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Part 3

The role of scientists in Indonesian politics

Deep in thought. Berry Juliandi, the secretary general of Indonesian Young Academy of Sciences, is optimistic about his political struggle but he admits that Indonesian scientists are powerless in the political sphere. (Photo by: Melvinas Priananda for WCSJ 2019)

Shade from the centuries-old giant trees in Bogor covered the city main road. Under the canopy, Berry Juliandi, an optimistic biologist from Bogor Agricultural Institute, was driving his car to Jakarta. He was in a rush to go to the capital because he had an interview with a team of journalists at Tempo, an Indonesian magazine known for its stark criticism of the government. The recent debate between two vice-presidential candidates dissected strategies to boost Indonesian research and the magazine wantedto hear Juliandi’s views on the issue as the Secretary General of Indonesian Young Academy of Sciences.


Juliandi put his car headphone on to answer my call while driving. For safety reasons, I told him that I would prefer to call when he had already arrived in Jakarta. But he said he wouldn’t have time; the interview would start soon and once it was done, he would immediately drive back to Bogor for another meeting. “It seems talking-while-driving is the only way,” he said.


Juliandi has been a busy man since he decided to take on a role as scientist-activist. The general election was now only two weeks away and he was grateful that he could communicate his scientific expertise to the public. Compared with those living in Soeharto’s regime (Indonesian second president, 1965-1998), “today scientists have more freedom to speak up,” he said. But even so, they are still powerless in Indonesian politics, he admitted. His struggle to remove the criminal sanctions embedded in Indonesia’s science and technology draft law will likely be fruitless, since the Ministry of Research and Technology (RISTEK) insists on including them.


Despite their powerless position in the political arena, Juliandi thinks Indonesian scientists should be vocal in promoting science in the public sphere. Science, he says, can still actively influence the public to make a political decision. On March 1, Juliandi delivered a talk in a seminar regarding how fake news and hoaxes were processed in the human brain. Currently, hoaxes and fake news are creating a dirty political atmosphere in the country. One of the most popular is about Joko Widodo, the current incumbent president. The hoax says he is the child of a communist.


This plays on the feeling of terror evoked in the minds of many Indonesians when they hear the word “communism”. The fear stems from a bloody political upheaval back in 1965 when Soeharto, who was once a military general, accused the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) of being the mastermind behind the killing of seven military generals. The event was a stain on Soeharto’s authoritarian leadership in Indonesia. During his three-decades-long presidency (1965-1998), the second Indonesian president brainwashed the people into believing that the communist party was totally evil and sadistic.      


After Soeharto fell, historical records started to reveal the other side of the story. It was found that Soeharto himself was involved in the killing of the seven generals and he was responsible for the mass murder of two million alleged communists in Java, Bali, and Sumatra in the early days of his presidency. Some historians also proved that Soeharto’s anti-communist propaganda had removed virtually one entire generation of intellectuals in Indonesia. At least 299 lecturers and 3464 university students were lost, jailed, or killed, and many Indonesian scientists who were studying in Moscow, Prague, and Stockholm became stateless because they refused to condemn the earlier regime.


Indonesian academics in Prague, Czech Republic (1968). (Photo by: Vice Indonesia)

Today, the situation is very much different. Juliandi, like many other Indonesian scientists today, can freely express his ideas to the public. In his talk “The Science Behind Hoaxes” which was delivered in National Library in Jakarta, Juliandi explained that scientific literacy has nothing to do with a person’s susceptibility to hoaxes. Instead, this tendency is ruled by our emotions, especially fear. The fear of communism, which was nurtured during Soeharto’s three decades of propaganda, compounds the hoaxes against Joko Widodo. “When information threatens your belief, your amygdala will quickly respond and it will not be processed to the cortex,” he says.


Juliandi’s explanation of hoaxes was widely covered by many outlets, with someeven going viral. Juliandi is been one of very few Indonesian scientists who has become popular in the media. Perhaps this was the reason why Tempo, invited him to their office that morning. We finally talked over the phone while Juliandi was driving his car to Tempo’s office. It was a short talk about the progress of the criminal sanction articles in Indonesia’s science and technology draft law. No significant development had occurred and what Juliandi could do was to influence the politicians in the parliament, the bureaucrats in the ministry of research, and the journalists.


In March 14, Juliandi came back to the Academy’s office at the National Library in Jakarta. This time he got a chance to deliver his arguments against the criminal sanctions for foreign scientists. An articulate scientist, Juliandi confidently took to the seminar stage and declared that all articles in the draft law must be removed. “This is very discouraging policy,” he said.

Source: Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI)

Juliandi argued that the core problem of Indonesian governance is a high level of “distrust”. “So the government thinks everything must be fenced and protected by criminal sanctions,” he said. Even before the introduction of this proposal, the government had shown its distrust in the form of a complicated research procedure. Juliandi could still remember when he had had to accompany his Japanese collaborator to report his arrival to police headquarters in Jakarta. “It was a complicated procedure,” he says


In her blog, Tabitha Kidwell, an American linguist who  had done research in Indonesia, said “the amount of paperwork that needs to be completed to live and do research in Indonesia approaches the absurd”. Before she did her research, she had had to visit dozens of government offices to secure permits. “I have a bunch of letters of recommendation and residency and permission, but I’m not exactly sure what they are all for,” she wrote.


Dozens of permit documents are needed by a foreign scientist to do research in Indonesia. (Photo by: Tabitha Kidwell)

The tangled research permit procedure is what makes some scientists fail to secure permits, says Juliandi. Last month, some researchers from Poland were deported from West Kalimantan because they were doing research without the correct visa. Instead of securing permit from RISTEK, the researchers had used tourists visa to enter Indonesia. While Juliandi agrees that these researchers violated the law, he thinks the government needs to find more welcoming rules which empower research collaboration. “The criminal sanctions must be removed and Indonesia should centralize research permit procedure under one roof,” he says.


Juliandi talked about the needs to remove the criminal sanctions in front of the members of Academy of Sciences, RISTEK bureaucrats, and the media. (Photo by: Berry Juliandi, personal documentation)

But Muhamad Dimyati, the Director General of Research and Development in RISTEK, told me the criminal sanctions will still be included in the draft law even though the sanctions may be weakened. “We are revising the criminal sanctions articles and we will involve an ethics commission to decide whether or not any international research violates our law,” he says.  After the general election this month, Dimyati will bring the revised draft law to the House of Representatives to be approved by the parliament and signed by Joko Widodo, the incumbent president, by this September.


I informed Juliandi of this update and texted, “Maybe Indonesian scientists are powerless. No matter how much struggle they make, the decision makers are government and politicians. The criminal sanctions will stay in the new rules”. It took him a while to respond to my text: “Well, maybe you are right, but at least we have spoken up and we have records for that. Someday, when somebody asks the role of Indonesian scientists in Indonesian policies, we can proudly say that we have tried very hard, but the government didn’t listen to us,” he says.


Juliandi, along with the majority of Indonesian scientists, is a civil servant who cannot nominate himself as legislative candidate. Thus, they will never be able to make decisions in the policy making arena. But for him, this doesn’t mean a surrender. “We need more vocal scientists to advocate evidence-based policy.  We really need to struggle harder than before,” he says.

Dyna Rochmyaningsih

The journalist


Dyna Rochmyaningsih is a freelance science journalist from Indonesia who has written for various international science publications such as Nature and She is a member of the Society of Indonesian Science Journalists and is an alumna of Science Journalism Cooperation (SjCOOP) Asia, organised by the World Federation of Science Journalists. Dyna received her science degree from the Department of Biology, Bogor Agricultural University near Jakarta. Her work covers a wide range of topics such as health, climate change, science policy, and the intersection between science and religion.

Berry Juliandi

The scientist


Berry Juliandi is a member of Indonesia’s Young Academy of Science (ALMI) and a researcher in the Department of Biology at Bogor Agricultural University. Juliandi is also Head of the Veterinary Stem Cells Laboratory at the University, as well as Chief Editor for the Journal HAYATI Bioscience (Elsevier). He has done research in the field of neuroscience, stem cells, and animal morphometrics. Juliandi has also been active in promoting scientific culture in the public sphere.

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