DUNCAN GRAHAM Bali alert! Busybodies at large

It was excruciatingly embarrassing.

The hotel receptionist was adamant: We either proved our marriage or we left.  Voices were raised which drew more staff and onlookers to the foyer. Security guards appeared.

Our two-night booking earlier this year in the East Java regency of Jombang (motto – City of Tolerance) had been paid in advance through an on-line site. No refunds. Passports don’t specify marital status and we hadn’t packed our marriage certificate. It’s in Kiwinglish from a NZ registry office so more likely to confuse than convince.

Reluctantly we offered our Indonesian ID cards as licenses to lie abed together – though not a pleasant stay as anger at the humiliation simmered throughout.

The cards were passed around and photocopied. They also include, age, job, address and affiliation with one of the six approved religions. Atheism is not an option in Indonesia. Nor is privacy.

We’ve used sharia hotels which follow Islamic law before and had no hassles. A Koran by the bedside, a prayer mat in the wardrobe and an arrow on the ceiling pointing towards the Kaaba shrine in Mecca. No bacon for breakfast, no booze for dinner – but that’s all.

These minor irritants could enlarge into serious impediments in all hotels, sharia or otherwise, with new legislation passed by the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR – House of Representatives) criminalizing consensual extramarital sex and gay relationships. Penalties start with six months in jail.

The outrage hasn’t been confined to human rights groups; businesses are also sweating. Hoteliers foresee jets diverting to more liberal lands like Thailand and Cambodia. Reports of cancellations are already appearing.

Neatly tagged a ‘bonk ban’ by the Australian media it’s delivering headlines the Republic doesn’t want. But it’s an own goal and foreseeable as the changes have been debated for years.

President Joko Widodo, 58, is a Muslim moderate, though his clerical sidekick Ma’ruf Amin, 76, is not. Widodo fears the negative publicity will impact his target of 20 million overseas tourists next year and damage appeals for investors to park their dollars in his once welcoming archipelago.

He wants the legislation held back and reconsidered by DPR members elected in April and due to be sworn in next month. He hopes the new politicians will be less Tory and prune the contentious bits; the danger is that they could be more zealous and fertilise the shoots.

(Some foreign media have reported that Widodo has ‘ordered’ a delay by the DPR. Not possible; he’s politely ‘requested consideration’.)

Around 1.2 million Australians visit Indonesia every year, almost all landing at Kuta’s splendid Ngurah Rai airport. Balinese follow Hinduism which is more relaxed about sex than Islam, the nation’s dominant faith. Island life may be laid back but hardline Jakarta-made laws still apply.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at first dampened panic by saying the rules will not be enforced for two years. Then, most curiously, it let loose the frighteners by re-issuing a travel warning (‘exercise a high degree of caution’), and details of the conducts unbecoming:

Adultery or sex outside of marriage, encompassing all same-sex sexual relations’, and ‘cohabitation outside of marriage with charges only proceeding following a complaint by a spouse, child or parent.

However these are Australian government interpretations from translations of the new laws; they may not tally with either local understanding or enforcement. Other reports say accusations can also be lodged with the police by ‘community leaders’, which includes any self-styled guardian of public decency, aka Peeping Toms.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country and prides itself as morally superior to the decadent West. However a study cited by the Indonesia Institute for Criminal Justice Reform claims – surprise, surprise – that local teens are just as curious about sex and keen to explore as their overseas cousins, with 40 per cent exercising their desires ahead of marriage.

Then there are the practical problems. Indonesian jails are so overcrowded remote isles are being considered as crim dumps. We know about running penal colonies so could assist by organizing fact-finding tours of Christmas Island.

Indonesians are skilled at bending laws. This is not authoritarian China with cameras on every lamppost. Uniformed police are seldom seen after the morning and evening rush hours, so it’s unwise for motorists to assume a red light means STOP to all road users. Cigarettes glow under NO SMOKING notices while plastic bags filled with garbage bob down grimy streams past banners prohibiting rubbish dumping.

The new laws may get overlooked in some areas, but they’ll lie in wait like unsleeping gin-traps with jaws agape ready for the unwary paw. Tenderfoot tourists are the target species as they’re known to be well-heeled.

There’s also a long tradition of mob enforcement known as ‘sweeping.’ This involves self-righteous thugs wearing religious garb hitting hotels and demanding to see the register.

There have been fewer reports of these shakedowns recently. Perhaps the police are getting more professional and less likely to be intimidated by hoons swearing they’re driven by piety. This  could change if the volatile mix of religion and politics is given a fundamentalist shake.

The government slogan selling tourism is ‘Wonderful Indonesia’.  ‘Worrisome’ might be a better fit.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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3 Responses to DUNCAN GRAHAM Bali alert! Busybodies at large

  1. Andrew Farran says:

    I wouldn’t be so relaxed about this. The trend is growing. When Joko Widodo announced that the cleric Ma’ruf Amin would be his running mate in the Presidential election some may have thought that a clever tactical move to shore up the Islamist vote for his re-election. Others believed if he had to do that the electoral trend was not quite as benign as assumed.
    Having witnessed the ups and downs in Indonesian politics since 1945, including its more extreme or volatile periods, nothing should be taken for granted. If Indonesia was situated elsewhere Australians could afford to be more disinterested about its domestic practices than we might be about Middle Eastern politics. But being next door the question of compatibility between neighbours becomes more acute. Is the latitude for errors in understandings and misunderstandings sufficient to obviate small interactions becoming international incidents, especially involving foreign tourists who in such situations have little more than consular assistance to rely on? Indefinite detention in a foreign gaol when the diplomatic default position is non-interference in local legal processes, no matter how diligent the consular assistance, is of no comfort in the face of an injustice or a mismatch of legal standards and values. We have witnessed numerous cases of trumped up charges and convictions affecting Australians abroad. Where there can be such clashes of civilisations the safeguards against error and unintended consequences need to be tight and effective in practice. Matters of this nature are likely to become worse in reality rather than better on present trends.

  2. Kim Wingerei says:

    This has been going on for decades according to my Indonesian friends – every couple of years it is raised with the moderates pandering to the fundamentalists, but then it doesn’t get enacted. It is unlikely it will this time, either. But of course the generally ill informed and negligent Australian media lap it up without regard for the facts and the realities. Realities which include this being a country where bigamy is not uncommon (albeit illegal), let alone extramarital liaisons, and where enforcement of federal legislation is a long way from given by the time it reaches the community level ,which is what the majority of Indonesian’s care about (and respect) – especially in Hindu dominant Bali.

  3. Kien Choong says:

    I like to think that tourists/visitors ought to be sensitive to local culture when they visit a country.

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