Feb 21, 2024 Last Updated 10:11 PM, Feb 20, 2024

From guided democracy to guided science?

Published: May 11, 2023

Saiful Mahdi

Versi Bh Indonesia

For those who were teenagers and adults during the New Order era, the phrase ‘guided democracy’ has a negative connotation. Back then the trainers of the Guidelines for Understanding and Practicing Pancasila (P4) program described ‘guided democracy’ as the road wrongly taken and ‘not in accordance with Pancasila.’

Today Indonesia’s democracy is in fact a guided democracy. While democracy is recognised, near absolute decision-making and ultimate authority rest on one figure or assembly. This system, just like the ‘syuro assembly’ leadership model, the ‘party’s high council,’ and other variants, is basically a ‘pseudo-democratic’ model of democracy – a feudalistic one. For some, this model of democracy is considered suitable for a plural society in a country the size of Indonesia, with Singapore and China held up as the ideals.

This could be the symptom of a nation that has lost its way due to increasingly complex challenges. It might also be the symptom of a leadership that is too lazy to think; of rule by mediocre men or common men, ordinary people who are ‘power hungry.’ As political scientist Yudi Latif wrote:

‘When the admiration for “great statesmen” grows pale due to the decline in the authority of role models, many will instinctively turn their admiration to themselves (self-glorification). Those armed with an influential last name, a face the public recognize, and wealth but with little to no achievement already feel worthy to lead this country….’

Feudal democracy is characterised by the increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few incapable elites. Indonesia needs political leaders who are willing to meditate and, for the sake of their nation, to travel along the difficult path, rather than take shortcuts benefitting only the few.

One of the ‘roads not taken’ in Indonesia is to put science at the centre of policymaking. Various challenges for Indonesian science notwithstanding, here, as in all other nations, it is the path for the common good. Science is the best way to champion diversity, in accordance with the Unity in Diversity (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) principle. Science provides objective criteria in, for example, the selection of leadership so that we may avoid sectarianism driven by ethnicity, religion, race, and intergroup loyalties (suku agama, ras, antargolongan, SARA). Yet it seems we are abandoning the road of science as well, since guided democracy demands the obedience of all, including its scientists.

From optimism to disappointment

At the start of Joko Widodo’s (hereafter, Jokowi) first term, many Indonesians, including those within the academic community, seemed to have high hopes and optimism. In one of the new government’s memorable moments, then head of Jokowi’s presidential staff Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, invited a number of Harvard University alumni to help him. Although it was criticised by many as an excessive glorification of overseas alumni from prestigious universities, it sent a positive message. Panjaitan signalled, at least, that the government was in favor of science. The lexicon of ‘evidence/data-based policy’ seemed to be gaining ground in the country.

Jokowi’s second term did not begin with the same optimism. The president came through an election that deeply divided the nation. Identity politics mushroomed. Populism was the go-to reasoning. Whilst at the beginning of his first term Indonesians were presented with a group of prominent scholars from esteemed universities, by contrast Jokowi’s second term began with speculation about his new ‘millennial’ special staffers – who were mostly young entrepreneurs.

Indonesian analysts and experts began to use the terms ‘illiberal democracy,’ ‘illiberal turn,’ and ‘democratic regression.’ They argued that evidence that Indonesia was a ‘regressing democracy’ was starting to pile up, beginning with the weakening of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Despite protests from university students, legal experts and civil society proponents, in 2019 the KPK bill was made law, largely stripping the body of its autonomy. In the same period, under the pretext of attracting investment, the government together with the parliament drafted the Job Creation Law (RUU Cipta Kerja) as an omnibus law in 2020. Even though it was thrown out by the Constitutional Court as unlawful, in early 2023 the omnibus law was passed under an emergency provision. Guided democracy has ‘subdued’ opposing politicians and businessmen alike, to the point where there is almost no opposition left. Nonetheless, a quiet call for criticism and protest from the academic community perseveres.

A shrinking space for protest

The space for Indonesia’s academic community to act as critics and public intellectuals has also been weakened in a number of ways. In the past decade, rules governing public universities have been eased to accommodate political and business aspirations. When it was originally designed, the State University as a Legal Entity Scheme (PTN BH) was promoted as a mechanism to strengthen campus autonomy, rather than, as some feared, to enforce and leverage political and capital power within higher education institutions. The original version of the scheme was deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in a 2009 ruling, before being relaunched in 2012. The polemic that emerged in mid-2021 around changes to the University of Indonesia’s statute, is an example of the impact of such excessive educational liberalisation.

The leverage and largesse of political powers and capital is perhaps most visible in the awarding of honorary degrees by universities. It is as if deceit in the awarding of honorary titles was legalised. Even ‘honorary professorships' – a title only rarely and carefully awarded by academic institutions in other countries – are awarded on a political basis.

Secondly, researchers are now subject to the authority of the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). The message is clear: you may research anything so long as it ‘does not counter Pancasila.’ This reminds me of the debate on the politics of science pertaining to the funding of area studies in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Supporters of Saiful Mahdi crowded the court room during his trial in 2021, in which he was charged with defamation under the draconian ITE law / LBH Banda Aceh

Thirdly, the Independent Learning Independent Campus (MBKM) program overseen by the Directorate General of Higher Education, Research, and Technology hijacks and shrinks the meaning of ‘independence.’ At a glance, universities and their civitas academica (lecturers and students) were purported to gain more ‘independence’ through this program, but in reality, restrictions and limitations persist. Its excessive emphasis on vocational skills has blurred the line between education that produces thinkers, and vocational education that improves the skills of future workers. The terms ‘link and match’ serve as a mantra to make sure graduates are work-ready. In MBKM, ‘independent’ does not consider the disparity of resources between regions and universities, including resources in the form of business and industry partners. To make matters worse, indicators of success are made uniform by Jakarta’s centralised rule. How can different inputs and processes be assessed with a uniform evaluation of outputs and outcomes?

Fourth, the current forms of standardisation and accreditation are mechanistic. Standardisation is a model developed within industries, specifically manufacturing, which seeks to produce uniform products by limiting variations. On this basis, from the beginning, attempts to transfer the model of standardisation – and subsequently accreditation – to education have been contested. A middle ground is to argue for vigilance in applying standardisation and accreditation in education, especially higher education. While in factories the end-products are made uniform due to the limitation of variations, education should accommodate, if not respect, differences among learners – professors, students and all involved. In practice, these days professors are occupied with administrative affairs and accreditation forms. This only adds to the growing pressure to meet the quality indicators of a world class university, such as funding and indexed research publications.

What can be done?

State universities (PTN) in Indonesia continue to liberalise. But the liberalisation seems to focus more on financial management and less on scientific thought and discourse. This is evident in their change of status from a ministry work unit (satker) whose finance is absolutely regulated by the ministry, to a financially semi-autonomous public service agency (BLU). Going forward, PTN BLU will be further encouraged to become PTN BH, which is even more autonomous in its financial affairs.

Whilst these changes originally stemmed from the hope of making university management more professional, they are unfortunately making it more and more like a commercial company or corporation. This approach does not support or promote better care for the rights of its lecturers, students and education staff. In many cases, the efforts to meet acceptance rate targets result in an increase in the single tuition fee (UKT) that students and the general public must pay. And when students protest against the increase of UKT, some are repressed by their university, or ‘disciplined’ with administrative sanctions, and some are expelled.

For professors, a PTN BH means a performance assessment based on monetisation. New research centres and study programs are established with commercial calculations: whether they can attract prospective students and how much money they can turn over to the university. Research funding shares a similar fate: only research with monetisation possibilities are given funding priority. Seemingly harmless, such frameworks marginalise basic science in general, and nearly all social science fields in Indonesia in particular. Meanwhile, basic science is vital for innovation, technology and the transfer of knowledge.

Without sufficient research funding, an academic cannot conduct quality research. Without quality research, there are no quality publications. Without all of that, a professor’s performance will not improve. It is regrettable that a number of academics have resorted to shortcuts such as commissioning ghostwriters for papers and publications and even cheating on applications for professorships. These in return jeopardise academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the autonomy of the university.

Acting together

For all of these reasons, university staff, professors, and education staff need to leverage a bargaining position and remain critical of the management of higher education institutions at both the regional and national level. To do so, a university staff union, a professor union, or another form of university workers’ organisation is imperative. Without unions, which are the rights of every citizen, the struggle to uphold academic freedom will remain a sporadic fire-fighting effort. Apart from being vulnerable to being silenced and even criminalised, an academic fighting this battle alone will struggle to create a lasting impact. Silencing and criminalisation may use excuses such as ‘for the sake of the university,’ ‘for the sake of education,’ ‘for the greater interest,’ and ‘for the nation and state.’

In the fight for academic worker unions, professors and students in Indonesia need to continue networking to keep their common sense and critical thinking sharp. Efforts like those made by a number of professors, students, journalists and activists in the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KIKA), must be supported, strengthened, replicated and amplified.

Saiful Mahdi (saiful.mahdi@unsyiah.ac.id) teaches at Syiah Kuala University and is a member of the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KIKA). In 2021 he was charged with defamation under the ITE Law. Following national and international protests, after three months in detention Saiful was granted amnesty by President Joko Widodo.

Inside Indonesia 151: Jan-Mar 2023

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