Hindu Bali, the only drunks I’ve occasionally encountered have been in North Sulawesi and West Papua. Both provinces are predominantly Christian. They may escape the dragnet if local religious leaders argue successfully that alcohol is part of their tradition and faith. Otherwise they’ll go dry.

When Protestant zealots forced the US to tread that arid track between 1920 and 1933, clandestine distillers flourished. That’s also likely in Indonesia if the law is passed. Every year there are reports of mass deaths and blindness when backyard chemists get their formulae wrong and produce the poison methanol instead of ethanol.

The local vodka, a clear rice spirit called arak, can be found in Bali and some eastern islands, but is often home-made so doesn’t meet health and hygiene standards despite impressive labelling. Buyers beware – it could be battery acid.

Outside Bali there have never been bottle shops, though beer was sold in some local supermarkets. This is in East Java where Islam dominates. Drinks were kept behind the checkouts so buyers had to be served and over 21. No hard stuff and no slabs. Sales were slow and usually only one or two low-strength cans.

The shelves were cleared during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, but five years ago weren’t restocked following a local government order. This forced buyers to search out small shops run by ethnic Chinese who keep supplies well hidden. The cost of a bottle is about a third higher than in our booze barns.

Wine and spirits can only be found in the five-star hotels where the prices are up to ten times those charged in Australia. A local red called Orang Tua (Old Man) and promoted as a herbal drink is so sickly sweet one sip induces abstention.

This draft law is a distraction Jakarta doesn’t need as its policies swing wildly from health protection to job maintenance in a major economic crisis and more than 4,000 plague deaths. While trying to get citizens to wear masks and stay apart, telling them lawmakers are concentrating on a non issue looks plain silly.

The bill has been around the legislature since 2015 but hibernating till now. No reliable evidence has been revealed showing Indonesia has a booze problem, suggesting the issue is being driven by religious ideology, and the aim is to destabilise Widodo.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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