Bali's Bikini Brouhaha

Indonesian government officials appear to be taking precise aim at their own feet again with a demand that the upcoming Miss World Pageant in Bali not feature its shapely contestants posing in bikini swimsuits, despite the fact that legions of women prance around every day in them on the island's famed beaches.

The latest is Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, who said the 120-odd beauties from countries across the world must cover up. Others have also demanded that women not display themselves in swimsuits. The East Java branch of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, the Islamic faith's ruling body in Indonesia, said it would send a letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to demand that the beauty pageant be scrapped. It has since been moved from Bogor in West Java to Bali.

Mukri Aji, the West Java MUI chairman, said the pageant is just an excuse to flaunt body parts that should remain covered, adding that the contest is impolite and against local religious norms. The Bogor chapter of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a hard-line Islamic group, also voiced its opposition to the pageant and called for it to be moved. Indonesia is a secular state but religious hardliners often try to enforce their own interpretation of morality on the public.

Sapta Nirwanda, the deputy minister of tourism and creative economy, told reporters last Friday that "even if they do wear one [a swimsuit], it should be in a closed room." The government, he said, had made a deal with the organizers of the Miss World competition to minimize bikini usage during the Bali event. If contestants must wear bikinis, Sapta said they should only be seen by the jury, unlike the tens of thousands of men and women crowding Bali's beaches in swimsuits.

Sapta suggested, however, that participants would do better to wear the kebaya, a traditional blouse-dress combination that originated in Indonesia and is worn with considerable style by the famed Singapore Girls, the flight attendants aboard Singapore Airlines, who have them tailored to fit their forms.

Bali is a Hindu island surrounded on all sides by a Muslim sea, its traditions are considerably more relaxed than the rest of Indonesian culture.

The demand that the women cover up has drawn hoots of derision from readers of the daily papers, who have responded in droves, with comments including "Stop acting stupid or people will think that you are stupid," and "I think the words most people are looking for are HYPOCRITICAL PRUDES."

The controversy comes at a time when the Prosperous Justice Party, (PKS) formerly the country's biggest Islamic party, is wrapped in a stupendous controversy that began when officials of the Corruption Eradication Commission in January stumbled onto the personal aide to Lufthi Hasan Ishaq, the leader of the party, in a hotel room with a black suitcase containing Rp1 billion in cash, allegedly from a meat importer, Indoguna Utama, and a college coed whose squeals of joy at sexual congress reportedly could be heard several rooms away. The aide said he had paid the young woman Rp10 million (US$1,010) for spending two hours with her.

Lufthi resigned the leadership of the party immediately after the discovery. "I am announcing to all cadres, executives and members of the party's leadership board that I resign as president of the PKS starting today," he said as officers escorted him to the Indonesian Military's South Jakarta detention center.

Since that time, the KPK, as the corruption watchdog is known, has seized nearly six hectares of land from Lufthi worth an estimated Rp3.5 billion, plus another piece of land purchased in 2006 for Rp750 million. The KPK has also taken possession of nine other houses that allegedly were owned by Luthfi as well as nine cars the former Islamic party leader owned.

Luthfi is facing charges of demanding kickbacks from Indoguna Utama to help it win a lucrative government contract to import beef. The meat import firm is accused of paying up to Rp17 billion (US$1.74 million) to the party for help winning a greater beef import quota from the Ministry of Agriculture.

The KPK has since identified billions of rupiah worth of assets collected by Luthfi and the aide, Ahmad Fathanah, and highlighted the possible laundering of the bribes through the PKS coffers. There are also numerous reports of party officials sending out for women as sex partners. One observer said the corruption within the party runs so deep that it could be charged with corporate crimes that could eventually lead to its disbandment.

Nor are Lufthi and the PKS aides alone. In a curious take on the proper clothing issue, a number of prominent Indonesian businesswomen and female politicians over the past two to three years have been hauled before the courts -- they always abandon their stylish clothing to be photographed in the kebaya and headscarf as they are led away. It hasn't done a lot of good. They have gone to jail anyway.

Meanwhile, in Bali, modesty is not an issue. "Those who are protesting are only seeking attention," said Tourism official Sapta, "We have been staging Miss Indonesia, Putri Indonesia and other beauty pageants for a long time."