INDONESIA - As the Miss World 2013 hopefuls relaxed in Nusa Dua, the news filtered through that the final, scheduled to be held in Sentul, West Java, later this month, had been cancelled by the government, seemingly bowing to hard-line demands.
The news, announced on the eve of the opening ceremony, was made by Coordinating People's Welfare Minister Agung Laksono, who said that all of the pageant events would now be held in Bali.
Originally only the first two weeks would have been on the island, before moving en masse to Jakarta for a further fortnight, climaxing with the final on Sept. 28. The government seems not care about the logistics or the financial impact, and has shown no concern about the thousands of tourists who will suffer severe disruptions as a consequence, or the hotels in Jakarta losing business.
The event has seen protests from some Muslim groups and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) weighed in with what some suggest is misplaced support for the radicals' position. The televised protests have appeared small suggesting little support, hence the organizers' shock. Perhaps the protestors were confident that at the final hour the government would again buckle?
The National Police chief, Gen. Timur Pradopo, and Tourism and Creative Economy Deputy Minister Sapta Nirwandar have stressed repeatedly this was not another capitulation to the Islam Defenders Front (FPI). Sapta, in an animated interview, said that, "There is no way that the government is afraid of any hard-liners." It is however quite difficult to see it any other way.
The basic premise for cancellation seems to be that it is against Indonesian norms, being immoral and not in line with Islamic teachings. I cannot comment on Islamic teachings but I can comment on norms and morality.
Travel through Indonesia and see a huge variance of social and cultural attributes; the diversity is unrivalled. There are places like Banda Aceh with an Arabic flavor, while in contrast many cosmopolitan areas seem almost Western. In places such as Kalimantan, Bali or Madura, the diversity takes yet another turn; so whose norm are we referring to?
Possibly the most contradictory aspect is in relation to Indonesian traditional female dress. The Javanese kebaya, as an example, tends to be figure hugging and often worn with scraped hair and heavy make-up; it is a picture of sensuality.
Regarding immorality, I feel there is a serious gap between the projected image and the reality. Indonesia has a huge issue with "sexploitation", including the trafficking of children, a fact noted by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the April ASEAN conference in Manila.
Indonesia is the sixth highest consumer of online pornography, despite less than one third of the nation having internet access. It also inflicts terrible abuses, including the chaining up of the mentally ill, and corruption seems a way of life. Yet the self-appointed guardians who see Miss World as a threat to morality seem largely silent on these points.
In addition, if shows like this are against the nation's constitution, as the MUI have claimed, why do we have a long history of similar events? All the provinces enter Miss Indonesia, and the nation hosted Miss ASEAN in 2012. Why is this different?
It is clear the norms argument is a red herring, while the duplicitous standards regarding morality are on clear display and often involve the politicians who have taken an anti-Miss World stance. And if, as the minister says, the cancellation is not due to pressure from Islamic groups, then what is the real reason?
Flawed logic and denials aside, the focus will be on groups like the FPI, who are emboldened by their success. Will future events like Miss Indonesia, compulsive TV viewing for years, be the next target? And where will that lead?
Returning to norms, the government's norm seems to be a position of inaction and capitulation where the radicals are concerned and it is tearing at the fabric of Indonesian society. The charade is getting international coverage and it is undoubtedly damaging the nation's moderate image and attractiveness to investors.
While it was the investors' darling, it could easily absorb any bad press but today the investment climate is very different. Already seen as weak, unwilling to tackle extremism or protect minorities, the government's action coincides with plummeting investor confidence and weakening state finances.
On balance, for a country pressing its democratic and moderate credentials and one in the midst of a mini financial crisis, I must conclude that the decision seems draconian and counterproductive.
If people are genuinely concerned about the damage to the children's morality, then can I be so bold to suggest the off switch on the TV is there for a reason.