Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Booze Headlines

Indonesia has an increasingly ambivalent relationship with the demon drink

Alcoholic beverages have been a part of human culture for an awfully long time, and its even now been shown that natural selection has actually equipped most humans with an alcohol processing gene during the very recent evolution of our species. A thought-provoking discovery for sure and I certainly hope that one too many gin and tonics won’t see me picking up a posthumous Darwin Award. Scourge of society or valuable social lubricant, Indonesia, as a nominally Islamic and yet ostensibly pluralistic and secular nation, has a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the consumption of alcohol.

Most recently, the New Order-era, Islamic-leaning United Development Party (PPP) proposed a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol, which would effectively turn the country into a Saudi-esque dry zone and no doubt see Bintang and Anker turning to isotonic drinks in order to survive. Booze in Indonesia is already heavily regulated and taxed in fact, the result being that this time-honoured social lubricant is considerably more expensive here than it is in neighbouring countries. A total ban would be something else altogether though and prison sentences of ten years have been proposed for diehard splash heads who manage to brew up an illegal still of optic-nerve tingling moonshine in their bak mandi.

Clearly religious compulsion is the fundamental motive behind the PPP bill, although Arwani Thomafi, the PPP secretary down at the House of Representatives, has also claimed that the consumption of alcohol offered no significant contribution to the state budget. Anyone who’s staggered their way along Jl. Kemang Raya on a Friday night or Bali’s Jl. Legian on pretty much any night of the week may wish to take issue with this rather credulity stretching claim. And indeed the government’s steep-to-perpendicular 150 per cent excise tax on imported booze has this year managed to generate around Rp. 1.5 trillion in import duties from the port of Tanjung Priok alone. In any event, the fact that a much-loved activity doesn’t generate much profit for the government is a rather draconian argument for depriving people of said pastime. I mean, premarital sex between consenting adults also adds little to state coffers and nobody’s proposing…erm…no scratch that actually.

Let’s be realistic here though. This bill hasn’t got a highball’s chance in hell of being passed, even if bibulous bule tourists were to be exempt from such anti-vino legislation. Indeed, over the past few years, a real drinking culture has developed in Jakarta as the economy has boomed and a whole new generation of post-New Order kids are assimilated into an ever more globalised culture of aspirational hedonism saturated in Tweets, techno and Tia Maria. From high-end wine bars, to cheap boozers flogging lethal cocktails that are seemingly two parts Red Bull to one part low-grade hooch with a splash of Pertamax Plus thrown in for good measure, to 24-hour minimarts filled with fridges of beer and sporting their own alfresco seating areas, the capital has gone Friday-night, binge-drinking crazy. Evenings of acoustic guitar sing-alongs and a few refreshing Teh Botols now seem to be from a more innocent age as Batavia’s boulevards become increasingly sophisticated.

All of this hardcore drinking has alas had some sadly all-too-predictable consequences. To take but a handful of recent examples, teenage model Olivia Dewi recently died after a drunken car crash, 17-year-old Raafi Aga Winasya Benjamin was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl while partying and, most notoriously of all, Afriani Susanti was sentenced to 15 years behind bars after mowing down nine pedestrians with her car, the result of a night of hard partying. Clearly road safety needs to be looked at in a country unused to such a high degree of Dionysian dipsomania, and as Sigmund Freud noted vis-à-viz violence, the conscience is soluble in alcohol.

Most of these Jakarta booze hounds are no doubt having the times of their lives, although those life-threatening, Saturday-morning hangovers are possibly providing a whole new world of Panadol- and vomit-punctuated adventure that may be giving many new drinkers pause for thought. Short of deliberately imposing a Draconian total booze ban though and opting out of the trappings of boom-time economic good times that Indonesia alone in the world seems to be enjoying at the moment, it’s hard to know what despairing parents (who themselves can probably be found down at the city’s chic wine bars) can do. Autre temps autre moeurs.

In stark contrast to Jakarta’s hedonistic, pilsner-fuelled zeitgeist however, a more ascetic climate of abstinence has descended upon other parts of the Indonesian Archipelago. An alcohol ban is most definitely not on the cards if imposed by central government, however Sharia-law-type rules and regulations seem to be entering people’s lives via the back door in this era of regional autonomy, even in Jakarta’s surrounding neighbour of West Java.

Local bylaws in places such as Tangerang, Indramayu and Tasikmalaya have seen shelves cleared of falling-down water in recent years, drawing criticism from some quarters that such regulations are both unconstitutional and violate regional-autonomy laws. An amazing 9000 new regional bylaws were issued across Indonesia between 2000 and 2011, many relating to alcohol, however opportunistic ministers seem unwilling to revoke any of them. So while Jakarta is becoming increasingly one eyed, large swathes of the rest of the country are now unable to blow the froth off a few foaming glasses of Bintang. It’s beginning to look like there’s one law for the rich elite in Jakarta and another for kampungan-poor provincial types. What a surprise to find that it should ultimately boil down to this.

So what are we to make of all this? Well people need to unwind for sure, but as our ritual of social integration of choice, putting one’s forebrain to sleep with ethyl-alcohol while sitting in a dull, smoky pub perhaps isn’t that impressive when compared with the extravagant exploits of human societies throughout history. Moreover, when the great Prophet (peace be upon him) decreed that drinking was to be off limits, it was a decision originally made, like so much inherited and inflexible religious morality, with regard to quite utilitarian concerns and an appraisal of the negative effects of alcohol upon society as a whole.

And the positives? Well one of the great things about the inhabitants of this country is that they really don’t seem to need fermented grain in order to lower social barriers, crack the shells of formality and have a good time in the company of complete strangers. However, should someone require a little libation in order to liberate their stiff-arsed egos from the stultifying shackles of everyday inhibition, then surely adults can make such decisions for themselves?