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Into the future? The rise of President Jokowi and the expectations about reforming the research sector in Indonesia


Indonesia’s 7th President, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, was inaugurated just two weeks ago. Last weekend he presented his new cabinet, which includes eight women in the post—the highest representation of women in the cabinet so far in Indonesia’s history.  This is a time of fast change. There is a positive mood and many expectations.

I watched some of the the images broadcasted live on TvOne of the inauguration ceremony in a small seaside restaurant in Bantaeng, South Sulawesi. I thought that it was a pity not to be in Jakarta and joining the party. The image that is the most vivid in my mind is of President Jokowi with rolled up sleeves running around the stage set at MONAS in Central Jakarta in front of thousands of cheering citizens as if a famous footballer or rock star.

There is no doubt, President Jokowi is popular and a ‘people’s leader. At just 53, he also represents a break from the political past of Indonesia. From furniture exporting in Solo, Central Java to Governor of Jakarta following a campaign in which he managed to bridge the gap that separates the elites from the rest of Indonesia. He is the first president who does not belong to the political dynasties and who has no links to the Suharto era. Expectations are very high and his to do list is very long. Half of the population (ca. 110ml people) still lives on less than 2 USD per day, the rate of growth is still high but declining at 5,8% in 2013 (the lowest in five years), fuel subsidies eat 20% of the national budget and leave little left to improve health services and basic education, and there is a risk that Indonesia can fall back to be a low income country by 2020 if structural reforms do not take place.

So, facing these challenges, will Jokowi’s presidency be also able to influence and change the way research is utilised as a strategic tool for designing and managing public policy and programmes that will shape Indonesia’s social development and transform its knowledge economy and knowledge sector?

I think we can be optimistic. After all, one of the contributing factors to the political rise of President Jokowi has been the ability to demonstrate results and performance of his administration and, at the same time, communicate the results in a way that is understandable by citizen and civil society.

President Jokowi has also shown that when it comes to design and implement of policies and programmes while he is ultimately accountable and in charge, he is willing to listen to experts, people’s opinions and civil society groups. At one point in August, a post on the Facebook page of President Jokowi asked citizen to give preferences on a shortlist of four candidates for each of the 34 ministries of the Indonesian cabinet. He tasked a Transition Team to translate campaign pledges into policies and programmes. Two out of the five members of the team are academicians. The team had to gather inputs and feedbacks from civil society and consult with government ministries.

In terms of knowledge sector, the Nawacita—the nine point programmes that summarises of Jokowi’s vision for Indoensia – includes a pledge to increase funding for research and technology development which at 0,18% of GDP in 2014 puts Indonesia well behind South Africa, Singapore, India, and Malaysia.

The first steps move in a promising direction. President Jokowi has taken the responsibility for higher education out of the Ministry of Education and transferred it to the Ministry of Research and Technology. The new minister for Research and Technology and Higher Education, Minister M. Nasir, is the rector of a known academic institution, Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java. The chairman of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Lukman Hakim, asked President Jokowi last October to increase funding for research to at least 1 percent of GDP. Jokowi did not give out figures but said: ‘I guarantee there will be more funding’.

Increasing the financial resources for research and development is necessary to realize a modern knowledge sector that can contribute to the development of a knowledge economy, but it may not be sufficient.

Budget allocations need to be supported by legislative reforms that will allow, for example, ministries and local governments to procure research, studies and analysis directly from from University centers, NGOs and think tanks and not only through individual experts and consultants. Government agencies, both at national and sub-national level, could be given the space (and budget) to procure analysis that, for example, will assess the quality of the data they receive from the official providers such as of the National Statistic Agency (Badan Pusat Statistik). In other words, open up spaces for critical thinking, and knowledge sharing, and evaluations.

There are risks of course. The popularity of President Jokowi may not reflect the political capital he has at his disposal to push through structural changes, including changes in the way research and knowledge are used in the policy process. The margin that separated President Jokowi from his election rival, former general Prabowo Subianto, has been smaller than expected (just 6 percent).

Petrarca C. Karetji in his overview of the Indonesian knowledge sector argues that Indonesia is emerging from a recent past (i.e. the Suharto era) of low accountability, top-down decision making, where critical thinking and independent knowledge were seen as a threat. The present is defined by ongoing decentralisation, and accountability to the centre and a relative suspicious attitude towards independent knowledge. The future will be characterised by democratic decentralisation, leadership based on demonstrated performance and results, where critical thinking and ideas are actively sought and supported.

The next few years will tell if with President Jokowi and his cabinet we have entered the third stage and find ourselves already into the future.

1 Comment so far

  1. Ajoy Datta

    Thanks Arnaldo, interesting post – I think Jokowi’s challenge is not just about utilising research as a strategic tool for designing and managing public policy and programmes. I think its also about how he can ensure that more voices are integrated into policy, ensure that policy processes become a real platform for dealing with contestation and conflict, and not just a instrumental process to design a regulatory document, that different stakeholders support government policy (especially at the local level) and have more trust in government structures. Research production and use is clearly part of all this, but on its own will do little to bring about equitable progress for the masses in Indonesia.

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