Don’t mention ‘Blue Energy’: Indonesian president meets US science envoy

Sometimes it’s just surreal. When it goes beyond annoying and infuriating and becomes so damn weird it’s funny, and you come face-to-face with the idea that certain people, including some very powerful people, may not occupy the same reality that you do, and that the world you know might just be a figment of your imagination.

I’m sure Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono lives in an alternative reality, one where dreams and facts blur into one miasmic vision of the world, and where truth and fiction are almost the same thing. Whether it’s better or worse than the reality most people share is hard to say, because it’s very difficult to gain even the faintest insight into the head of “SBY”.

I was confronted by this queasy feeling of disconnected reality last week when SBY met US science envoy Bruce Alberts. Dr. Alberts is a biochemist, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, professor emeritus in the biochemistry department at the University of California, San Francisco, twice president of the National Academy of Sciences and has co-chaired the InterAcademy Council, an advisory institution governed by the presidents of 15 international science academies. Despite the batik shirt he chose for his meeting with SBY, he’s a very serious dude.

SBY is an ex-general with a doctorate in agricultural science and a penchant for writing sickening ballads about  love and patriotism. Doctor Yudhoyono’s scientific credentials are best illustrated by the “Blue Energy” hoax, in which he was famously fooled into throwing the Indonesian government’s support behind a product that was supposed to turn water into fuel.

Djoko Suprapto demonstrates 'Blue Energy'

Indeed, Yudhoyono was so impressed with the mysterious new fuel source he named it “Blue Energy“. He met the “inventor”, East Java villager Djoko Suprapto, who claimed to be able to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water to create fuel.  Yudhoyono set up a “Blue Energy” research centre which he visited several times, and reportedly allocated more than a million dollars to the project. He even set up a “Blue Energy” exhibit for the edification of international delegates attending the UN climate change conference in Bali in December, 2007.

It took far too long, but eventually the ruse was exposed by genuine scientists in Indonesia. For a start, they noted that Djoko had published nothing in peer-reviewed journals about his miracle new fuel source. The inventor subsequently disappeared, reappeared in hospital, and then launched a campaign to clear his name culminating in a bizarre public demonstration of his “fuel” which he now claimed was a mix of 70 percent water and 30 percent diesel.

But the game was already up. Muhammadiyah University had already declared his “invention” a hoax and lodged a complaint with the police seeking the return of about $135,000 it had spent on research.

Unlike the university’s rector, who resigned over the scandal, Yudhoyono simply pretended nothing had happened. Amazingly, he went on to win a second term last July and his role in the “Blue Energy” fiasco wasn’t mentioned once by anyone concerned with his fitness to govern.

So that’s the background you won’t read on the US State Department website about Yudhoyono’s meeting with Dr. Alberts. You also won’t read about the appalling state of Indonesia’s education system, where cheating is rife and professorships are routinely bought and sold, or the disaster that is the country’s hospital system. You also won’t read that Yudhoyono sat back and did nothing while an innocent woman was jailed and harassed in the courts for daring to complain to her friends about being wrongly diagnosed by a private hospital. In fact, he presided over the passing of the libel law that was used to prosecute her.

You also won’t read about how Yudhoyono’s Indonesia closed the United States Naval Medical Research Unit-2 for alleged non-scientific activities including espionage. The NAMRU centre was staffed largely by Indonesian scientists and was doing research, among other things, into malaria and bird flu that could have benefited the world. Indonesia essentially accused it of plotting to steal samples of viruses it claimed proprietary rights over, for the purpose of enriching US pharmaceutical companies.

What you do read on the US State Department website is how, during his meeting with Dr. Alberts, Yudhoyono “expressed his vision of Indonesia as an ‘innovation nation’ and how expanded science and technology cooperation can spur such innovation”. In SBY’s head, like a Slavador Dali painting, it appears that visions and dreams and reality are all the same thing.

To Dr. Alberts’s credit, he steered clear of publicly endorsing such drivel. Instead he expressed far more modest ambitions for America’s scientific exchanges with Indonesia, starting with some Science 101 which the good Dr. Yudhoyono should carefully note. People in countries like Indonesia need to learn how to use evidence to determine courses of action, he said. This simple scientific principle is “important for democracy”, he said, because it helped to ensure citizens were “not fooled by politicians”.

(Photos of Alberts and Yudhoyono courtesy of US Embassy, Djoko via Java Pos, and Dali courtesy of Raul Villalon via flickr)

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