In all my half-century of drinking, I have only once encountered a pub with no beer. Ironically, that was the Macbeth Arms in the small Scottish village of Lumphanan, where my hallowed ancestor was slain by Malcolm III in 1057.
There was a reason, of course. It was inconveniently closed for renovations.
Imagine my horror then, when on a road trip along the northern Java coast to cover Indonesia’s 2014 presidential elections, I inadvertently stopped for the night at what turned out to be a TOWN with no beer.
Demak (Pop: 33,700), the site of one of Indonesia’s oldest mosques, is one of a growing number of towns and cities across populous Java that have quietly banned the sale of alcohol.
The next could well be Surabaya, the country’s third largest metropolis. But Muslim hardliners, who since the birth of the democratic era have nibbled away at Indonesia’s secular traditions, want to take it further and introduce prohibition nationwide.
If Indonesia was ever to shoot itself in the foot, this is it. Not only would it kill off the tourism industry and deter outside investors, but it might well trigger a rebellion on the resort island of Bali where foreign holidaymakers are its economic lifeblood.
President Joko Widodo’s government and hardline parliamentary holdouts appear hopelessly deadlocked over the issue, which is both good news and bad news for tipplers.
On one side is a draft statute, sponsored by three parties, two of them with Islamist credentials, called the Alcohol Prohibition Bill. On the other side is a draft statute, unveiled by the Trade Ministry last December, known as the Alcohol Regulation Bill.
Neither side can get past that basic difference. As their titles imply, one seeks to ban alcohol altogether, the other simply wants to regulate what is already a heavily-regulated industry.
Only 30 per cent of the special committee reviewing the two pieces of legislation is in favour of prohibition. But in a country hidebound by a consensus-minded political culture, that’s enough to keep it alive and drinkers on tenterhooks.
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Giving in to Muslim hardliners of any stripe would be the ultimate injustice for a four million-strong Hindu population that has already suffered enough from the after-effects of the 2002, 2003 and 2004 terrorist bombings.
It is unlikely the prohibition legislation will be dropped. That’s not the way it works in Indonesia. “They won’t come out and reject it,” one legislator told me, as we arranged an after-work drink. “But they can just forget it.”
Prescribing jail terms from three months to 10 years, depending on whether it is for producing, distributing or consuming alcohol, it is a mystery why parliament thought the bill should be treated as “urgent” in the first place.
But Indonesian politicians, perhaps the most corrupt of their species on the planet, have always liked to prioritise issues that impinge on people’s freedoms. Not even the dictatorial former president Suharto did that. In this case, the deliberations are going on at the very time the government has been spending tens of millions of dollars on a television advertising campaign in a concerted effort to attract more visitors.
Jakarta has already sought to revoke hundreds of discriminative provincial bylaws, some of which outlaw alcohol sales, because of the effect they have been having on investment and development.
That’s the point of course. It’s not just about drinking. 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.
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.
Even senior politicians, who like a tipple themselves, don’t think there will be a ban. But it is causing alarm all the same because similarly restrictive practices have been supported in the past by mainstream parties trying to curry favour with religious leaders.
As with the misleadingly-titled 2008 Anti-Pornography Law, the new bill’s two main proponents, the sharia-based United Development and Justice and Prosperity parties and the supposedly secular National Mandate party, cleverly play down their religious motives, stressing instead their supposed concern for the health of the citizenry.
If that was the true, then perhaps they should be more worried about the 400,000 Indonesians who die each year from tobacco -related diseases in a country where 67 per cent of males – including Muslim clerics – still smoke.
In a crackdown directed at underage drinkers in 2015, the government banned beer sales at the country’s 55,000 convenience stores and other small retail outlets, many of which have become social gathering points for young Indonesians.
The then-trade minister was forced to exempt Bali from the rule after personally copping an earful from small traders, who rely for their livelihood on tourists buying beer at the beach and in villages where there are no supermarkets.
Think about these sobering statistics: beer-drinking Australians and Chinese alone accounted for nearly half of the 2.5 million foreign visitors to Bali last year. The official number of Middle Eastern tourists: 18,600.
Although beer is available to non-Muslims in a few hotels in Aceh, the only part of Indonesia where sharia law is allowed, the number of “dry” areas across Java and other parts of Indonesia is clearly growing. Simply revoking bylaws is unlikely to change that.
Indonesian beer sales have doubled in the past decade, thanks to me, more tourists and a growing middle class that tends to ignore religious dictates.
It is still miniscule, however, compared with neighbouring countries.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures, Indonesians consume only 0.6 litres of alcohol per capita a year, the lowest in the region after Laos (7.3), Thailand (7.1), Vietnam (6.6), Cambodia (5.5) and the Philippines (5.4).
The only Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member state where alcohol sales are banned is oil-rich Brunei, although non-Muslims can bring in two litres of wine or liquor or 12 cans of beer every two days as long as they are consumed in private.
If health really is a worry, then hardline Islamic politicians should also be more concerned with what impact the ban would have had on the illicit production of oplosan, the deadly bootleg hooch which killed 186 people last year and a record 280 in 2011.
That’s mostly because beer and other alcoholic drinks are either too expensive or, with the new provincial restrictions in place, increasingly unavailable; home brew sells for Rp20,000 (HK$11) a litre, the same price as a 330 millilitre can of beer.
Without at least beer on the shelves, hooch-drinking could turn into an epidemic – just like the widespread drug use Widodo’s government is struggling unsuccessfully to contain and which Islamist hardliners don’t focus on at all because it is in the ‘Too Hard’ box. ■
John McBeth is a Jakarta-based correspondent