Thursday, October 05, 2006

Clubbed to Death

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan will soon be upon us. This year, however, Jakarta's nightlife has already gone into premature semi-hibernation. Recent police sweeps against nightclubs and bars and their accompanying vice, gambling and drug trades have had an unprecedented impact on the city's normally easy-going nightlife. 2AM is the new kicking out time and thousands of bar staff and club workers are apparently on the verge of being laid off.

Are nightclubs and bars the front line in a strange, new war? Five-star hotel clubs such as Tiga Puluh and CJs now require entry through some kind of demilitarized zone due to the continued threat of terrorism. Conversely, drive up to a club like Stadium these days and you run the risk of a police raid and a urine test in a mobile laboratory. What's going on? Has going out at night really become such an ideological and moral battleground? Or is it simply an easy political stick to beat, one that distracts the masses from the ceaseless graft and the Rupiah's inexorable slide toilet-wards?

The jury's still out. One thing is for sure though; the war on drugs has certainly been ratcheted up a few notches around town of late. Narkoba has now been conceived as a giant Satanic beast that bestrides Jakarta after dark and alas such demonisation precludes any rational debate about the issues. Maybe it's the police's perennially greasy palms that are determining events here. Possibly though, the whole crackdown points to a broader struggle currently underway here between the forces of religious conservatism, i.e. those who would criminalize public kissing, and those of a more pluralistic, liberal bent. Indonesians are generally more ascetic in their culture in comparison with hedonistic Westerners and their alcoholic social rituals. If they are Muslim, of course, they are expected to be teetotal. On the other hand, Indonesians are actively encouraged to kill themselves before the age of 60 by smoking pack after pack of head swimmingly heavy Kretek cigarettes. All societies have their acceptable drugs.

Perhaps, ideally, the victimless crime of drug use should be a matter of personal choice and responsibility. Personal responsibility though is a concept that a western country such as America, with its litigious, blame-everyone-except-yourself culture is as helplessly adrift from as Indonesia and its conformist social mores. Certainly the whole area of drug laws is full of absurdities. The maverick American psychiatrist and advocate of drug legalization, Thomas Szasz, has noted that, "If you drink and drive, you can be jailed. But on the other hand, you can take a prescribed drug like Halcion, murder someone, and get acquitted. You can carry a loaded gun, but not a loaded syringe." The good doctor continues, "It's almost as if we want to be punished in this way, deprived of our rights and turned into adult children. Or take the smoking debate. People forget the issue of private property. If I own a restaurant and wish to have people smoking in it, it's my own affair. No one has to come there." Thought-provoking stuff although sadly, I guess, the human species as a whole has a few more evolutionary rungs to climb before it can get to grips with these issues, just look and see what happens as Jakarta tries to ban smoking in public places for example.

In addition to the city's war on drugs (which seemed to have taken a serious ceasefire at Stadium last weekend) many foreign girls involved in the vice industry have been rounded up and deported. Fair enough perhaps but what about the local ladies of the night? That's okay then is it? Kick the Russian girls out the move your own girls in? Something does smell slightly of fish here (stop that sniggering at the back!)

Perhaps all this complaining is just a touch hypocritical of me though. After all, if I was at home now in the UK I could only dream of being able to stay out clubbing until 4 AM. Pubs in Britain close at 11 PM and even then its domestic violence, assaults on the street and front gardens covered in vomit galore. The UK is apparently in the midst of a binge drinking epidemic and your average Brit supposedly swallowed the equivalent of 9.4 liters of pure ethanol last year. At least you don't have to fight your way to the bar in Jakarta, except at CJs on a Saturday night, and that's mainly down to the good old Bules again. People need to unwind after a hard day at work however and let's hope that the forces of law and order give Jakarta's happy night prowlers a break in the not too distant future. I'm sure it will all be back to business as usual before too long.

Simon Pitchforth