Booze Blues

The price of alcohol in Indonesia continues to soar into the stratosphere as new import duties are introduced.  

I’ve been cajoled into penning a few tetchy paragraphs about the recent hike in Indonesia’s import tariffs, particularly the vertiginously steep- to positively perpendicular-150 percent that’s just been slapped on imported alcoholic drinks. I’m somewhat mindful of the fact though that protestations along these lines can seem a little like the designer flip-flop stamping of petit-bourgeois expat feet. “We demand more tiramisu!”, “Opera tickets or death!” etc., etc. Maybe this whole bibulous debate can seem just a little frivolous when two-dollar-a-day malnutrition still stalks the land and much of the country’s infrastructure evokes a heavily-shelled Beirut.

Perhaps, though, one could turn this argument around and ask why Indonesia’s notoriously indolent legislators are wasting their time on demonising drink when there’s an entire country out there that desperately needs rebuilding. Could it be that proving that they are all decent, peci-wearing, God-fearing types helps to distract the general public from the never-ending whiff of corruption that continually unfurls over the future horizon like a soiled toilet roll unravelling down a steep hill?

But let’s explore the issue in a little more depth shall we? I can’t really profess to have a completely neutral stance on this.I’m a native of London and not Lampung after all.

However I should stress, Your Honour, that I’m a relatively light drinker and not the kind of dipsomaniacal, turps-nudging stereotype that I imagine is currently waking up in a cold sweat at the prospect of these new import levies.

Well, a litre of the hard stuff has just swelled from Rp.1,125,000 on a market price of Rp.1,000,000 (already expensive) to Rp.2,500,000. Fancy paying Rp.2,500,000 for a bottle of Jack Daniels? I guess if you wanted a brace  them then it would probably be cheaper to fly to Singapore and buy them there, cost of return flight included.

Protectionism does have its place. If you look at a longer view of world history beyond the neoclassical economic orthodoxy that crashed the world’s financial system back in 2008 and which has now ramped private debt back up to pre-crash levels of 250% of GDP, then it’s clear that the world’s most successful economies, including Western ones centuries ago, managed to haul themselves into such an advantageous position in the first place partly via protectionist measures.

However, that was just one part of a larger jigsaw that also involved state-sector investment in education and industry, often sustaining a loss for many years until the local stuff you produce works well. And there’s the rub. Indonesia’s elite political class don’t really do investment. They do kleptomania. With that in mind, the new import duties will perhaps do nothing except ramp up inflation, especially at a time when the rupiah has just hit a 17-year low against the greenback.

There are some though that see the invidious hand of religious fervour and so-called ‘Sharia-isation’ underlying these new import levies. Notice that among the spread of new taxes, alcohol imports have been selected for the eye-watering top whack of 150 percent. And, of course, this all comes on top of minimart fridges being exorcised of devil’s lemonade, teetotal Tangerang going totally dry and a putative, complete nationwide ban on alcohol which will soon pass before the Indonesian Parliament.

Despite claims to contrary then, it’s hard not to see prescriptive piety as opposed to public health as being the driving factor behind the current campaign against our beloved suds, especially when viewed in the context of the country’s great love of cigarette advertising and its endless semiotic pollution. The evil weed is surely many times more destructive with regard to public health than Bintang is, however big tobacco here enjoys a hand-in-glove relationship with political sleaze (as it does in many other countries).

My current bête noire is Gudang Garam’s latest saturation campaign. These ads depict a Western man, immaculately turned out in a shiny black leather jacket and neatly combed ponytail, playing a few bluesy licks on an electric guitar while a couple of young ladies look on approvingly from the opulent comfort of a classy, chromium and glass bar setting.

Gudang Garam has clearly missed a trick here, as a real rocker would surely have a lit cigarette pushed into the headstock of his axe. Although, in the wider context of blues music as a primal howl of the oppressed and dispossessed, developing into the manifold artistic explorations of rock, then the sanitised tableau presented in this ad has all of the authenticity and aesthetic vitality of a chartered accountant with lung cancer checking himself into a Swiss euthanasia clinic.

Interestingly, condoms have also been subject to a tax hike. I would assert that this is more evidence for the prosecution when assessing the real religious impetus underlying the booze-tax hike. Over the years, many of the country’s more firebrand leaders have taken a few moves out of the Papal playbook regarding the perceived evils of the humble rubber Johnny. This surely goes beyond alcoholic inconvenience and into the territory of the ethically inadmissible. Indeed, my personal policy proposal would be to carpet-bomb Java with packets of ‘party hats’ and have sinetron stars demonstrating how to put the things on with the aid of a few bananas twice a day on all of the country’s main television channels. But I digress.

Ultimately, many Muslims in this country, shock horror, actually drink the demon beer and are also fond of the making of beasts with two backs. Well, many of my acquaintances are at least, but perhaps that says more about my own foul existence. Passion and piña coladas may be fine and dandy, however none of my confrères will touch a ham sandwich with a barge pole, and for

them this abstinence seems to take the curse off the other two transgressions. Fingers crossed there aren’t too many moonshine fatalities in the years ahead. I can feel the old optic nerves tingling already.

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