Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pokémon, sexuality and the state: Paradox of neoliberal Indonesia

While Pokémon Go has not yet been officially launched in Indonesia, the augmented-reality game already enjoys immense popularity here, triggering calls to ban the application. Pokémon — or Pocket Monsters — became popular in the late 1990s in Japan and in the 2000s internationally as a console game and animation, and has now been launched on smartphone operating system platforms, revitalized by the Niantic company based in San Francisco, US.

Within a very short period, this online game, which encourages people to get out of their houses to hunt the monsters, has become a major cultural phenomenon, while media have repeatedly reported the application’s risks, including threats to safety and addiction.

Lawmakers have said they are considering banning the game from the legislature complex, while the military and police force are also bent on banning personnel from playing the game during work hours. Then education minister Anies Baswedan instead merely reminded students to manage their own playing time. Diminishing productivity and the potential to leak and unknowingly capture state secret information are two major factors in the calls to ban the game.

 The game has also incurred a religious backlash. Saudi Arabian clerics reportedly renewed a fatwa against Pokémon, claiming it violated Islamic values, though the government denied the news. Unsurprisingly, local branches of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) have also condemned Pokémon, saying it risks people’s safety and does not provide any benefits.

However, interestingly, when Pokémon Go is placed alongside sexuality issues in Indonesia — in this case, with the recent meltdown over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, both display the paradoxes of a neoliberal Indonesia in which state power is re-enacted by blurring the lines between the public and private spheres.

In June, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced that his administration had annulled 3,143 bylaws considered to impede economic growth and investment in local areas, and which were in conflict with central government regulations. It was extremely surprising that bylaws oppressing women and minorities were not on the list.

The decision resonates with the Jokowi administration’s focus on economic growth, as reflected in his speech “Keep calm and invest in Indonesia” at the UK-Indonesia Business Forum in London in June.

He reminded those in attendance that his administration had launched 11 economic policy packages to attract more investment, trim regulations and enhance Indonesia’s competitiveness.

Within this neoliberal logic, the emphasis on free market and transnational capital flows could undermine state sovereignty. In Sexual State ( 2016 ), using a case study from India, the scholar Jyoti Puri’s analysis is useful to see that when a state is no longer a focal point in a neoliberal regime, policing and regulating sexuality offer an opportunity for the state to reconfigure itself and re-enact its power.

Though it may seem absurd, supposed national security threats were also linked to the massive anti-LGBT hysteria early this year. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu claimed the Indonesian LGBT movement was part of a proxy war, manifested in attempts by foreign countries to control and destroy other countries’ culture. Statements regarding Pokémon and LGBT movements reflect tensions between the global and local spheres that reveal the paradox of a neoliberal Indonesia.

Although the government seemingly embraces foreign investment, it could also be seen that as the power of the nation-state is diminished by global forces, the state’s preoccupations with sexuality and other aspects of citizens’ private lives provide fertile ground to reinforce its power.

This re-enactment of power paradoxically perpetuates the binary opposition between ‘East’ and ‘West’, in which the former is associated with the importance of preserving national identity, security and nationalism, the latter with decadence and hegemony.

The increasingly close association between Indonesia and Islam after the collapse of the New Order and the emergence of fundamentalist Islamic politics also contributes to the rigid distinction of national identity vis-à-visthe alleged globalizing and homogenized ideas and cultures in this digital era.

Nevertheless, although state power seems to be consolidated in policing citizens, the state’s apparatus is fragmented.

The Pokémon controversy invoked different discourses between officials — for example, the more positive tone of Anies, the warier one of Ryamizard and the more religious one from the MUI branches.

Similarly, in the crackdown against the issue of LGBT, while Vice President Jusuf Kalla clearly said that the state need not interfere with issues of sexuality and while then chief security minister Luhut Pandjaitan called for an end to discrimination against LGBT people, Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa and Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana Yembise urged a ban on LGBT campaigns “to protect children”. This shows that the state is not naturally fixed and is often contradictory.

It could be argued that neoliberal globalization involves the simultaneous strengthening and weakening of state power. As illustrated in the Pokémon and LGBT cases, policing private lives under the justification of national identity and security provides a platform for the state to re-articulate its power, despite the fractured and heterogeneous discourses behind it.

Perhaps what Freud said is still relevant: “It is only in logic that contradictions cannot exist.” 


The author,
Hendri Yulius who obtained his master’s degree in public policy from the National University of Singapore, is the writer of Coming Out and a lecturer in gender and sexuality studies. He is pursuing a master’s in research on gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.

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