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Dark shadow cast over Indonesia academic freedom

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Megawati Soekarnoputri, as head of the Agency for the Implementation of the State Ideology of Pancasila’s (BPIP) steering committee, speaks during a presidential lecture event at the State Palace in Indonesian capital Jakarta on December 3, 2019. ANTARA

Dark shadow cast over Indonesia academic freedom

The inauguration of Megawati Soekarnoputri, the most powerful woman in Indonesian politics today, as the chief adviser to the nation’s first-ever superbody for research and innovation has cast a dark shadow over the future of academic freedom in the country.

Her appointment by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo last week came amid growing concerns among academics that some of the top Indonesian universities are being coopted by political interests, with the State Jakarta University (UNJ) recently being accused of trying to amend a university regulation to grant honorary degrees to Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin and Minister of State-owned Enterprises (SOE) Erick Thohir.

Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati now officially leads the steering committee of the National Research and Innovation Agency (Brin), expanding her political clout further after previously being tapped by the President to advise the Agency for Pancasila Ideology Education (BPIP).

Established in 2019, Brin is now the overarching agency that manages the country’s state-owned research institutions, including the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), the National Nuclear Agency (Batan) and the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology.

Critics say that appointing Megawati as Brin chief adviser is a mistake.

“It is not appropriate that the head of the Brin steering committee is held by the chairman of a political party who has no expertise in research and innovation – Brin could be used as a political tool,” Azyumardi Azra, director of the Jakarta State Islamic University’s (UIN Jakarta) graduate school, wrote on his Twitter account.

Azyumardi argued that the BPIP under the leadership of Megawati had become partisan and was now losing public trust.

“Brin could have a similar fate as the BPIP,” he said.

In one of the harshest rebukes publicly made by a prominent scholar against President Jokowi’s policy on research development, Azyumardi said the “chaos” created by Brin would be a “research and innovation disaster” today and in years to come.

Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, a lecturer at UNJ and an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, feared that research in Indonesia – be it under the auspices of Brin or universities – would now likely be required “to be in line with Pancasila as an ideological instrument of the state to subjugate the people and control campuses and the production of knowledge”.

“Academic freedom is increasingly under threat. Before Brin and the appointment of Megawati as its chief adviser, research in Indonesia, particularly on campuses … was bad already. The ‘Pancasilaisation’ of research would exacerbate the situation,” he said.

The controversy over Megawati’s roles in Brin has fuelled concerns among academics over the growing political interference in academia. Only a few months ago, Megawati was awarded a professorship from the Indonesian Defence University as recognition of her leadership as the fourth president, including her handling of the Bali bombings in October 2002.

The granting of the top academic degree stirred controversy, with critics saying that the decision was likely more influenced by her political clout than her academic merits.

Such practice is not uncommon in Indonesia today, according to an investigative report by Tempo magazine, which found that some universities have been “underselling” honorary degrees to politicians.

An alliance of UNJ lecturers recently released a statement rejecting a proposal to award honorary degrees to Ma’ruf and Erick. The vice-president was nominated for a degree by the university’s school of social science, while the minister was nominated by the school of sports science.

Abdil argued that according to the university’s regulations, an honorary degree cannot be given to active government officials.

“The proposal should have been dropped immediately by the rector, as it is in clear violation of university regulations, and both [Ma’ruf and Erick] are unfit to receive the honorary degree,” he said.

“If [the university] does award honorary degrees to officials, it is simply a manifestation of political interests between campus officials and government officials.”

Brin head Laksana Tri Handoko dismissed such concerns as “unreasonable”, saying that the chief adviser of Brin was expected to provide external (technocratic, political, societal and academic) support for research.

“The purely academic [activities] are being carried out by the organising committee that I lead,” he said.

He questioned the criticism levelled against Megawati, saying that the ministerial post for research and technology had been held by party leaders before.

PDI-P secretary-general Hasto Kristiyanto defended Megawati’s role in Brin, saying that the research agency needed ideological guidance from the PDI-P chairwoman as the chief adviser to the BPIP, the main ideological state apparatus.

“Research and innovation must be driven by the nation’s ideology so that Indonesia is truly sovereign, independent and proud of its cultural identity. Brin is a new chapter for the progress of a greater Indonesia,” he said in May as quoted by kompas.com.

He argued that Megawati was qualified for the job, saying that she was concerned about the state of research and innovation in Indonesia and had been pushing for a greater budget allocation for the sector.

“She was also the one who proposed the creation of Brin to President Jokowi.”



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