Changing anti-LGBT rhetoric in Indonesia

It is always frightening to wake up to read an announcement that “Indonesia could force LGBT people into rehabilitation under draft ‘family resilience’ law” as it was the case this Thursday.

Indonesia is another case-study of politicians using LGBT+ people as pawns for electoral gains – a reminder that the United States is not the only country suffering from it. But it is also a good example of a place where the power of the private sector has not been sufficiently leveraged to counter the backlash on the human rights of LGBT+ people.

At Out Leadership we have been working on advancing LGBT+ equality throughout Asia, including a focus on Indonesia for several years. Indonesia is one of the countries we produce an LGBT+ Business Climate Report and accompanying CEO Brief that measures the business impact of government policies and prevailing attitudes impacting LGBT+ people and quantifying the economic imperatives for inclusion and the costs associated with discrimination.

Anti-LGBT political strategies are not new. They were pioneered by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina in the US, used by Museveni in Uganda, peppered with nationalism by Putin in Russia and other politicians in the Kyrgyz Republic, instrumentalized by the Polish Catholic right so it is difficult to say that the current “trend” constitutes a “backlash” – they are more the continuation of an unfortunate political tradition.

Here are three resources worth reading on politicized homophobia trends and the economic folly of pursuing such discriminatory policies:

The current “LGBT panic” that is happening in Indonesia now is rather novel. I remember back in 2013 when one of the first development projects with an LGBT+ lens I used to illustrate the potential of LGBT inclusion was the World Bank-funded PNPM Peduli project in Indonesia which empowered marginalized communities including sexual minorities.

Since then, politicians and some Muslim clerics have ramped up attacks on LGBT+ people.

In the most recent occurrence, Mayor Mohammad Idris of Depok city called for more raids and has requested the Health Agency, Social Affairs Agency, and Child Protection and Family Empowerment Agency to increase the efforts to prevent the “spread of LGBT”. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights reacted swiftly and condemned the mayor’s request. They warned that these raids “increase the risk of persecution and other law-defying acts”.

Diplomats from the European Union and other like-minded countries including Latin American countries such as Chile and Colombia (the big exception was Brazil getting instructions not to lift a finger to help) met with many ministers and politicians. The UN High commissioner’s visit was also useful on this respect. Our conclusion at the time was that the human rights arguments and International reputation make little impact on the politicians in Indonesia. 

However, we also realized that almost nobody has realized the economic impact of measures – such the criminal code reform – in a country relying heavily on tourism and foreign investment.

The private sector has a role to play. Since attracting foreign direct investment is one of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s priorities, it makes no sense for his administration to continue to paint the country as medieval and backward on human rights issues. After an absence from the FDI destination list for a few years after the 1997–1998 Asian Financial Crisis, Indonesia was back in the top 10 destinations following the 2007–2008 Global Financial Crisis, thanks to reforms during the government of former President Yudhoyono as well as improved domestic economic growth prospects.

Yet FDI today is stagnant, Indonesia’s ranking in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business (EODB) index has remained at 73rd despite efforts to attract investment by removing unfriendly regulations. The country’s ranking in the 2020 EODB index cuts against President Jokowi’s target for Indonesia to be ranked 40th next year. 

Out Leadership has been vocal about asking the World Bank to include LGBT inclusion as part of its Doing Business methodology particularly after Singapore ranked 1st in the ranking despite criminalizing same-sex relationships (see Out Leadership’s Singapore Country Brief).

Despite their influence, foreign companies have been shy to leverage its power to improve the situation. During the London launch of the LGBTI Standards for Business I co-wrote in 2018, the former United Nations High Commissioner Prince Zeid published an oped in City Am. He gave the example of a famous American company, Starbucks and it’s double language in Indonesia. There are dozens of other examples of similar hypocritical stances by multinationals: who make very concrete statements about the benefits of being pro-LGBTI at home and shying away from making a contribution to social change in difficult contexts or even having a diversity & inclusion program in their subsidiary companies. 

We believe companies – all companies – can contribute to social change including in Indonesia. Out Leadership is a wonderful platform set up specifically to fill the void and build and champion the business case for LGBT+ inclusion. On a daily basis, we provide useful guidance for businesses interested in a more in-depth conversation on the best course forward. 

Demonstrating that LGBT+ inclusion is a win-win proposition for both business and society may indeed be a good starting point to effect the lasting change we should all be seeking, in Indonesia and elsewhere.