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The Trouble With Alcohol in Indonesia

Indonesia, being a Muslim majority country, is also a pluralist, democratic and secular nation. And with the rest of the world slowly shifting to adapt to change – be in its views or laws – Indonesia still treads carefully behind, constantly playing a tug of war between preserving its conservative beliefs or making the necessary adjustments to conform with society’s demands.

The issue of alcohol in the country has long been debated. One side, consisting of conservative groups and Muslim politicians, are calling for a nationwide alcohol ban. The bill, introduced by Islamic parties Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the United Development Party (PPP), aims to ban the sale, distribution and consumption of beverages containing more than one percent of alcohol.

Those found in violation would face two years imprisonment, while producers and distributors could be jailed for up to ten years. Although it is currently being deliberated by Indonesia’s House of Representatives and a nationwide ban hasn’t been enforced yet, Aceh is an exception. As a strict Islamist autonomous province which applies Sharia law, including the complete ban of alcohol, since 2014 those breaching the law – whether they are residents or visitors – can face between six to nine cane lashes.

Although Muslim parties control less than a third of the legislative seats in the country, they have become more aggressive in the past few years. Failed alcohol bans have previously been proposed by the same groups pushing for the current bill.

In 2015, the government began to restrict the availability of alcohol by banning sales from mini marts and groceries – much to the outcry from tourism and alcohol industries. This led to a 13 percent decline in sales, according to research firm Euromonitor.

Supporters of the ban cited health reasons as a large influence behind the ban. Alcohol does cause hundreds of deaths globally a year, as well as the exacerbation of mental illness such as schizophrenia. But as The Economist puts it:

“Indonesians are actually very abstemious: they consume less than one litre of alcohol per head annually.”

As a result, the restriction has caused people to turn to the black market and sales of the methanol-laced drink has risen. Work is now being done by the government to regulate the production of unlicensed home-brews known as oplosan – linked to the majority of alcohol-related deaths in Indonesia. The brew killed 186 people in 2016 and a record 280 in 2011.

The Economist points out: “Produced on a mass scale, sometimes using non-food ingredients such as methanol, these account for more than 80 percent of the alcohol consumed in Indonesia. Unlike licensed products, which are unaffordable for many people, not least because of a stiff sales tax, opsolan are sold cheaply – often in corners of the country where local authorities have restricted the alcohol trade under powers devolved to them since decentralization in 2001.”

The effect on tourism and the economy

Bali, which has a worldwide reputation as a party island, is particularly threatened by the move. With the looming threat the bill brings, many tourism operators have expressed their dissent. One of them is the chairman of the Bali Tourism Board I.B. Agung Partha. In an interview with the New York Times, he says he already foresees an ‘apocalypse’ on the island of Bali.

Bali, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, exceeded its 2016 target of 4.4 million for foreign tourist arrivals when the number reached 4,485,137 in November, based on data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), Bali Province. If the ban takes effect, it will have a crippling effect on tourism.

Partha said: “Hotels have bars, restaurants have bars and they serve alcohol – this is just part of tourism. This bill is just no good.”

In an article from Australian website news.com.au, Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association Head Hariyadi Sukamdani said business will be done.

“The tourists drink alcohol all the time. It will be very inconvenient for them if they can’t find alcohol.” He also added,

“No matter how beautiful the country is, if they can’t find alcohol, they won’t want to come here.”

However, “many brewers argue that alcohol consumption is a long-standing tradition in the country and not something to be vilified as a Western decadence,” The Independent UK reported. Afterall, alcohol has been produced and consumed in Indonesia for at least 700 years. Michael Chin, Chief Executive of Multi Bintang, the country’s biggest brewer, told the Economist that “it is part of the culture of Indonesia.”

Although some think that it isn’t just about drinking. John McBeth writes in the South China Morning Post: “It is about the harm it would do to the country’s image as a tolerant, secular state where public drunkenness among Indonesians is only a real problem in easternmost Papua.”

He went on to add: “it is also about the threat to personal freedoms by what is seen as creeping Islamic conservatism. If visitors feel they are being forced to conform to other’s religious beliefs and all that entails, then they will go elsewhere.”

Rudolf Dethu, a leader of two groups opposing the legislation – one of which organises social events to promote the culinary aspects of beer, thinks it’s all about pluralism and human rights.

“It’s not just about alcohol – there’s something bigger behind this,” he told the New York Times. “First it’s drinking, and then rules on who you can date and what time you can go out at night, and it’s not in the Indonesian culture to say no to authority.”

With major concerns from some of the country’s most influential corners in direct conflict, the debate is expected to rage on.

 

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Ish is a writer and journalist at Content Collision. She resides in the Philippines.


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