Power and Livelihood in Jakarta’s Nightlife

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan is forcing the closure of Alexis Hotel in Jakarta due to prostitution accusations

In an apparent war against vice, incumbent Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan’s refused to renewed the permit of Alexis Hotel, long alleged as a place for nightlife entertainment, thus effectively shutting it down. In an official statement, the city government remarked that they are obliged to prevent possible immoral activities as they see fit. Other commentators argued that Governor Baswedan was pressured by fundamentalist Islamic organizations to follow up on his campaign promise to shut down the alleged nightlife establishment back in April. Regardless of these motivations, however, the historical timeline of Jakarta’s nightlife showed that there are more to the nightlife activity here beyond the rhetorics of immorality.

Jakarta’s Nightlife: A Short History

According to a research by Tadié and Permanadeli, the genesis of Jakarta’s nightlife is not a mere side effect that came out of the 1998 Reformation, or even the arrival of capitalism during the New Order Era. As far back as the Dutch colonial era, areas such as Harmoni, Mangga Besar and Kota had become concentration spots for many night leisure activities, with street leisure and prostitution complexes often intertwined in the same territories. After the Independence, these areas maintained their status, with theatres, cinemas and nightclubs began to appear and grow as the early discotheque-type entertainment. The development moved further in the 1960s and ‘70s when then-Governor Ali Sadikin legalized the prostitution industry by establishing the Kramat Tunggak prostitution complex. At the peak of its operation in the 1990s, Kramat Tunggak operated around 2,000 prostitutes under the control of around 258 pimps. Furthermore, the area also became a living source for more than 700 maids, 800 street vendors, and 155 motorcycle taxis. From the Reformation onwards, the nightlife industry diversified accordingly with the metropolis population and clienteles. Blok M, for example, accommodate the nightlife for mainly Koreans and Japanese; Westerners and Indonesian elites, Kemang or the “Golden Triangle” CBD; Chinese Indonesians, Mangga Besar – Kota.

Based on this timeline, Tadié and Permanadeli concluded that the nightlife culture in Jakarta went beyond the typical pleasure and leisure activities by revealing the use of power in the capital city. They assert that new governmental regulations will only lead to a renewal in the power arrangement. Moreover, any attempts to control and regulate this arrangement by standardising moral orders will be inefficient, if not damaging to the city populations, since the nightlife of Jakarta constituted as a social reality not just only for the entertainers, but also local citizens.

Moral Standardisation

In line with Tadié and Permanadeli’s claim, attempts of moral standardisation through the closure of entertainment areas in the past have brought unintended consequences to many Jakartans. Elizabeth Pisani’s narrative recounts that when he closed Kramat Tunggak in 1999, Governor Sutiyoso claimed that the closure was a signal from God, and that Jakartans “should go back to the right path.” He embodied this path by building a mosque in place of the complex as a way to “purify” the land. Nevertheless, many displaced sex workers and vendors were continued their service on the streets without any or simply moved to informal complexes in Rawa Malang or Kalijodo, where they became more vulnerable to protection rackets and had less access to health-monitoring services such as health checks, clinics and depression counseling.

Under Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok)’s administration, similar policies of gentrifying Jakarta’s nightlife resulted in predictable outcomes. In February 2016, Ahok shut down the red light district in Kalijodo, citing its “negative impact on society,” even though that out of the 3,000 residents in the area, only 1400 of them engaged in the prostitution industry. In conjunction with Gov. Sutiyoso’s mosque, Ahok established an urban park in the place of the complex that gained national and regional recognition. Nevertheless, for the 3,000 displaced evictees, his administration had managed to provide only 300 low-cost apartments in the surrounding area, leaving many families in an uncertain position. To ameliorate the limbo, Social Affairs Minister Khofifah I. Parawansa offered the 2,000 former sex workers in Kalijodo a six-month training program at a garment factory with support payments of Rp 5 million (ca. US$370) per person. Nevertheless, only a handful ended up registering for the program, with many moved to other surrounding red light district or returning home.

Anies’ Dilemma

The historical examples reflected how deeply embedded the power arrangements in Jakarta’s nightlife really are, as well as how difficult it is to compartmentalize, if not eradicate this arrangement without creating collateral damages to the people involved in them. Currently, Gov. Baswedan’s attempted to control this power as his predecessors had through the minor executive policy of shutting down Hotel Alexis. Nevertheless, as Sutiyoso’s and Ahok’s administration had faced in the past, Baswedan is also faced with the question over the fate of Alexis’ 1000 employees who had just lost their source of income. For the moment, his solution is to provide an entrepreneurship-training program known as the One District One Center of Entrepreneurship (OK OCE), a mirror of his former predecessor’s endeavor. Nonetheless, is it still uncertain whether Baswedan’s attempt to engage in this moral standardisation effort to other nightlife areas in Jakarta will bring a distinctive outcome. What is certain, however, is that the power arrangements of Jakarta’s nightlife had responded to these developments by moving into now-growing online-prostitution industry. As Jakarta’s nightlife and the power arrangements behind it continue to adapt and evolve as it has over the past decades, the question of how to control, or even eradicate them will become much more difficult, if not irrelevant to answer in the near future. Were any consensus failed to be reached, the backlash for those at the bottom of the totem will be as, if not more detrimental to those in the past.

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