Should We Prioritize Certain Academic Disciplines?

Hariati Sinaga
6 min readJun 15, 2018


A Decolonial Feminist Response to Recent Decision of Indonesia’s LPDP

It’s recently reported that LPDP (Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education) Scholarship will give priority to applicants in the field of (hard) science and technology. Minister of Research, Technology and Education, Mohamad Nasir, stated that applicants from the field of social sciences have up until now dominated the applications. The news immediately gained responses, both welcoming and opposing. Those who oppose the move give a range of arguments, from the inconsistency to the recent national initiative against Islam fundamentalism to the increasing urgency of social sciences in a post-truth society. My contribution here is aimed at approaching the issue using decolonial feminist lens. I argue that the LPDP’s decision does not only hamper the process of decolonizing curriculum in Indonesia’s context, but is also contradictory to indigenous relational onto-epistemologies.

At the surface, giving priority to “hard” sciences seems to reinforce the deeply-embedded stereotype of skills in Indonesian, or Asian in a broader sense, families. When I was a child, my father told me to become a medical doctor. This is a hardly surprising and is a typical aspiration of parents, especially of working class family. Needless to say, I did not follow my father’s aspiration. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that such an aspiration reflects the high appreciation given by the society to certain professions and skills. Apart from medical doctors, engineers and accountants are the widely-sought professions. Probably accountant is the only highly-praised profession with a social science background. The high appreciation of these professions is most likely due to the higher probability to find a job in these professions, earn enough for living, and thus ensure family welfare. The fact that the majority of the Indonesians are still struggling economically shapes such stereotype. In my childhood, I barely heard any child aspired to be a farmer. This is not surprising since a farmer is perceived as a less-appreciated profession in Indonesian society, which is ironic since their professions are important in order to make sure there is food on our table.

In short, the context of the development in Indonesia shapes the stereotype of skills and professions in the society. In a more abstract level, we could see how this social construction is related to the postcolonial nation-building. Not only it is aimed at economically developing the country following the period of colonialization that impoverished the country, but it is simultaneously shaped by a Western-inspired aspiration to become a modern nation. This can be seen through the step taken by Indonesia to embark on industrialization.

Apart from the aspect of stereotype of professions in the society, aspect related to educational system in Indonesia is also worth noting. First of all, let’s face it, there is a lot home works to do when it comes to Indonesia’s educational system. Second, our formal educational system was grounded and constituted by direct influence of Dutch colonialism. Scholars in Postcolonialism and Coloniality/Modernity school of thought inform us that we could trace colonial influence in our (postcolonial nations) present knowledge productions. I mention this elsewhere how colonialism affects what we see as knowledge and how we see ourselves (i.e. onto-epistemologies). At the national level, this, in turn, leads to what I mentioned above, an aspiration to become a modern nation. What and how a modern nation looks like is dictated by Western idea of a modern nation. The colonial influence in our onto-epistemologies also partly explains how we perceive Western education, expertise and knowledge (Kwek 2003). This is, for instance, sustained by prestigious government scholarship programs to the universities in the West. We may remember how the enduring Suharto administration passed economic development policies designed by Indonesian economists educated in the US (also called the Berkeley Mafia). Another simple example on how we value more Western knowledge, is how we call as a science vis-à-vis indigenous knowledge. What we call as a science often refers to a Western notion of science, while indigenous knowledge is called “kearifan lokal”, or in English means local wisdom. Science, originally coming from a Latin word “scientia”, refers to a body of knowledge, how the knowledge is organized, and the process to gain the knowledge. In other words, science is a system that comprises onto-epistemologies. In Indonesian language, science means “ilmu”, a word originally from Arabic “ilm”, which literary means “to understand” or “to know”. When we look at our educational system, the sciences that people learn, the organization of our academic disciplines, it is obvious that our understanding and orientation of science is mainly informed by Western notion of science. Meanwhile, calling indigenous knowledge as “kearifan lokal” or local wisdom reduces the legitimacy of indigenous knowledge.

In order to come to this assertion, however, it is inevitable that we need radical intellectual thinkers. The need of radical intellectual thinkers shows the ever more urgency to support scholars in social science. It is argued that the slow and lack discussions of postcolonial discourses in the Netherlands is among others attributed to the lack of prominent intellectual figures (Bosma 2012). Unlike in the case of British and French colonialisms, postcolonial discourses in the context of Dutch colonialism largely takes place in literature field and literary works. This is not only the case in the Netherlands, but also in Indonesia. Decolonising knowledge means recognizing and equally appreciate multiple “realities” (i.e. ontologies) and, thus, multiple ways of doing science. This is started from decolonizing our curriculum, including more indigenous knowledge. Even when we embark into the intellectual endeavor of decolonizing knowledge, there is always a risk that we contribute and reinforce Western academic imperialism by disconnecting the indigenous knowledge from the contextual processes where it is constituted and institutionalize it through Western hegemony of doing science (Cusicanqui 2012). What actually happened in Indonesia, as well as in other postcolonial Southeast Asian nations, is that academic imperialism is perpetuated under the banner of political nationalist agenda. According to Kwek (2003), this has to do several factors, such as experiences in nation-building, public discourses on nationalism, and politics of the state, which have significantly influenced academia and its role in knowledge production. Although the state often states the intellectual independence of academia, academia is actually regulated and disciplined by the state, while being simultaneously reliant to the West.

In the process of decolonizing knowledge, we do not only need radical intellectual thinkers in doing science, but also those who challenge Western ontologies. One of decolonial feminist arguments rests on the disruption of indigenous ontologies caused by Western imperialism. Decolonial feminists argue that Western imperialism brought along modernist divides of nature-culture and rational-spiritual (Falcón2016). This is in contrast to indigenous knowledge, which is grounded in relational ontologies. Relational ontologies mean that there is no distinction between humanity and nature, between what is rational and what is spiritual. If we examine along the organization of academic disciplines, we could immediately notice the modernist divides in the division of academic disciplines between the field of humanities, which rely mainly on qualitative, analytical, critical and constructive approaches, and the field of nature sciences, which mainly rely on empirical and quantitative approaches. Now, if we support only the “hard” sciences, often belong to the nature sciences, this would only sharpen the divide. This obviously doesn’t help in our intellectual endeavor to decolonize knowledge. Further, not only the unity and totality between humanity and nature that serves as the objective of this endeavor, but also the realization that that relational ontologies also imply pluriversal worlds, or in other words, there are different understanding of different worlds (Costa 2016). Colonialism does not only bring along colonial binary, but also shapes gender binary. Categories of race, class, ethnic, and even gender have (more) meanings under Western imperialism and Western paradigm. In indigenous societies, these categories may have no meaning, or even the logic just doesn’t work that way. If we really want to disrupt the gender binary — as it becomes clear that it is an urgent intersectional feminists’ homework — it is important to rework the social and colonial constructs of gender. And this should start by reclaiming the unity of the academic disciplines.


Bosma, U. (2012) “Why is there no post-colonial debate in the Netherlands?”, in: U. Bosma (Ed.), Post-colonial Immigrants and Identity Formations in the Netherlands, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 193–212

Costa, C. L. (2016) “Gender and Equivocation: Notes on Decolonial Feminist Translation”, in: W. Harcourt (Ed.),The Palgrave Handbook of Gender and Development: Critical Engagements in Feminist Theory and Practice, England: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 48–61

Cusicanqui, S R. (2012) “Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: a reflection on the practices and discourses of decolonization”, in: The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 111, pp. 95–109

Falcón, S. M. (2016) “Transnational Feminism as a Paradigm for Decolonizing the Practice of Research: Identifying Feminist Principles Methodology Criteria for US-Based Scholars”, in: Frontiers, Vol. 37(1), pp. 174–194

Kwek, D. (2003) “We Took Them On, They Took Us Over: Academic Imperialism and Intellectual Bondage in Asia”, Presented at Critical Management Studies, Lancaster University