Not Before The Knot

My parents’ generation have some pretty vivid memories of racial riots and “ethnic cleansing” taking place in Indonesia. Any mention of the country and you’re likely to ignite feelings of disgust and fiery indignation. They believe the country is full of anti-Chinese extremists.

But my own personal experience with Indonesians has been a very pleasant and cordial one. They are friendly and laid-back people. Some are even decidedly “liberal”. Just watch the old Indonesian movies of the 1980s and 1990s and you’ll find that their censors were even more lax than ours. Back then, beer was sold all over the streets and seedy nightlife plagues every Indonesian city.

Frankly, they don’t care about your skin colour as long as you’re a friend or a customer. Of course, I’ve been to Indonesia many more times than my parents had and I’ve gotten to know many more Indonesians than my parents ever knew. I’m happy to see that there are now much fewer incidents of theft and profiteering. Still, my parents think they know better, relying on their memories of news reports dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.

However, just like China, Indonesia has undergone many changes over the years. Most people only look at the economic and developmental aspects of previously backward country. China’s ideology has, over the years swayed from left to right and that actually has a profound effect on its future.

While many aspects of city and village life in Indonesia have improved tremendously, there are pockets of silent revolutions that are somewhat concerning. Even as Indonesia becomes more and more modernised, I can’t help but notice the beer stalls disappearing from the streets. As more and more Indonesians get online, they are not just exposed to porn but also to religious fundamentalism. A friend’s wife used to wear the “standard” tudung, but in recent years, she has changed to a full-face veil. Note that they are highly educated people.

Just as many Westerners had expected China to become more democratised as the country progressed economically, many expected Indonesia to be even more liberal as more Indonesians get better educated and the country becomes more prosperous. While this may be true for some – there are many Indonesian women modelling nude and the sex industry is vibrant, there is also a growing trend of younger Indonesians embracing fundamental Islamic teachings.

La Ode Munafar started an organisation called Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran. It is a movement that discourages dating. Yes, it discourages dating and encourages arranged marriages and even celebrates couples who decided to tie the knot after “meeting” online. Ode believes that dating (hanging out and getting physically intimate) is undesirable. He encourages youngsters to make up their minds quick about who they want to marry and meet up only when they are ready to get married. To him and his hundreds of thousands of followers/customers, dating leads to promiscuity and premarital sex is a terrible sin.

Following his movement, many teenage girls dumped the boyfriends they have been seeing and went for digital matchmaking. Natta Reza (a busker) and Wardah Maulina found each other on Instagram and got married (in 2017) without going on a single date. They appeared to be living happily ever after and they attract a following of over 1 million each.

As Indonesia becomes more prosperous and technologically advanced, many expect young people to defer marriage and eschew arranged marriage. While the durability of movements like Ode’s is questionable, it is highly possible that the trend will grow.

For the impressionable youths, Natta Reza and Wardah Maulina represent a beautiful fairy tale. In reality, not many couples who got married this way had a happy ending. As more of these unhappy cases come to light, the trend may not survive.


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