An Indonesian doctoral candidate at Delft University of Technology, Dwi Hartanto, has become the nation’s latest enfant terrible as his publicly-made claims of foreign academic honors and accolades proved to be fraudulent. His boast of being engaged in a research on a “sixth-generation” aerospace engine that will revolutionize the future of air travel has also been debunked. Dwi’s momentary fame and his subsequent fall from grace exemplifies the nation’s almost feudal obsession with titles and hero-making.
His story is reminiscent of Aniessa Hasibuan’s, another heroine-turned-villain of recent memory. When Aniessa premiered her hijab high-end fashion at the New York Fashion Week last year ─ though some observers were convinced she had evidently paid organizers for her slot─ she became an instant sensation and heroine for her service to both religion and country. Hardly a year had passed when she overnight became a pariah as her travel agent, First Travel, had been found to have embezzled thousands of lesser-haj pilgrim hopefuls’ funds.
In the wake of the scandal, Indonesian Forbes was forced to withdraw Aniessa’s place in its list of 2017 Inspiring Women. Likewise, Dwi’s award from the Indonesian Embassy in The Hague last August has now been revoked as the verity of his false claims was confirmed. What lingers now is his short-lived title bestowed upon him by the Indonesian media as the “Next Habibie,” referring to Indonesia’s third president who was a distinguished aerospace engineer.
Given Dwi’s impressive, though false, list of accomplishments, it was inevitable that a title like the “Next Habibie” would eventuate. As a nation we are inordinately fond of giving titles to our notables; although in many cases the recipients proved to be unworthy of the pedestal we put them on, and the titles often inapt.
We readily bestowed upon our first president Sukarno the title of “Father of the Proclamation [of independence]” even when there was incontrovertible evidence that he had been hesitant in declaring Indonesia’s independence before being “kidnapped” by revolutionary youth leaders and cajoled into doing so. On our second president we granted the title of “Father of Development” though in real terms he built very little in the way of infrastructure ─except for the business empire his family and cronies built for themselves.
We also tend to see academic studies, and ultimately the titles they bestow, as an end to social and professional advancement rather than a means of acquiring knowledge. Laksana Tri Handoko, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) deputy head of Science Technology, recently said that research productivity in the country is low. According to him, although statistically the number of “researchers” in Indonesia is high, an average of 1,071 people in every one million citizens, their output in research papers and patents is low at 0.02 percent.
The high number of “researchers” in the country means that more and more Indonesians are doing post-graduate and perhaps post-doctoral studies and yet the low number of patents and academic theses suggests that it is not the pursuit of knowledge that these students are after. So the question is why are they doing it? The answer, unfortunately, is academic titles.
Academic titles are often prerequisites for work promotion, especially within the civil service and they confer social distinction. The snobbery factor here is real enough as there is strong evidence that Indonesians flaunt their academic honors in the way, for example, a pompous Briton would his or her knighthood. In the same way a knighthood would guarantee the best of tables at high-end London restaurants, academic titles for Indonesians ─ especially when impressively arrayed for maximum impact─ inspire awe and respect, an attitude perhaps dating back to the early days of the republic when only a handful had completed tertiary education.
The sure proof of this grandstanding with academic titles lies in the way Indonesians like to include all their academic titles on their wedding invitations. While the correlation between one’s academic achievements and events like a wedding remains elusive, many of us seem to believe that their exclusion sets propriety at naught, and may even expose us to the possibility of being suspected of having no titles at all.
It is therefore a pity that there is no established tradition of writing obituaries in the country. If there were, it would be the perfect opportunity to find out if a person has indeed acquired more academic titles since he or she got married. A quick consultation with the wedding invitation of the deceased would of course be necessary.
For the largely feudal citizens of a republic like Indonesia, academic titles are a democratic way of bettering one’s social status and prospects. As long as one can pay the tuition fees ─ or buy the titles if need be ─ there is really no limit to what heights to which one can climb. Unlike the title of hajji, academic titles transcend religious divide. The somewhat twisted system certainly beats the way the British Stuart monarchs sold baronetcies and peerages to all any aspiring greasy-pole-climber who could afford them.
Dwi Hartanto’s act of fraud is without any doubt inexcusable, particularly because he is a scientist. Yet, born and bred in a culture that sees academic titles as social-betterment engines, he definitely knew how to impress his compatriots, even in falsehood. For a time his gambit paid off. The fact that it did, and that even Indonesian embassy officials were duped offers us further proof that we have indeed become a people inclined to believing what we would like to be true but utterly disinclined to researching the truth.