The Indonesian Prohibition: Why It Might Not Be A Good Idea

“Those who cannot learn from history, are doomed to repeat it,” said the philosopher George Santayana. This relative famous quote is appropriate for the conundrum Indonesia presently faces. For you see, there is currently an ongoing campaign for prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages in mini-markets and supermarkets—all for the purpose of supposedly restoring the moral values Indonesia supposedly lacks, according to the more conservative and traditional religious populace of the archipelago.

Let me first say that I am all for the restoration of positive moral values, virtues, and such aspects of such aspects of humanity. However, restricting the sales of mild alcohols, especially the kinds which hold as few as beers, may not be the most effective way to accomplish such a lofty goal. As another, peculiarly familiar happenstance has already occurred once in recent history, with unintended and severe consequences. I am of course, speaking of the Prohibition Era of the United States.

Beginning in 1920, the US’s Prohibition Act introduced a ban on the selling, producing, purchasing, and transporting of any drink with an alcohol content higher than 2.75% (the average can of Heineken holds a 4.6 percentage). The only alcohols people were allowed to consume, were the wines required for religious rituals, and whatever few falls below the two-percent bar. Practically speaking, those who are used to drinking spirits, liquors, stouts, were all cut-off from one of their primary sources of entertainment. How would these enthusiasts—as well as assuming some were addicts before the Prohibition—react? They, predictably, would turn to whichever party willing to give it to them. That is to say, smugglers, bootleggers, both of which the mafia would end up adopting into their repertoire.

Prior to the Prohibition, the mafia kept their business away from alcohol. They stuck themselves to theft, gambling dens, narcotics, et cetera. When the Prohibition came into effect, they suddenly found themselves a brand new market with customers thirsty for a product they could easily stock up on. A market, with consumers willing to empty up their pockets with unregulated prices had suddenly popped up. Hence, famous mobsters the likes of Al Capone made their names—and riches—throughout the period from something people once could buy for a few bucks at the local grocery. Thus, the money that could have went to the coffers of the government via taxes, flew to the pockets criminals. The events that followed, were quite predictable.

The mafia absorbed enormous amounts of wealth in an unregulated market. Law enforcement could not enforce the dogmas of the Prohibition due to insufficient funds, personnel, et cetera. In 1933, suffering from plunging tax rates, rampant crime—increased homicides, thefts, smuggling, the exact same things the Prohibition was meant to prevent. These are the risks Indonesia is taking today.

Perhaps the criminals of Indonesia aren’t as organized as the American mafia was, but that does not necessarily mean that they are entirely inept. For instance, an area known locally as “Lapo” in central Jakarta has for years been distributing bootleg whiskeys, vodkas, gins, and so on with brands common only to their perusers. These drinks are obviously unregulated, often found with ingredients the likes of benzene, methyl alcohol, and—oddly enough—bug sprays.

Lapo represents a problem that will only intensify with the introduction of a Prohibition-esque ruling in Indonesia: that of black markets reaping in profits from regular alcohol consumers, without any percentage flowing into governmental institutions. This is hazardous in many ways, to say the least. As the Americans have unfortunately illustrated, it would lead to a spike in crime-rates, a weakened economy, and a population highly displeased with the governing body—likely enough to turn form protest groups, stage demonstrations as the US citizens did, and to turn to smugglers rather than be the average law-abiding citizen, which most of them presumably were.

Moreover, bootleg liquors inherently possess potentially fatal dangers. That of the irregular materials used for the production such types of beverages. As already stated, they are quite bizarre in nature, as basically anything that can amplify the ‘high’ experienced by their drinkers would be added in. Too many have died because of this ongoing, perilous practice, and many more will follow.

When the sale of light, legal, cheap, and perfectly safe alcohols are prohibited, who will their consumers turn to? As previously shown, anyone who can and are willing to get their hands dirty and sell the much requested products. Teenagers, young adults looking to prove themselves or find a cheap thrill will now actively seek the distillers of abominable liquids. For alcohol releases endorphins into our systems—the hormone which makes us feel joy and fall into a state of relaxation—hence the addicted or candidates of alcohol dependence who want, or need, the ‘happiness’ provided by alcohol, would be forced to bow to the black marketeers.

However, the government has provided Indonesians an alternative. Albeit a mildly effective one, at best. Bars, clubs, and lounges are still permitted to stock up and sell alcohol. Yet these venues miss the prerequisite of affordability. Something that a lot of beer drinkers desperately seek. Whenever I visit the sorts of venues I mentioned above, even the cheapest and shadiest of them, their beers are priced at a value of at least two times higher than what I would’ve found at the nearby mini-market. Not everyone, either underage or legally eligible, can afford to pay for the once easily purchasable drinks. And again, the nauseating heads of bootleggers and smugglers rear themselves up, as their prices are lower than what the most economical of places offer.

So what have we learned so far? That there is a very high probability of the introduction and application of Indonesia’s anti-alcohol campaign turning itself into an unpredictable boomerang. That is to say, it could prove disastrous in ways that our government has not yet foreseen or have prepared for; consequences which would affect the nation’s peoples, and that of its chiefs. It is a prediction based on a nearly parallel incident that has occurred in less than a century before now. I’m not sure a hundred years could have turned human nature on its heels, and suppress our basest of urges.

If Indonesia is indeed committing itself to eliminating the effects of alcohol on its society, is must be prepared for the X factors that will undoubtable come. I do not intend to present this post as a verbal assault on the Indonesian chief executives, though. What these paragraphs are, amount to nothing more than a warning. A piece of advice which is basically intended to the advisement of Indonesia’s leaders, to assure themselves that there would be numerous issues up ahead in the campaign, and that they should scrutinize their stance once more. A counsel based on the heeding of lessons brought to light by history. Dismissing the records of our past entirely, even claming that Indonesians are “special,” “different,” or what have you, and would pull through, is follow. Worse, it would be overconfidence on our part, an aspect of humanity that has endangered the survival of our species, our societies, our Earth time and time again—all because of our propensity to ignore the evidence obvious to our eyes, but blurred by the selectiveness we harbor in tandem.

I would love to further discuss the topic of alcohol in Indonesia. Yet would likely multiply the length. of this already overdrawn opinion piece. As of now, I ask only that readers from Indonesia react accordingly, maybe even petition for a repeal (without the employment of violence, of course). Know this, however, that alcoholism is a symptom of moral corruption, not the root of the disease. Devoting most of our resources to a temporary treatment is possibly more taxing and threatening than to do nothing at all. It would be of more use to us if we researched whatever moral issue currently at hand, than to shoot at it blindly. Such a step may well lead us into discovering the underlying causes of Indonesia moral descent. The consequences of an action based on wobbly evidence, could reach and harm the economic, social, political, and various other spheres of this beautiful archipelago I call home.



Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Dated January 7th 1931 “Bad Features of the Present Situation and Difficulties in the Way of Enforcement

Dwight B Heath, “Prohibition, Repeal, and Historical Cycles,” Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies


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