Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Jakarta – Indonesia's Health Minister has caused a stir by proposing that the country promote traditional Indonesian treatments and herbs such as Tongkat Ali, Purwaceng and Mak Erot to boost medical tourism.
Tongkat Ali, a herb known for its aphrodisiac qualities, and Purwaceng, dubbed the "Viagra of Java", are sought by men to improve potency. Mak Erot is a "penis enlargement" massage for men.
Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto had on Nov 19 hailed Mak Erot as a national asset, saying the massage treatment has the potential to attract medical tourists from abroad.
Dr Terawan, a medical doctor, told reporters that traditional vitality and herbal medicine would help Indonesia rake in foreign exchange from visitors.
"There are many examples ranging from Tongkat Ali, Purwaceng and Mak Erot. Give (foreign tourists) intriguing offers that trigger big curiosity," he said.
"We also have fitness therapy to offer such as Kerokan, which fascinates foreigners," he added. Kerokan is the local practice of scraping a person's back using a coin and oil to help relieve a cold.
But his comments drew almost immediate criticism from different quarters.
Dr Broto Wasisto, who heads the ethics board at the Indonesian Medical Doctors Association (IDI), said that what Dr Terawan proposes with the Mak Erot massage in particular should not be considered for medical tourism, as it is not evidence-based.
"It is something that is shameful and should not be promoted internationally," he added.
Mak Erot, or "Mother Erot" in Bahasa Indonesia, was a well-known Indonesian masseuse who used traditional herbs and oils to improve male sexual health.
Originally from Sukabumi, West Java province, she died in July 2008. She was reportedly more than 100 years old.
The medical tourism push is just one strategy Indonesia is employing to boost foreign currency spending in the country, and comes in the wake of a widening current account deficit amid a global economic slowdown.
South-east Asia's largest economy imports more goods and services than it exports, which saw the deficit last year reach US$31.1 billion (S$42.3 billion).
President Joko Widodo has pledged to tackle the problem by chasing tourism dollars and increasing the use of local biodiesel to reduce the reliance on fuel imports.
In October this year, after inaugurating the new Cabinet, Mr Joko ordered his ministers holding portfolios other than those related to economic matters to help with efforts to reduce the current account deficit.
Among other things, he said the Foreign Minister must make economic diplomacy a top priority and called on the country's ambassadors to promote Indonesian products overseas.
But the idea to get the country to push local sexual health treatments to boost medical tourism to the country was not well received.
Dr Prijo Sidipratomo, dean of the medical school at the Pembangunan Nasional University in Jakarta, said that Dr Terawan may have misinterpreted President Joko's orders involving tourism dollars.
Dr Frans Santosa, who leads a supervisory department at the same board of ethics in IDI, said if the country is concerned about foreign exchange losses as a result of Indonesian patients travelling abroad to seek medical treatment, the government should instead work harder to improve local medical services and human resources, including the medical staff.