Monday, November 14, 2011

On Why There Are Few Indonesians in Indonesian Studies

"Sekarang ini 90 persen publikasi dalam jurnal akademis tentang Indonesia ditulis bukan oleh orang yang tinggal di Indonesia. Hal ini, menurut Indonesianis Anthony Reid, menjadikan Indonesia negara yang paling tidak efektif menceritakan dirinya sendiri kepada dunia. Satu ironi yang perlu diubah." (Tempo, 14-20 November 2011)

This week's Tempo was exceptional for me. The magazine mapped out foreign scholars studying Indonesia - from Kahin, Anderson, Crouch, Hill and monumental works in Indonesian studies. I share the position Tempo's taken in elaborating the phenomenon that has been going on for decades (which, unfortunately, will not change in the near future). Ariel Heryanto's article in the same magazine elaborates very articulately, as he always does, the main problems in why there is a void of Indonesians in Indonesian studies. It has been his concern for a while.

I started off as an academic with naive optimism that agency could work. That if I strategise smart enough and be persistent enough, it could work. I am beginning to realise that this is not the case. It is practically structurally impossible for Indonesian scholars based in Indonesia to be academically productive. The rule in UI, for instance, is for teaching lecturers to be in charge of 2 to 6 classes per semester. Because of a lack of competent lecturers (why would an international graduate become a state official if they could get a job at a Multinational Corporation? That was sarcasm, in case it wasn't clear enough), some of the same lecturers who teach 6 classes also hold a structural position in which they would have to manage a programme with hundreds of students.

How on earth could someone, with a 9 to 5 managerial job, prepare materials for class - let alone read and write for a national and international journal? Let alone travel to other parts of Indonesia and/or the world to present papers? To even conduct proper research.

These seemingly casuistic events are systemic. All over the country, state academics face these problems. Syllabuses don't change from year to year, the same materials are used to teach students who are better off reading Wikipedia.

It's also ideologically impossible. Some of the most intelligent Indonesian social scientists I know have openly claimed that being solely an academic, writing and researching for a living, is not enough. "You need to be part of the struggle," one said, "There are too many issues to fight for, I don't want to spend my time writing and leaving no real impact." So some of the best thinkers join activism.

Again, I do share the sentiment of being part of grassroot changes - but when it comes to 'menceritakan dirinya kepada dunia', it is clearly ineffective. Ideas are not recorded into writing and are thus untraceable historically. There are lots of scattered media articles written by Indonesian intellectuals but very few are compiled into a book that can be cited as the basis of national policy making - let alone as part of an international narrative. I'm not being a local orientalist when I say this, because I'd also like to emphasise on a lack of an Indonesian perspective in international policy making. Bilateral and multilateral agreements as well as global non-profit strategies related to Indonesia are based on US, Western European and Australian researches.

I admire foreign scholars and Indonesianists, heck my supervisor is David Hill. I also find people from other nationalities very genuine in their writing and consistent when choosing anthropological approaches. But emerging Indonesians are not Indonesian (and I mean that in the least xenophobic way possible). There needs to be a degree of subjectivity in story telling to deliver authenticity. The experiencing of everyday Indonesian and local (ethnic) culture to acknowledge real problems worth writing about.

It is not about where we were born, but where we are predominantly based - and it influences the way we write and the topics we choose.

If the state and those in positions to determine changes on a macro and meso level do not support scholars based in Indonesia - either we will eventually move to a place where we can afford to write or people who come from other nationalities will write for us. Local and national researches will continue to be scarce and our theories and frameworks will continue to be Western. Sadly, I think Reid's and Heryanto's concerns are true and seemingly unchangeable for a while.

But I cannot (yet) let go of that naive optimism that somehow, with persistent agency, something's bound to work.