EDITORIAL: Academic freedom at risk
The Jakarta Post
For the time being, scholars and researchers across the country can sigh with relief after Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo on Tuesday announced the withdrawal of a contentious regulation that obliged researchers to report their research findings to the ministry. Tjahjo said the government would seek advice from research institutions, the academia and the House of Representatives to “improve” the policy. However, we can assume the quest for a state control mechanism is still alive.
Despite Home Ministerial Regulation No. 3/2018 on the research information letter finally being shelved after its signing on Jan. 17, it does not constitute the government’s full commitment to academic freedom. As in the case of the now defunct policy, there are people within the government who, despite two decades of reform, share, if not glorify, the New Order’s security approach.
Through the regulation, the government intended to remain vigilant regarding “negative impacts that could possibly stem from research and are not the subject of research.” The policy would allow the government to revoke a permit for research if it detected a “threat to security,” which could be anything. Widodo Sigit Pudjianto, the Home Ministry’s legal bureau chief, cited research on ideologies other than Pancasila and on people’s appetite for pork consumption as examples of topics that would be prohibited for their potential to divide society.
Further raising eyebrows, the regulation entrusted the ministry’s Directorate General of Politics and General Governance to assess “the potential negative impact” of a particular research project. No matter whether those bureaucrats were familiar with the research or not, they could judge it would do society more harm than good.
All in all, the regulation is reminiscent of the practice through which the authoritarian New Order maintained its grip for more than 30 years. Today, we may call this mindset a kind of anachronism amid the fast advancement of science that we can hardly keep up with.
We remain an outsider in the world when it comes to invention and innovation as our budget for research falls behind even that of our fellow Southeast Asian neighbors. State restrictions of academic freedom will only exacerbate the acute problem, holding this nation back from global competition despite its huge human resources.
The government’s decision to suspend the regulation is therefore far from enough. To help the nation close its gap with advanced countries, the government should instead promote as much research as possible and declare Indonesia open to researchers, both local and foreign.
The state has no right to determine what is best for its people, unless we all agree to leave our hard-won democracy and welcome back autocracy. Research as part of academic exercise will only grow and bear fruit if the state provides fertile soil called freedom.
Of course the government needs to regulate, such as to protect the country’s rich biodiversity and the intellectual property rights of our scientists. Any intention to curtail academic freedom, however, will only put the nation’s future in peril.
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