Public intellectuals or policy architects?

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The majority of academics agree to bow down their heads and spoon feed the political machinery with their intellectuality, with some even joining the inner circles of power, observes Pierre Marthinus.

Notable critic Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand - Photo credit wisdomofsustainability.com

Benedict Anderson, one of the world’s best-known US intellectuals, recently lamented the lack of Indonesian academics courting public opinion and their failure in seriously challenging anything through social-political criticism (Bangkok Post, 28 June).

This seems to be the case not only in Indonesia, but throughout Southeast Asia, where notable critics, such as Sulak Sivaraksa in Thailand, Renato Constantino in the Philippines, and the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia are left without successors.

Anderson’s latest criticism of Indonesian academic intellectuals was spot on, deserves consideration and should not be taken lightly.

Culturally, we need to admit that most of Indonesia’s top public universities are still plagued by “old-school” traditions of state-owned bureaucracy. In contrast to most US private universities, our hidden curriculum is geared to produce problem solvers, not critical thinkers, and certainly not future activists.

With an abundance of problem solvers, it is understandable why Indonesian academics, most notably from Indonesia’s top universities, have obtained increased access to the political elite and mass media to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the US (Bangkok Post, 28 June). However, such “access” is consciously being paid for dearly by politically sacrificing their critical voices as public intellectuals, allowing them to convey only soft criticism and witty implicit remarks.

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Politically, unlike in the US, there is very little room for hostile criticism from public intellectuals.

Despite our democratic rhetoric, the number of Indonesian political prisoners detained for voicing dissent toward the governing elite is actually on the rise, while violence towards the media and their journalists continues unheeded. The Indonesian police’s over-reaction to investigative reports of corruption by Tempo magazine showcased the underlying sentiment towards criticism.

While exceptional public intellectuals may choose to lob harsh criticism, most academics are not too fond of the idea of writing from jail or being sent into exile, all the while receiving prestigious international awards for their work. The majority of academics agree to bow down their heads and spoon feed the political machinery with their intellectuality, with some even joining the inner circles of power.

Many Southeast Asian elites learned from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and China’s political experience that democracy is of peripheral importance and that high-impact, sound policy, which is often derived, if not leeched from intellectuals, is the core ingredient for regime survival. On the other hand, academics have spent the last decade building trust and cooperation with their government, political, and military counterparts, believing that it will ensure further political reform.

The murky waters of political reform have forced Indonesian academics to choose between becoming critical public intellectuals or obedient policy architects-cum-advisors, but very rarely both. Just like Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid, intellectuals choose to sacrifice their voices to gain influence.

Socially, not only the universities, but our timid society is also to blame for the lack of public intellectuals. It is no secret that foreign degrees in disciplines, such as business, accounting, finance, and management top the charts for being “politically safe”, which unfortunately again deprives Indonesia of much needed critical public intellectuals.

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Economically, as academic intellectuals are financially under rewarded, many crème de la crème Indonesian academics are falling prey to government policy projects, foreign foundations’ research interests and media moguls’ editorial interests. But let’s keep in mind that intellectuals are able to make an informed decision as to who they choose to team up with.

I reflected deeply as Anderson’s criticism knocked hard on my conscience. In the West, intellectual commentators are lion tamers armed with sturdy chairs and strong whips. But in Asia, gently blowing the harmless flute seems to be the preferred method in persuading a deadly poisonous snake to dance to the rhythm.

I am not endorsing the “we Asians do it differently from the West” mentality. However, Southeast Asian elites tend to display fangs and roar in anger at the very sound of the whip of criticism; a harsh reality that most US intellectuals and universities are not subjected to.

The role that Indonesian intellectuals play today is the result of their informed decision taken to become “norm entrepreneurs” in the inner circles of power. Viewing them as coy sheep tricked into servitude is certainly underestimating their intellectuality.

The writer is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, the University of Indonesia.

Source: The Jakarta Post, 15 July 2010

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