Opinion & Analysis

Indonesia: the rise of moral conservatism

Across Indonesia, a wave of moral conservatism is building. A recently leaked draft of the privately sponsored Family Resilience Bill, yet to be tabled before Parliament, represents an effort by conservative Muslim politicians to intrude into the private lives of Indonesian citizens. AUT's Dr Sharyn Davies warns of the rising moral divide in Indonesia. 

Morality has long been an issue in Indonesia, always linked to power in the world’s largest Muslim nation, and always a mechanism by which to claim political legitimacy.

But since 2009 with the passing of the Pornography Law, and more so since the 2016 LGBT crises, issues of morality have taken centre stage.

Indonesia is now experiencing a growing moral conservatism, expressed in part by the proposed “Family Resilience Bill” (Ketahanan Keluarga).

It's a law harking back to a bygone era in the country. One article in the legislation stipulates that husbands and wives “are responsible for performing their individual roles in accordance with religious norms, social ethics and prevailing laws.”

That positions the husband as the traditional bread-winner, protecting his wife and children from “mistreatment, exploitation  and sexual deviation” – a code word for homosexuality.

The bill seeks to regulate all sorts of things, from the use of donor sperm and eggs, to mandating that wives and husbands love each other, to demanding women do all the housework. The bill is also highly discriminatory toward LGBT, proposing LGBT undergo ‘rehabilitation.’

Article 86 of the draft bill states: “Families experiencing crises due to sexual deviation are required to report their members to agencies handling family resilience or rehabilitation institutions to undergo treatment.”

The bill also requires people experiencing “sexual deviation” to report to the authorities or so-called “rehabilitation centres”, which would be established by a state body responsible for “family resilience”.

The law was not the government’s doing, but President Jokowi had agreed that it should proceed. This surprised many used to seeing Jokowi's liberal moral views decried as "un-Islamic" by his critics.

Four days before the bill was expected to pass, he asked on television for its passage to be delayed, on the grounds that all the public criticism suggested there was room for improvement.

As a way of thinking collectively about these morality pushes, I use the notion of “populist morality”. Populism is the idea that society is divided in two, the good and the bad. In the case of Indonesia, people are increasingly divided into ‘the moral’ and ‘the immoral.’

Populism comes to the fore through populist leaders, and the world is in no short supply of these. Perhaps the most infamous is Donald Trump, whose rallying cry is the claim that white straight US working-class folks are being disenfranchised by illegal Muslim and Mexican immigrants.

In Indonesia the fault line is also drawn along moral lines, with anyone who has sex outside of marriage, or is even considering sex outside of marriage, deemed immoral.

What is driving populist morality in Indonesia?

In many ways it is the same things driving populism more broadly across the globe, and it comes down in part to identity politics.

Dr Marcus Mietzner is an Indonesian politics scholar at the ANU in Canberra. He suggests for those Indonesian people who are feeling disenfranchised, rhetoric that places the blame on “the other” is appealing. And for those seeking to gain or hold onto power, a useful strategy is to appeal to the disenfranchised.

For this reason, perhaps, Indonesian President Jokowi, who on his own had seemed relatively supportive of LGBT, has found it strategic to align himself with anti-LGBT forces, notably in the appointment of Vice President Ma’ruf Amin.

As with populism elsewhere that positions immigrants or LGBT as the problem, it seems to avoid getting to the heart of what is driving the populist surge in Indonesia.

As a recent article from The Nation reveals, the ‘racism unleashed by Trump can be understood as directed at the political elite rather than minority groups. We should consider the ways in which racism might not be the core disease of Trumpism but a 'symptom of a deeper illness.

In a similar way, it seems that the homophobia unleashed by Islamists and nationalists is not necessarily at the core of the resulting hatred and violence toward LGBT and others in Indonesia. Rather the violence is a symptom of a deeper illness.

For Marcus Mietzner, this illness is a hardening of identity politics from groups having their place in society threatened.

In the US, much of Europe and elsewhere, the threat is perceived as coming from Muslims and immigrants.

In Indonesia, for Islamists, nationalists and others, the threat is increasingly positioned as coming from ‘the immoral.’ They want to have sex outside of marriage, donate sperm to infertile couples, allow unveiled women to attend university and worst of all, encourage men to pick up a broom and start sweeping.

Populism needs an enemy, and in Indonesia the enemy is not immigrants, Chinese or Communists, but the immoral.

Populist morality is also having a detrimental impact on sexual healthcare. It is no secret that sexual and reproductive health knowledge in Indonesia is dismally low, and this was only confirmed when Sitti Hikmawatty, an Indonesian commissioner for health, said that there are an especially strong type of sperm that can impregnate women in swimming pools. The Mayor of Tangerang, Arief Wis Mansyah, surprised the world by claiming Indomei instant noodles and infant formula can “make babies gay”.

Low levels of knowledge, and perhaps more worryingly, high levels of misinformation, are compounding the problem, and if the mood of conservative morality continues to grow in Indonesia, increasing hardship will be felt by many.

- Asia Media Centre