Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


Academic freedom under threat in Indonesia

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jun 10 2018 12:19AM

Two news items from the last week have me seriously concerned about academic freedom in Indonesia (again). This is unlikely to be a real issue in the upcoming provincial and local elections this month, or even in the national elections next year, but it is something that colleagues both inside and outside the country should be watching.

Inside the country, the leading national university in Yogyakarta, Universitas Gadjah Mada, has apparently brought down sanctions on two lecturers in the Faculty of Engineering for their affiliation to the now-banned organization Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. As Ed Aspinall noted recently, the banning of HTI itself was a cause for concern about authoritarian trends in the country, but the sanction of lecturers in this way echoes the excesses of Turkey and brings new concerns to the fore. To be clear, I strongly disagree with the proposed programme of HTI, and I vehemently dislike the positions they have advocated in Indonesia politics. I also find the organization's hypocrisy-- to abstain from politics on principle, except when they don't--to be awful. All the same, I am not afraid of other academics advocating ideas that I disagree with as long as they are doing it in a peaceful way that respects others. Indonesian universities, including state universities, should review their lecturers on the basis of teaching, service, and scholarship, not their political views. (This corrective could be equally important for the many undcoumented cases of appointment and promotion due to positive political connections, but let's leave that aside for the moment.)

Outside the country, there has been disturbing news circulating about further restrictions on foreign experts conducting research in Indonesia. As one of very, very few professional academics on Indonesia who consistently gets research permits for work in Indonesia, I find the proposed changes counterproductive. Already, so very few researchers, especially in the humanities and social sciences, get proper permits for their fieldwork in Indonesia, largely because the government makes it incredibly burdensome in terms of time and energy (the monetary cost is less of an issue, especially when compared to the weeks of my life I've wasted waiting in government offices for these letters). With increased restrictions and even-more-burdensome guidelines, like providing all raw data to the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (something that would violate ethics protocols for so much social science and humanities research, too), the government will be pushing more and more of my colleagues to do their work unregistered. Additionally, there is a shrimp behind the rock, in that it seems a main desire in making the process more burdensome is also to restrict further the topics that foreign researchers can study. The fine work of researchers exposing corruption, monitoring deforestation, or documenting cultural aspects that are not celebrated by the government gets even harder than it already is. This is a further threat to the academic study of Indonesia, and it goes against the interests of the Indonesian people as a whole.

Of course, as I am not an Indonesian citizen, I have no voice in these regulatory processes, but I do have a strong interest. I hope that the government will consult actual stakeholders on both issues and come up with better directions for policy.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.