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A paroxysm of morality clouds Indonesia’s sunny image

One of the history’s most immutable lessons is that you can’t legislate love or lust.

While misguided leaders and legislators – filled with puffed-up pomposity, motivated by money politics, or hypocritically playing to a religiously fundamentalist political base may try to dictate matters of the heart for their constituents, any effort to legislate what represents an “acceptable” object or expression of human affection invariably comes to naught.

Rules outlawing marriage between different races failed in the USA as they did in South Africa and other locales. Indonesians told that only people sharing the same religious faith can marry, simply take a low-cost fare to Singapore where they become husband and wife. And, legislation in some jurisdictions that try to stipulate “approved” forms of lovemaking behind closed bedroom doors are as unenforceable as they are unintelligible. But, sadly, if legislation now under consideration in Jakarta is any indication, we live in a world lacking historical understanding and a modicum of common sense among those in positions of political power.

Driven primarily by parties controlled by Indonesia’s religious majority that aims to criminalise all sex outside the confines of marriage, Indonesia stands poised to pass a new criminal code that will pave the way for widespread violations of basic human rights and allow the narrow minded to try to rule the rights of “private” citizens. Playing to the peanut gallery prejudices of the religiously conservative, the rewriting of the criminal code will make sex between unmarried consenting adults punishable by prison terms of up to five years. And, while how such rules will be enforced remain a mystery, it’s hard to imagine how the Indonesian prison system will be able to accommodate the plethora of homosexuals, practitioners of premarital sex, and contumacious housewives and their lovers – all of whom will become criminal targets to be netted and sent to jail when law enforcement comes knocking on the Nation’s bedroom doors.

Many are genuinely concerned that the proposed law will unduly inspire vigilante groups, sanctimoniously cloaked in religious righteous indignation, to disregard both human and privacy rights as they mass-march forward, hell bent on implementing a nationwide campaign of coitus interruptus. If you think such projections are alarmist and unrealistic, please take note of the ongoing draconian public shaming and town-square flogging that have are now the norm under Sharia law in Indonesia’s province of Aceh. Just last week in North Sumatra, a group of transgender workers in a beauty salon were dragged into the streets by angry mobs and the police where they were ridiculed and physically abused.

A large segment of the Indonesian public find the proposed changes to the criminal code unpalatable and frightening. While Indonesian are historically moderate in their thoughts and actions, this “subdued and silent majority” are increasing silenced, shouted down, insulted and, not infrequently, physically abused by members the intolerant outspoken religious right. It is as though moralistic bullies arrogate onto themselves an all-knowing grasp of the true nature of God’s will as they try to control the minutiae of everyday life. And, those Indonesians bold enough, such as imprisoned former Jakarta Governor Ahok, to even suggest the iron-clad proclamations of militant religious leader warrant further examination are accused of blasphemy and sent to jail by a cowed and intimidated judicial system.

Many believe that the much-respected and admired Indonesian President Joko Widodo will find many parts of the proposed revision to the criminal code unacceptable, yet few think he will exercise his Presidential prerogative to veto legislation that will bring the well-funded fundamentalist fringe onto the streets in mass demonstrations protesting against him during the lead up period to his re-election campaign.

It is not clear what effect the adoption of the new criminal code will have on daily life in Bali and the Island’s tourism industry. On an Island with a culture that has a relaxed and accepting attitude on matters of the heart, most believe that local law enforcement will lack the public backing and political will needed to enforce a crackdown on the wide-ranging variants of extra-marital relations that prevail among the Balinese, visiting domestic tourists, and international visitors.

5 star resorts and hotels actively court the “pink dollar” of the LGBT travel market – now estimated internationally to be larger than the entire outbound Chinese travel market. Similarly, Australians with common-law spouses and unmarried romantic interests in tow make up a large part of the Bali travel market. And, also not the be forgotten, is the very large number of young Indonesians who travel to Bali seeking a romantic interlude on an Island named by Governor Made Pastika as the “Island of Love.”

Despite the widespread doubt that the new criminal code could ever be enforced in Bali, the damage to Bali’s branding if such a bill is ratified is much more certain. Tourist take holidays to relax and enjoy life and might well decide to seek other destinations if the “shared” enjoyment of the Island with their significant other suddenly becomes a criminal act punishable by five years in prison.

We in Indonesian travel industry are quick to blame competing markets with publicising news inimical to the interests of the Island’s tourism sector; suggesting dark hands with evil motives in neighbouring markets are hard at work drawing attention to erupting volcanoes, rabies, and other Bali shortcomings in order to steal market share. And, if there are competing travel markets working actively against Bali’s interest, the passage of the new criminal code will create a field day, ripe with damaging and damning details to sway travellers to give Bali a miss.

Current efforts to outlaw sex between consenting unmarried adults demonstrates conclusively that when it comes to crippling Indonesia’s tourist industry, the worst wounds can be self-inflicted.

Article reproduced coutesy of, epublishers of the very excellent Bali Update.

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