Under the microscope

Is Indonesia hostile to science?

Under the microscope AFP Photo/TEK image/Science Photo Library/ABO

Here’s the edgy question asked by The Jakarta Post’s managing editor in a column this month: “Is [the] Jokowi [nickname for President Joko Widodo] administration waging war on science?”  

Ary Hermawan’s headline was based on a survey of 102 researchers, research administrators and policymakers undertaken through the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG), a research-based advisory group.

Professors Inaya Rakhmani and Zulfa Sakhiyya, the authors of a CIPG paper Doing Research Assessment, said they found the Indonesian government’s policy-making is “predominantly informed by research with poor theoretical engagement, with no strong tradition of peer review and with legal threats to academic freedom.”

One of the most vexatious threats facing overseas academics hoping to work in the archipelago is a law passed last year imposing criminal charges against scholars violating visa regulations. The Ministry of Research and Technology demands applicants file at least 15 documents through 10 separate agencies for a foreign research permit.

Ironically this is happening when the government says it’s asking overseas academic institutions to set up shop in Indonesia. The first is Australia’s Monash University which will start taking postgrads next year.

Luthfi Dzulfikar, associate editor of the Indonesian edition of The Conversation academic website, has warned the law can “potentially deter foreign researchers … due to the introduction of fines and prison sentences, particularly considering complicated red tape is still prevalent in Indonesia.”

The penalties are the stuff of nightmares. Non-Indonesians without the right papers in their pocket could have their wallets emptied of Rp 4 billion (US$290,000) and be banned for five years.

Anecdotally some applicants get so maddened with the process they use visitor visas hoping they won’t get caught. This is risky. As this writer knows personally, in areas outside big cities and tourist trails newcomers with notebooks quickly draw the attention of busybodies keen to alert authorities.

Hermawan reckons the government has clamped down on the pretext of protecting Indonesia’s historical legacies and genetic resources.

“Critics have said the law is excessive and could hamper academic freedom. Moreover, it gives the impression that the country is xenophobic and anti-science.”

Why aren’t local academics conducting more research in Indonesia? 

A report by the New Delhi-based Global Development Network claims “the (Indonesian) research environment is marked by institutional barriers, such as a bureaucratized higher education with poor incentives for research production and publication, largely due to the legacy of the past authoritarian, centralized government.

“As a result, almost 90 percent of articles published in international journals on Indonesia are written by academics not living in the country.” One of the authors was Professor Inaya Rakhmani. 

The concerns are more than academic. The laws have bite. In January French landscape ecologist David Gaveau was kicked out of Indonesia for an alleged visa violation.  Gaveau, who has been based in the Republic for 15 years, is a research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research based in Bogor, West Java.

He claimed the government had underestimated the damage from fires in Kalimantan Province on Borneo island. This is a sensitive political issue as massive land-clearing and burning has been underway to develop palm oil plantations, drawing international ire.  

The Center has produced a Borneo Atlas (http://www.cifor.org/map/atlas) for oil buyers to check the product’s provenance. Gaveau appears in a video explaining the map.  

Indonesia is taking legal action through the World Trade Organization's Dispute Settlement Body against the European Union for banning palm oil imports. The EU alleges deforestation on the world’s third largest island has been caused by more than 100 palm and pulpwood companies.

Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, commented that Gaveau’s expulsion was “another sign of the growing tension between the Indonesian government and the scientific community”.

Two weeks after Gaveau was ordered out, an audacious attempt by six Australian and Dutch adventurers to sail a primitive craft from Indonesia to Northern Australia was scuttled by deportation orders.

Immigration authorities in Kupang confirmed six foreigners working on the raft were flown to Denpasar on February 12 and deported to Australia the following day.

A group called The First Mariners had built an 18-meter bamboo raft with palm leaf sails on Rote Island near West Timor. This month they planned to take 14 days to sail about 650 kilometers to Darwin, testing the theory that migrations between Southeast Asia and Australia occurred more than 60,000 years ago.  

The group’s website seems to show the venture was well organized and had been working openly for many months. The Northern Territory Government is among a large list of sponsors and supporters. (The NT Attorney General Natasha Fyles has not responded to a request for comment.)

Group leader Bob Hobman, 79, who describes himself as an “English maritime writer/historian” and who lives in Indonesia, at first denied he and others had been deported. 

In an e-mail exchange with this writer he said: “An Imigrasi [Immigration Department] ‘misunderstanding’ is the word we are using.”

A day later he wrote: “While keeping a low profile, working through the Indonesian Consul here in Darwin to have new visas issued, Imigrasi HQ in Jakarta have been pushed a little too far by the media - perhaps hinting that a mistake might have been made - and they decided deportation was in order. 

“We cannot return. The expedition is over. My own life also cast adrift seeing that I have one address. On Bali. There could be a review, supposedly by appeal, next August.” 

Dzulfikar says “scholars are urging the government to dampen the potential negative effects of the new science and technology law. They suggest renewing government regulations on foreign research permits and streamlining the process through an integrated online permit system.”

In a society where nationalism is still a forceful factor in lawmaking, the curbs on postgrads trying to discover more of the world’s third largest democracy are unlikely to be reviewed with any rapidity.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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