Will Indonesia become a ‘dry’ country?

April 19 — If Indonesian Parliament has its way, sipping a beer can land you in jail, thanks to a Bill on Alcoholic Beverages.

Yes, the Bill, which is proposed by Parliament, wants to turn Indonesia into a teetotal country, an alarming sign of the increasingly conservative direction it is taking.

News on the Bill emerged just as the government is tightening the sale of beer nationwide, banning minimarkets from selling them. An exception was made for touristy areas in Bali.

Trade Minister Rachmat Gobel, himself a businessman, imposed a ministerial regulation to stop the sale of drinks containing 5 per cent or less alcohol at minimarkets to “save the young generation from the bad impact of alcohol.” He argued that many of the minimarkets are located near housing areas, schools and houses of worships.

Indonesians can still buy beer and other alcoholic beverages at supermarkets and licensed cafes and bars.

The move has received some criticism, including from Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama who, while saying he would heed the regulation, called itunnecessary and warned that it might turn people to bootleg liquor.

Tourists drink beer at a restaurant sidewalk in the tourist district in Jakarta on April 15, 2015. — Picture by AFP
Tourists drink beer at a restaurant sidewalk in the tourist district in Jakarta on April 15, 2015. — Picture by AFP

“No one has ever died from drinking beer; but people die from bootleg liquors,” he said, adding that if alcoholic drinks were prohibited, then cough syrups containing alcohol must be banned too. His comments were immediately attacked by conservative Muslims.

Ahok, the Governor’s popular moniker, has an economic concern as well. The Jakarta administration owns a 26 per cent stake in a beverage manufacturing company that produces beer brands such as Anker, Carslberg and San Miguel. Last year PT Delta Djakarta was among the top three contributing companies to the city’s revenues. Reuters data show that beer consumption has more than doubled in the last decade, making Indonesia the 10th largest beer consumer in Asia.

However, restricting the sale of beer is different from outlawing the consumption of all alcoholic drinks in the country, which is the intention of the Bill on Alcoholic Beverages. One of 37 Bills prioritised to be passed by Parliament this year, it was first initiated by two Islamic parties in 2012, but had been put on a backburner until this year.

Under this Bill, anyone caught drinking alcoholic beverages can be sentenced from three months’ to two years’ imprisonment, or a fine of Rp 10 million (US$780 or RM2,839) to Rp50 million.

If passed, it will effectively kill the entire alcoholic beverage industry, from the manufacturer down to the retail chain and its workers, indirectly affecting up to 200,00 workers, The Jakarta Post cited the Indonesian Malt Beverage Producers Association (GIMMI).

Then there is the tourism industry, which will not likely benefit from the image of Indonesia being a “dry” country. Although Bali has been said to be exempted from the ban, it is not the only tourist destination that Indonesia wants to develop. The hospitality industry will be hit significantly by an alcohol prohibition.

And as Jakarta Governor Ahok has stated, a blanket ban on alcoholic consumption will drive the trade underground, which means that consumers will be vulnerable to unsafe counterfeit and/or bootleg liquor products. The latter has already caused the deaths of many, because of its cheap price and extremely high alcohol content.

Legislators were quick to deny that religious morality has anything to do with the Bill, claiming it was to protect the health of the population. But if that were the case, wouldn’t they have to do the same blanket ban on cigarettes, which is just as harmful to health as, if not more than, alcohol?

The fact that the Bill was proposed first by the Muslim-based United Development Party and Prosperous Justice Party, and gained quick support from the conservative Muslim communities, shows that it is the latest of an on-going attempt to Islamicise Indonesia. A nationwide ban on alcoholic beverages disregards the existence of many non-Muslim Indonesians, who live in pockets of Christianity in North Sumatra and Eastern Indonesia, or in the Hindu Bali.

Unfortunately, because of the morality factor associated with alcohol, not many politicians would raise an issue against the Bill, even if they personally may not agree with the ban.

The Bill will also contradict the government’s decision last year to ease restrictions on the expansion of alcoholic drinks productions, reinforcing concerns over a lack of certainty in the investment climate.

In fact, Indonesia’s image will take the biggest hit if the Bill is passed, especially as the country is set to attract more foreign investment. Having parliamentarians imposing their moral values on the population through laws that encroach on people’s personal space does not set a picture of an investor-friendly climate.

And at the end of the day, Indonesians are very adaptive and entrepreneurial anyway. If they want to drink/sell alcohol, they will do it. During the Ramadan month, when alcohol is banned, for example, you can still order beer or wine at some establishments. It’ll just come in a teacup.