Playboy Has Different Message in Indonesian: William Pesek Jr.
April 13 (Bloomberg) -- There's something odd about Playboy's inaugural Indonesian issue.
It's not that it costs 39,000 rupiah ($4.30), at least two days' pay for more than half the nation's 239 million people. No, it's something more obvious: It has none of the nude photos characteristic of the magazine Hugh Hefner launched in 1953.
In fact, it's far tamer than many titles already on newsstands in the country with the world's biggest Muslim population. Indonesia's buttoned-down version, which was released last week, includes articles on the economy, religion and global oil prices. Anyone hoping for a healthy dose of flesh will be sorely disappointed.
Playboy is Playboy -- an icon of porn. It's a loaded name, something that became evident last weekend as I trolled around Jakarta looking for it. Even male newsstand workers giggled nervously when I inquired about Playboy. I finally bought a copy from a woman in her early 20s; she blushed as she quickly stuck it in a bag.
Playboy has become an unlikely flashpoint in the debate about where Indonesia is heading. Its appearance coincides with plans for a highly controversial anti-pornography law, one that goes too far in its current form. And this is a process on which investors should keep a wary eye.
This isn't a pro-smut column. If Indonesia's traditionally conservative government wants to prohibit depictions of nudity, then so be it. The problem is the ambiguous wording of the proposed anti-pornography law. In its current form, women wearing clothing showing their thighs or navel will be jailed for 10 years or fined 1 billion rupiah.
Anyone who has been to a major Indonesian city in recent years knows that such a law would put tens of thousands of women -- if not hundreds of thousands -- behind bars, never mind vacationers in Bali. Couples kissing in public also would pay a fine or be jailed. So would people engaged in dances deemed erotic. Salsa enthusiasts, look out!
The vague mentions of how people can be punished for not dressing properly would be highly subjective. It even would imperil Indonesian tribesmen in the Papua province, many of whom wear penis gourds to protect their modesty. They'll be surprised to learn their indigenous lifestyle is suddenly indecent.
We're not talking about Saudi Arabia or Iran, but Southeast Asia's biggest economy. The legislation sure seems like a backdoor way of imposing Islamic laws on a nation that has repeatedly rejected them. It would be a blow to freedom of expression, and not just to Indonesia's bustling art world.
``This is an attempt by some people to import Arab culture to Indonesia,'' Yenny Wahid, a Muslim campaigner for women's rights, was quoted as saying in the Times of London.
It's clear many Indonesians are unnerved by what they see as moral slippage since the ouster of President Suharto in 1998. Since then, Indonesians have been barraged by freedoms unheard of during Suharto's 32-year reign. Hence the push for laws against smut.
Banning porn is one thing; taking steps that could inhibit Indonesia's status as a moderate nation, damage women's rights and reduce the country's desirability as a place to invest is quite another.
The connection between anti-porn measures and economics is hardly direct. Yet the bikini-clad beaches of Bali are a jewel that many nations would kill for. Tourists flocking there and to other picturesque islands are a major source of hard currency that poverty-plagued Indonesia desperately needs. About 20 percent of the population survives on less than 70 U.S. cents a day. So if the new law is enacted in anything approaching its current form, one of Indonesia's key economic pillars disappears.
The question is where things go from there. After Islamic conservatives score some points with indecency laws, what's next? If the separation between mosque and state weakens, so might freedom of speech and economic progress.
Here, the story of former boxer Yusman Roy is particularly chilling. A convert to Islam, the 51-year-old is serving two years behind bars for refusing to pray in Arabic. Roy believes Indonesians should pray in a language they understand and for that he's sitting in a prison cell in a democracy, albeit an evolving one.
An isolated case, perhaps, but one to keep in mind if the passage of indecency laws encourages overzealousness on the part of prosecutors or leads to a kind of mob rule. Indonesia is an archipelago of 18,000 islands. Keeping all of them out of the hands of fundamentalists may become harder in the future.
After years of economic turbulence, Indonesia is moving ahead, something evidenced by the 29 percent rally in Jakarta Composite Index stocks so far this year. Something else that cheers investors is a secular government that keeps Indonesia as one of the moderating voices in the Muslim world.
While an Islamic fundamentalist Indonesia seems unlikely, the mere possibility may sit in the back of many investors' minds. Such an outcome, no matter how small the odds, would unnerve the nation's markets.
If tolerance of Western ideas prevails, investors will be relieved to see Indonesia moving toward greater openness, equality and stability. It would prove that the most conservative reaches of society can coexist with more risque ones. Investors would be well served by such an outcome. Indonesians, too.
To contact the writer of this column:
William Pesek Jr. in Tokyo at email@example.com.
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