View Point: Indonesian scholars: Rare birds, or systematically suppressed?

Posted: 05-07-2015 | Julia Suryakusuma
Category: media

Since I started describing myself as an “independent scholar and freelance writer” over 35 years ago, I’ve always had difficulty explaining to Indonesians what being a scholar means.

There’s no word in Indonesian for “scholar”. The term ilmuwan (scientist) conjures the image of someone in a lab coat. Neither of the two other options — intelektual (intellectual) or akademisi (academic) — are accurate translations of scholar.

So what is a scholar actually? They are defined by the production of new knowledge through research, as well as the production of new scholars. Just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you’re a scholar as PhD is only an academic title. This also means that you don’t have to be an academic to be a scholar. For example, writers also can be scholars.

“Scholarship” is what a scholar produces, but in Indonesia it only translates as beasiswa (funding to study).

Why are Indonesian scholars such rarae aves, or rare birds?

The problem originated in Soeharto’s New Order Era (1966-1998) and its repressive policies which naturally extended to universities. Indonesian social scientists were not allowed to do any serious scholarly work, which invariably involves asking deep, critical questions.

 The only incentives to do research came from two sources: funding from the government or from the private sector. This is the case even now.

In response to mass rallies organized by students from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, in April 1978 Normalisasi Kehidupan Kampus (NKK, or the Normalization of Campus Activity) was imposed, banning political activities on campus. The NKK helped to further suppress the independent, critical thinking that is a prerequisite for being a scholar.

Surely now, 17 years into the Reform Era and deep inside the Information Age, things have changed?

Well, not really. That’s because all the people who grew up during the New Order are now the ones in charge of universities. This is why the “intellectual climate” in Indonesian universities is still very much influenced by New Order thinking.

Universities overwhelmingly hire their own advanced students, with the senior faculty doing the hiring. Hence the entrenchment of patron-client relationships, where junior academics are expected to defer to their teachers and don’t develop any critical ideas and perspectives. There’s no cross-fertilization of thoughts and ideas. The atmosphere is non-competitive, closed and protective. And apparently only 20 percent of lecturers in Indonesian universities have PhDs.

By contrast, Islamic schools and studies receive large amounts of funding, a lot of it coming from the Middle East. Starting this year, for a period of five years, the Religious Affairs Ministry will award 1,000 doctorate scholarships for lecturers from public Islamic universities. So by 2019, Indonesia will have 5,000 PhDs in Islamic studies, and probably none of them will be scholars.

Another problem is pejabatism (derived from pejabat, meaning officials), whereby prominent academics become officials such as ministers. If they weren’t producing scholarship anyway, it’s not a problem for them.

In the context of this dismal state of affairs, in 2012 the Indonesian Scholarship and Research Support Foundation (ISRSF) was founded.

According to Jeffrey Winters, professor of political science at Northwestern University and chairman of the board of trustees of ISRSF, the current number of Indonesians holding PhDs stands at around 23,000 and is rapidly increasing, but there are very few scholars among them. And yet Indonesia had more world-class scholars in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

In general, Indonesian scholarship is largely absent in international scholarly debates, even on the topic of Indonesia. Now that’s not just embarrassing, it’s a terrible and suffocating reality. It’s not that Indonesia is lacking in scholarly minds, but the academic climate in which they are raised simply doesn’t allow them to develop, let alone flourish.

 The main objective of ISRSF, its website says, “is to cultivate a new generation of world-class Indonesian scholars and provide on-going support for innovative research and knowledge on important societal

The fields of study are many: political science, history, law, journalism and communications, anthropology, sociology and public policy. But more than that, it’s providing these young academics with an intellectual habitat that will support them not only as teachers but also as scholars.

The present aim is to produce 20 scholars in the years 2012-2025. It’s nothing compared to the number of Islamic scholars (scary!), but hopefully these 20 can act as positive “contaminators” when they return.

On June 24, I attended the 2015 Arryman Symposium organized by the ISRSF, which presented the research results of three young Indonesian Arryman scholars. As scholars they did one year’s worth of research, to be followed by a 6-year, fully paid PhD program.

Sabina Puspita’s presentation was on the proliferation of national watchdog agencies in Indonesia’s post-reformasi era. Wara Urwasi studied spatial segregation and ethno-religious violence, using Ambon as a case study. Yoes Kenawas studied the rise of political dynasties in democratic societies, referring primarily to Indonesia. The papers are all downloadable from the ISRSF website at

The presentations were all fascinating. This was not just because of the interesting topics, but also because of the depth, rigor and high academic standard of the presentations.

But what happens when they return? Oh no! How will they be able to flourish in the stagnant, distinctly non-dynamic and frustrating academic habitat of their home county?

Aha, there’s a solution! If the first part of the Arryman project is to create the scholars, the second part is intended to support them by setting up a School of Public Policy and Social Science in Jakarta. The idea is to have the 20 professors from the Arryman Fellowship program become the core teaching staff of the social sciences wing of the new school.

 And who was this Arryman?

Dr. Arif Arryman (1956-2010) was one of the main architects of the program. He was a visionary, unfortunately he died prematurely in 2010. But others involved in the program didn’t want to see his plan abandoned with his death. So Transformasi ( ) a networked think-tank, and ISRSF were created, and thus the Arryman Program was able to continue.

The Arryman program is a partnership between Northwestern University and The Rajawali Foundation. The awards are made possible by financial support from PT Adaro Energy, PT AKR Corporindo Tbk., PT Bank Central Asia, PT Djarum, the Ford Foundation, the Rajawali Foundation, and the William
Soeryadjaya Foundation.

The Arryman Scholar and Fellowship Program is a long-term movement. Hopefully, a hundred years from now, the notion of “scholar” will no longer be alien to Indonesia, and maybe we will even have invented a word for it!

By: Julia Suryakusuma
The writer is the author of Julia’s Jihad.
Original Source: The Jakarta Post