“Sexy Killers” documentary:

Cleaning-up Civilization’s Combustion Chambers

Most of us in a modern society take electricity and clean air for granted. An hour of blackout and we will scramble to charge our mobiles, complain about the dysfunctional air conditioning, or missing a favorite television show. We feel we are entitled for the electricity services because we duly pay our monthly dues. As Watchdoc’s latest documentary “Sexy Killers” vividly shows, we have actually not pay our fair dues. 

There can be many interpretations of the message of the film. One can argue that at its core, it is about the cost of externalities of generating electricity from coal in Indonesia that is yet to be internalized – and until that happens, the communities around the coal mines and power plants are the ones who bear them, sometimes with their lives, just so that the rest of the power consumers can enjoy (cheap) electricity. 

Staying true to its hallmark, Watchdoc puts the communities livelihood and its problems (as well as wisdom) front and center. It tries to take us through the experience of those impacted by coal mines and coal-fired power plants. Obviously for us who watch it in the comfort of our (electrified) homes, that “experience” is done in just 90 minutes, but for those who live just next to the coal facilities, it has been the case for decades and will continue until major changes take place.

Cleverly leveraging the momentum of Indonesia’s Presidential election in April 2019, “Sexy Killers” background research reveals that the tycoons behind the coal mines and power plants in question are closely linked to both contending camps despite their political allegiances. A revelation that caused Watchdoc of being accused as campaigning for constituents to not vote for either candidates. The energy spent on such accusation would have been much more constructive if used to explain whether Watchdoc’s research of political-coal elites complex is true or not. 

As with many other works of Watchdoc, it begs not only to be “enjoyed”, but also propel better policy making that should pass the scrutiny of a wider public. There are at least three areas of policy implications from “Sexy Killers” portrayal of the landscape: the role of coal in energy mix, enforcement of socio-environmental impact regulations, and political connections in industries of strategic nature such as power / electricity. Despite its Indonesian context, these public discussions will also benefit many other countries in similar developmental stage.

First, the role of coal in Indonesian energy mix. 

The Indonesian National Energy Plan which was officiated by President Joko Widodo in 2017 shows a massive increase in coal consumption for the next decades. From around 97 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe) in 2019 to around 255 mtoe in 2050. Not exactly a five-fold increase as Sexy Killers indicated, referring to the national electricity generation plan (RUPTL). No surprise though that different government planning documents are not exactly in tune with one another. Nevertheless, the message is loud and clear: coal will be mined and burned for the foreseeable future, even under the most aggressive renewable energy growth scenario. Indeed, there is no credible pathway that is technically and economically feasible to phase out coal in the next decades from the Indonesian economy. 

This brings us to the second point around its socio-environmental impact. 

If coal is here to stay (at least for a while), does it mean that people around coal mining and coal-fired power plants will just have to continue to suffer? Absolutely not. Like many other countries, Indonesia does have environmental regulations that should have prevented many of the calamities shown in Sexy Killers. The problem is that those regulations do not seem to be enforced properly. 

Indonesia’s environmental impact assessment regime, known as AMDAL, actually is quite decent on paper. It mandates any industrial activities to assess its socio-environmental impact, undertake mitigations, and conduct consultations with the surrounding communities before any activities can commence. As Sexy Killers highlighted, even the regulations on minimum distance with populated area was not adhered by one of the coal mine operations. If the AMDAL regime is followed through, the degradation of air quality that coal operations caused to its neighbors should have been mitigated – and if not, serious repercussions including closure of the operations should be enforced. 

Communities in East Kalimantan, fishermen in Celukan Bawang, and villagers in Sulawesi have equal rights to breathable air and safe playground for their children as the businessmen in Jakarta’s business district, affluent golfers in Bogor and the shoppers in the bustling metropolitan malls. The big difference is the latter groups are well resourced to fight for their rights if God forbids a coal mine or power plant is built next to their homes. Sexy Killers documentary is perhaps the only hope the former groups have to get their unjust sufferings heard.
At the time of this writing,

Sexy Killers have had well above 10 millions views on Youtube in addition to numerous community screenings. With so many viewers, it will be a tremendous shame if no actions are taken against the companies mentioned in the documentary. At the very least, an objective review of their AMDAL documents and enforcement of the applicable laws and regulations must be conducted. 

Aside from AMDAL, several companies mentioned in Sexy Killers are certified “shariah company”. Regardless of anyone’s religious view, it is unfathomable to label an enterprise that cause so much unfair grief towards the innocent, a “shariah” company. Institutions that are involved in such certification must morally and legally act upon the facts presented. Selling indulgence for profit with utter disregard to the common good should be a practice put to rest in the medieval era, not one that should be allowed to flourish today.  The question now is, can authorities with their senior officials deeply embedded in and profiting from the coal industry enforce the regulations objectively? Maybe possible, but very difficult. 

Thus, the third policy implications around the affairs between the coal industry and the political elites. 

Despite the frowns it may cause, it is not illegal for politicians to own shares in coal mining or power plants. But those companies must comply with laws and regulations – and if anything, the politicians with ownership in such companies should take up the moral leadership of ensuring not only legal compliance but a higher degree of corporate responsibilities. They should also declare any potential conflict of interest. One cannot be expected to act fairly to enforce regulations that would inflict less profit on companies in which s/he owns. 

Internalizing the cost of externalities on coal and coal-fired power plants will inevitably increase the cost of electricity from coal and reduce its profit. Such internalization could be due to installation of state-of-the-art waste management systems, proper relocation of directly impacted communities, environmental restoration funds, and many others. These costs have to be absorbed and may even be passed through to the end consumers or by the state electricity company – subject to government policy on electricity pricing. Either way, the cost should be fairly borne by those who enjoy the electricity and the profit – not by those who just happen to live next to the plant, the coal mine, or breathe the exhaust. 

President Joko Widodo who just enjoyed a comfortable margin of victory based on the many quick counts should be strongly encouraged to reflect on this for his next 5 years of governing Indonesia. Sexy Killers has done a great service to the President by highlighting serious issues that undoubtedly many of his subordinates and supporters will not.  

Campaign slogans around “clean government”, “man of the people”, and “robust economic growth” now must be translated into scientific- and systemic-based policy making process supported by capable professionals who are free from conflict of interest. 

The Economist in its 13th April edition wrote that President Joko Widodo had to make worrying compromises to secure his victory, including succumbing to vested interests.   

It will not be easy for the President to un-strangle himself from those interest, but so it is also not easy to inhale dangerous particles or to lose a child to an unreclaimed coal pit. The difference is that the farmers and fishermen didn’t chose the location of the coal industries, but the President chose to be their leader – along with its constitutional duty to protect all citizens.  

April, 2019

Watch “Sexy Killers” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlB7vg4I-To

This entry was posted in Business & Society, Editorial, Indonesia. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Byline

    Michael is a professional leader in the fields of energy investments, complex commercial deals, and sustainability with extensive international experience. His personal interests span from socio-political issues, history, and culture.

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