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University strengthens ties with Indonesia

The climate crisis, the return of TB and the digitisation of cultural heritage. The Netherlands and Indonesia face many of the same challenges. A visit by a delegation from Leiden University to Indonesia at the end of June highlighted the benefits of cooperation.

The numbers are impressive enough on paper alone: with a population of over 260 m, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world. It also has the largest Muslim population in the world, 700 languages and an enormous range of animals and plants. But it’s a visit the country that makes one truly appreciate just how diverse the country is and how urgent some problems really are. In Jakarta, for instance, with a population of around 17 m, the biggest metropolis in South East Asia. Here rising sea levels cause regular flooding, and the explosive urbanisation is beginning to take its toll. The delegation saw with their own eyes the congested roads and the smog that envelopes the city.

The delegation at KemenRistekDitkti, the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education.

Cooperation is essential

The Netherlands is also experiencing the effects of climate change and urbanisation. With both countries facing the same challenges, intensive cooperation is essential. Both sides agreed on this. The Leiden delegation included researchers from various faculties because the research in Indonesia is very diverse: from endangered languages and cultures, Islam and circular economy to biodiversity and medicine. The delegation, which was led by Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker, visited three Indonesian universities, two ministries and several institutes with the aim of intensifying the collaboration. One outcome of the visit was an agreement that Stolker signed that will enable a number of Indonesian PhD candidates to come to Leiden.

KITLV-Jakarta, whose 50th anniversary was the reason for the visit, has helped make cooperation with Indonesian partners possible. This institute has been part of Leiden University since 2014. It encourages contact between the University and its Indonesian partners, and gives Indonesians information on studying and doing a PhD in Leiden. Its director, Marrik Bellen, and his staff were on top form as they showed the delegation around Jakarta and Yogyakarta.

Infectious diseases

Some partnerships have been around for decades and are being further expanded. The LUMC has been working with the Faculty of Medicine at Universitas Indonesia for 30 years already, in the area of infectious diseases, for instance. Dr Taniawati Supali is the motor behind the sustained collaboration. Maria Yazdanbakhsh, Head of the Department of Parasitology at the LUMC, does field research in Indonesia. Yazdanbakhsh researches how parasites change the human immune system. Indonesian historians and anthropologists are working on this field research because they have the best knowledge of local cultures and circumstances. Melani Budiamta from Universitas Indonesia said, ‘We map local communities and collect information such as their changing lifestyle and disease history.’

Herman Spaink (second from left) with his Indonesian partners from the 'Twin Lab.'

TB makes a comeback

TB is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, especially now some bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. It claims lots of lives in Asian countries such as Indonesia, but could also become a big problem in Europe. ‘It’s a time bomb,’ says Herman Spaink, Professor of Cell Biology. His research group works with Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogjakarta. Spaink and Stolker opened a zebrafish lab here, the first in Indonesia. This ‘Twin Lab’ is an essential addition to the lab in Leiden.

Medicinal plants

Diseases such as TB develop in a similar way in zebrafish as in humans. What is more, the larvae (which are studied until they are five days old) are transparent, which makes them ideal for research and means that test animals such as mice are not needed. Spaink listed the advantages of cooperation: ‘Many medicinal plants that we need grow in Indonesia and are difficult to import. Furthermore, the high temperatures here are ideal for this kind of lab research.’ His research group has already developed promising antibiotics that are undergoing further testing.

Major shifts within society

Historian Henk Schulte Nordholt, Head of Research at KITLV in Leiden, has also been working for decades with colleagues at Universitas Gadjah Mada. He spoke about major changes in Indonesia – such as democratisation and the emergence of the middle class. For a long time, the research focused predominantly on Indonesian topics and researchers did this within their own particular discipline. However, Schulte Nordholt believes that worldwide concerns such as global warming now require a transdisciplinary approach. The KITLV wants to create an international consortium with researchers from Indonesia and Leiden from diverse disciplines such as anthropology, law, medicine and history.

Marian Klamer doing field research.

Keep speaking Papuan

Marian Klamer, the only Professor of Austronesian and Papuan Languages in the world, does field research in mainly remote islands. Many of the roughly 700 languages are threatened with extinction because parents only teach their children Indonesian. ‘This means they also lose some of their old traditions and history,’ said Klamer during her lecture at Universitas Indonesia. ‘Many Indonesians think it’s better for their children to speak just one language, but having two native languages is actually really good for the development of the brain.’

Islamic fundamentalism on the rise

In his lecture at Universitas Sunan Kalijaga (Yogyakarta), Professor Nico Kaptein looked at knowledge transfer within Islam. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, was always considered to be moderate, but in recent years Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise. Indonesian clerics often travel to the Middle East for their training and bring this knowledge back home with them. Kaptein, Professor of Islam in South East Asia, researches topics such as what happens to fatwas – religious advice – from Mecca on their arrival in Indonesia. 

Urban transitions

Some Leiden-Indonesian partnerships and projects are at an early stage and still need some form of funding. The interdisciplinary Urban Transitions project, for instance, is researching transitions such as environmental problems, diseases of prosperity, the emergence of smart cities and socio-economic developments. Rizal Shidiq can help to forge links: this Indonesian researcher has a post at Leiden University and specialises in the political economy of Indonesia. 

Even in the suburbs of Jakarta, high-rises are never far away.

Green Islam

Several Urban Transitions researchers gave lectures and workshops, and held discussions with students. ‘Can Islam play a role in the fight against environmental pollution?’ one student asked at a symposium in Jakarta. Anthropologist Bart Barendregt said he believes it can, ‘Caring for the earth is also a rule within Islam.’ He spoke about the emergence of ‘green Islam’: more and more young Muslim leaders are starting to campaign for the environment. Indonesian activists use their mobile phones to monitor air pollution and help farmers measure their land with drones so that this can’t be expropriated for mining.

Throw away the throw-away society

There was also a lot of interest in the expertise of Arnold Tukker, Professor of Circular Economy. He is Director of the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), which administers the world’s largest database of raw material flow data, such as of coal and gas. The database also contains important data on the economy of over 40 of the largest countries in the world. This can be used to calculate how to make production flows more sustainable and local. ‘We have to say goodbye to the throw-away society,’ Tukker said to students in Yogyakarta.

At the seminar marking the 50th anniversary of KITLV-Jakarta there as an exhibition about the Asian Library at the University Library in Leiden.

Digitisation of the Indonesia collection

A symposium to mark the 50th anniversary of KITLV-Jakarta looked at the role of libraries in the digital era. The Asian Library of Leiden University Libraries has the largest Indonesia collection in the world. Digitisation is making a significant chunk of the ten kilometres of unique books, manuscripts, photos and maps available. Three million items from the Indonesian collection have already been digitised, and half of the digital users come from Indonesia. Kurt De Belder, University Librarian at Leiden University, spoke to the National Library in Indonesia about further cooperation and open access. The National Library wants to help fund the digitisation of the Leiden collection. De Belder gave workshops on data management and open science in various places.

Hamengku Buwono X looks at old photos of his palace with Carel Stolker and Kurt De Belder.

Sultan’s palace

The Sultan and Governor of Yogyakarta, Hamengku Buwono X, was also very interested in the Leiden collection. This contains early 20th century photos of the Kraton, the family palace. These photos helped restore this richly decorated palace to its former glory. The delegation was invited to tea with the Sultan, where they presented him with high-quality reproductions of the photos.

Internship at the Kraton

The Kraton collection, with its ancient manuscripts, is also valuable to Leiden because the collections complement each other. Agreements were reached on how to proceed further, and the Sultan’s nephew remarked, ‘Students from Leiden are welcome to come here for an internship.’ The Sultan’s father, Hamengku Buwono IX, studied in Leiden between 1936 and 1939. He returned home early when it looked as though war would break out. During a previous visit to Yogyakarta, in 2014, Stolker presented the Sultan with a symbolic certificate of his father’s studies in Leiden.

Members of the delegation together with the staff of KITLV-Jakarta, in the study of the Sultan of Yogyakarta.
Bunyan Wahid studied Islamic Studies in Leiden and met his wife there, with whom he now has a daughter.

Falling in love in Leiden

During the visit, the delegation also caught up with Indonesian Leiden University alumni. An enthusiastic group set up the ‘Ikali’ alumni network last year, and dozens of alumni came to the Dutch Embassy in Jakarta and a dinner in Yogjakarta. ‘What are your memories of Leiden?’ Stolker asked them.

The answers ranged from, ‘My old professor, godfather Henk [Schulte Nordhold, ed.],’ ‘the University Library collections’ and ‘Haarlemmerstraat’ to ‘I met my husband there!’

Several researchers from Leiden said it would be inspiring if Indonesian researchers were to focus on typically Dutch subjects. Some anthropologists from Universitas Indonesia are already doing so. Their students are researching the Dutch approach to euthanasia, for instance, or to urban planning. And there’s a new plan: one anthropologist wants to get her students to research how eel is smoked in the Netherlands. They can then see whether this method could help improve how the Papuans preserve fish.

Banner photo: Universitas Indonesia campus
Text: Linda van Putten
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The delegation also met the staff of Nuffic Neso, in the grounds of the Embassy, where the first edition of Indonesia-Netherlands Week will be held in June 2020. Students and prospective PhD candidates can follow a course in academic English and research skills at the Erasmus Training Center (also in the Embassy grounds) to prepare for a stay in the Netherlands.

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