Saturday, 8 September 2007

Weekend before Puasa (fasting)

Each year the same thing happens - the weekend before the Muslim fasting month is see record crowds at clubs and discos countrywide. I can't remember when the authorities started imposing the ban on sales of alcoholic beverages and restricting opening hours of nightspots, but in the past several years, most nightlife will have to stop for a month or so during this fasting month preceding the Muslim new year, or Idul Fitri.

For the devout, this is a month of cleansing, spiritually. Except for hotels catering to foreign guests, all other entertainment outlets will have to either close, or restrict opening hours or forbid the sale of alcoholic beverages. Even restaurants who are licensed to serve alcohol serve them in coffee mugs or opaque glasses. Imagine drinking wine out of a polystyrene cup. Sounds like the experience I had in the UK and Canada where licensing rules are equally strict. But worry not! For there is always a place in town (normally Chinese restaurants) which would serve up your beer or cognac in a tea cup.

I hear its even stricter in Malaysia where the religious police actually checks out restaurants and pull out Malaysians whom they suspect as Muslims if they find them eating during fasting hours.

My friends are out there on a "binge drinking" stint. And it will go on till the wee hours of the morning. But imagine the dip in takings these clubs, discos and restaurants.

The biggest earners in entertainment outlets are food and beverages. A bottle of wine or spirits are normally marked up twice or thrice their retail prices. If every club, disco or restaurant have to factor in this one month's lost in revenue during the fasting period, we consumers will just end up having to pay for this loss in the form of higher prices. So instead of a plan which factors in 12 months of business, they all have to make do with 11 months, yet have to bear the operational costs of 12 months. Sounds silly to me.

Even if the government doesn't restrict opening hours and sales of alcohol, there are outlets who voluntarily impose their own restrictions for fear of reprisals from the religious vigilantes who arrive in groups and smash up everything in an outlet which does not respect the fasting month. They actually bother to spend on hiring trucks or buses and dressing themselves up in white when they conduct their raids. Even if the restaurant or club is located in a mainly expat area and the bulk of their customers are expats, they are not spared.

BUT, there is always a reason for them to be there, other than religious virtues. A business competitor or enemy who is not happy with the way the business is run can easily, with a few stacks of Rupiahs, summon the help of this religious brigade of vigilantes to destroy, create havoc, or otherwise disrupt their competitor's or enemy's business. It can be as trivial as a partnership dispute for the vigilantes to come with their baseball bats and sticks to cause severe damage and monetary loss to a business.

Sometimes I, as well as a lot of other Indonesians, wish that Suharto could still be in charge. At least there was law and order.

Besides the virtues of cleansing during this holy month, an argument goes where employers are supposed to take plight with and respect their employees who have to wake up at 3 in the morning to take their meal for that day before fasting from dawn till dusk. My Muslim friends tell me that fasting is Allah's and God's way to testing one's strength and faith. If that is the case and the virtue behind the idea of fasting, isn't it a greater test of one's strength and faith if one is subjected to adversity in having to go about one's daily lives during the rest of the 11 months? Why should activities here have to switch to fasting mode? Where lies the standards on the tests of strength and faith? Is one strong when one fasts by slowing down one's daily activities? Or is strength more manifest when one fasts in the face of continuing normal day to day activities? Is this pampering? Perhaps. But only the authorities who make the rules can answer to their own conscience.

Indonesia which is predominantly Muslim do not have the advantages which Malaysia, due to Malaysia's more varied ethnic mix. If the Muslims don't want to or can't work because of a religious holiday, the Indians and Chinese will be there to take over. Similarly, if its a Indian or Chinese holiday or festival, the others who don't celebrate the same will take over.

But if one were to venture downtown to Kota or Chinatown, the situation is somewhat different. There, life continues into the wee hours of the morning, be it a vice den, karaoke joint with Indonesian Muslim hostesses or strip tease bars. Kota in Jakarta is unique, especially during the fasting month. Perhaps the authorities consider Kota to be a den for vices of the Chineses who are not part of their mainstream electorate and are therefore allowed to morally descend into the deepest layers of hell!

But what about those employees who work in the Kota joints? They're just as happy cos when fasting month comes, everywhere else is closed except for their joints; which mean more tips, fatter bonuses and more opportunities. There you are! At least there are folks here who are entrepreneurial and adhere to the values of "fair rewards for fair effort". And, for that matter, the stockbrokers who have to monitor international markets with time differences? They're working till the wee hours of the Indonesian mornings too! Are their jobs considered decent to warrant a lack of sleep over the fasting month? Or are their jobs so important to the Indonesian economy that the authorities won't dare to venture into any form of restrictive regulations on their working hours?

Is this equality? Is this a true test of strength and faith? God probably knows.

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