The construction of mass rapid transit (MRT) is seen among the traffic on main roads in Jakarta, on 18 May 2021. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo / AFP)

Silencing the Din in Indonesian Cities

Published

For the longest time, Indonesians endured a sonic pandemonium in their cities. It is about time that some regulation is effected to lower levels of noise.

Indonesian cities are noisy, thundered Freek Colombijn in an article published in 2007. It represents one of the many ways a foreigner could describe Indonesia’s soundscape. Colombijn, an anthropologist from the VU University in Amsterdam, chose to present his views in a non-judgmental, cold, and straightforward manner. On the other hand, David Lipson, an ABC correspondent, expressed his views through humorous irony, where he recalled the sound of prayer call (adhan) at 4 am as a forgotten alarm on a Saturday morning.‘ He went on to describe the voices one might hear throughout the day in Jakarta. This is an everyday reality of many Indonesians, no matter what time of day or place it is; one’s own house and neighbourhood, the streets, even the workplace. 

Alistair Speirs, another journalist, expressed his clear annoyance in his article titled ‘Is Indonesia going deaf?‘. Using rather harsh wording, he ranted about why there were no legal repercussions for motorcycle owners with noisy exhausts. Speirs stated, in regard to the police: ‘[a]s to the [Indonesian] people, it seems they are really going deaf and don’t hear. No-one objects. No one complains‘. Problems with noise often emerge during Ramadan, when some people scream ‘sahur… sahur‘. They use loudspeakers from certain mosques at 2 am or 3 am to wake people up to take sahur (pre-dawn meal) prior to their fasting for the day.

Indonesians, as outsiders have observed, do not seem to care about the clamour that drones on continuously, every hour, every minute. This indifference is reflected in the increasingly noisy streets, public parks, and housing — both due to the increase in population and motorised vehicles. Furthermore, the indifference is reflected in the inconsistent enforcement of the rules regarding noise. The most obvious example is the noise exhaust traffic stop, in which the police will confiscate the perpetrators’ bikes and fine them accordingly. However, this effort is only enforced in the Monas area to Jalan Jenderal Sudirman and Thamrin. Such an inconsistent rule would imply if one were to use their motor vehicle in another location or on another road then a noisy exhaust will face no repercussions. Throughout the history of Indonesia, there has never been an incident related to sound that has become a trending topic, even in the current era of social media and the internet. 

However, noise is a problem that is becoming more significant. There are conflicts between neighbours due to loud chatter. Across Indonesian cities, citizens are pummeled by myriad sources of noise: the cacophony stemming from house renovations, music from boom boxes, the sonorous blasts of motorcycle and car exhausts, sounds of pets (especially dogs) and adhan calls from houses of worship. It does not just end with reporting one’s neighbour to the police and proceeding to court; in extreme cases, conflict due to noise also led to the loss of lives. Conflicts surrounding exhaust pipe sounds have caused the death of a motorcycle owner and those who protested about them. Loud music also led to a death caused by stoning and the use of a spear. Maddened by the wall of sound generated by construction workers near his residence, a businessman in Jakarta pointed a gun at them. The man was arrested by the police and charged with making a violent threat, which is punishable by up to one year in prison.

Indonesians, as outsiders have observed, do not seem to care less about the clamour that drones on continuously, every hour, every minute.

The discord over the disquiet has also crept into the realm of the holy. On 18 February 2022, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, the Indonesia Minister of Religion, issued a Circular Letter on ‘Guidelines for the Use of Loudspeaker in Mosque and Musala (small prayer house)’. The Letter was a response to complaints by some people about the din generated by loudspeakers in mosques and musalas. The circular sought to put some official sanction on noise. But more often than not, those who expressed noise-related complaints are often disregarded, even verbally attacked. Usually, non-Muslim minorities do not voice their concerns to avoid being labelled as ‘not understanding’ of their position as minorities. Sometimes, however, excessive noise can compel one to act. This is exemplified by the case of Meliana, a Chinese-Indonesian woman who had complained about the excessive volume of the adhan near her residence. She was jailed for two years, this being a sad testament to Indonesians who seek to raise a racket about a ruckus. 

An intriguing consequence of the Letter is the fact that the Minister of Religion was questioned, not about the content of the document, but over his statement. His statement condemns any loud sounds no matter the source. His statement gave examples of such sources, namely adhan and dogs barking. However, this was regarded by some to have compared the noise level of the prayer call in mosques to the barking of dogs. But controversies about the sonorous nature of mosques’ prayer calls have already emerged in years prior. Namely, the controversy of Vice President Boediono in 2014. Boediono proposed the volume of the call to prayer to be reduced, which sparked controversy from the management of community organisations, political parties, and even the members of the House of Representatives.

It is clear that long-term exposure to noise has an impact on health, and that in some cases, conflicts over excessive noise have led to injury, and even death. It is time for more attention to be given, and to invest effort in improving noise management and enhancing coordination. Noise level regulation should not be sectoral. Existing regulations that regulate noise levels are sectoral and too specific. They cover the sound of motorised vehicles in the production process, the level of noise in the workplace (factories and offices) and the volume of loudspeakers in mosques and other places of worship.

More general arrangements related to sound (no matter the source) should be in place based on the designation of the area (zoning) and the activity. The Decree of the State Minister of the Environment No. 48 of 1996 concerning Noise Level Standards has provided a very good and adequate basis for regulating noise levels. This regulation should be upgraded to a government regulation or even a law. The next step is to then carry out continuous monitoring and enforcement (e.g., once every three months). Through these two arrangements, we can hope that cities in Indonesia will have a more comfortable soundscape that is salubrious to citizens. The end-goal: some treasured peace and quiet.

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