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Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

Chapter 5

Contending Perspectives in the Australian Academy

A View from Indonesia

Bob S. Hadiwinata

This chapter discusses the changing dynamics of Australian scholarly debates on Indonesia as seen from the Indonesian academy. Following on from Aspinall in this volume, it argues that different perspectives in the debate reflect the dynamics of Australian political scientists. While the older generations carried out their debates within what David Goldsworthy termed an Australian intellectual tradition of being impartial, non-partisan, politically detached, and avoiding prescriptive stances on contested public issues (Goldsworthy 1990, 39), the younger generation of Australian political scientists engage in debates that move beyond the tradition set by their predecessors. They became involved in political debates to the extent that they accuse one another. On the issues concerning Papua, for example, while the pro-Papuan camp accused their counterparts of being insensitive to Papuans’ sufferings, mute towards Indonesian military atrocities, and clearly pro-Jakarta; the pro-Indonesia camp, on the other hand, accused their opponents of being overzealous, ethnic chauvinists, and imbued with expansionist phobia. This generation represents what Goldsworthy called in the 1980s the new generation who showed an increasing detachment from the Australian intellectual tradition.

Australian scholars, particularly those with history, anthropology and political science backgrounds, offer different perspectives in their understanding of political situations in Indonesia. The discussions on Indonesia were initially confined to a group of so-called Indonesianists (scholars who show great interest in developing Indonesian studies in Australia). Recently discussions on Indonesia have also included those who have no specific formal training and qualification of Indonesian studies. Kalidjernih has argued that Indonesia’s political dynamics post-Suharto, has seen an increased engagement in discussion about Indonesia, especially on issues such as separatist struggles and human rights violations in areas such as Aceh and Papua, by Australian scholars trained in international relations, government, politics, and strategic and defence studies, but with no specialisation on Indonesia (Kalidjernih 2008, 87).

The contribution of this new group of scholars has significantly changed the perspectives of the debates. While Indonesianists have focused on truth finding, empirical testing of theories, and being non-partisan and maintaining some degree of sensitivity not to offend the Indonesian government despite their critical views on Indonesia, some scholars in this new group (with no formal training on Indonesian studies) tend to understand Indonesia in different ways. In critiquing the analysis of this group of scholars – whom he calls pro-independence romanticists – Ed Aspinall argues that their analysis on Indonesia (Papua in particular) has been imbued with ethno-nationalist mythology, expansionist phobia, denying Indonesia’s capacity to run a pluralistic society and demonisation of Indonesia (Aspinall 2006b, 141).

In order to be more focused, this chapter is limited to discussion of the exchange of views on Indonesia between scholars from within the disciplines of political science and history. To illustrate the changing perspectives on the way in which Australian scholars view Indonesia it will discuss two intensive exchanges – one among Indonesianists on the failure of parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, and another on the contemporary Papua issue between non-Indonesia specialist political scientists and Indonesianists. This is by no means a comparative study; rather it will try to show how changes in Australian political science in the past few decades have affected the ways in which particular political issues are viewed in Indonesia.

The discussion will be divided into three parts. The first part will look at different generations of Australian political scientists who subscribe to different perspectives. The second part will discuss different views on the failure of parliamentary democracy in Indonesia during the 1950s of Australian Indonesianists such as Herb Feith, John Legge and Jamie Mackie and some other Indonesianists. The third part will examine how the Papua issue is debated by political scientists with no formal training on Indonesian studies: Peter King and Clinton Fernandes on one side, and those with an Indonesian studies background represented by Edward Aspinall and Rodd McGibbon on the other.

Perspectives of Australian political scientists

Like other branches of social science, politics has experienced significant changes in terms of perspectives and methods. In the United States, Gabriel Almond (1990, 13) argued that the political science profession encompasses various schools and sects, each with its own conception of proper political science, but each protecting some ‘secret island’ of vulnerability.

Almond tried to make distinctions between different schools and sects in American political science along methodological and ideological lines. He divided political science into four separate schools or sects: (1) the ‘soft left’, who are critical of the value-free and objectivity proposed by the positivists. Associated with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, this group maintains that positivists fail to comprehend that the process of knowing cannot be severed from historical struggle between humans and the world. For this group, knowledge should be freed from simplification and reductionism, and historical materialism should be adopted in order to appreciate the relationship between theory and ‘praxis’; (2) the ‘hard right’, who regard historical, descriptive and unsophisticated analysis as the inferior breeds of political science. They instead propose the use of experimentation and mathematical models in capturing human reality; (3) the ‘soft right’, who believe that value-free and ethically neutral political science is absurd. Associated with American sociologist, Leo Strauss, this group proposes that ethics, morality and norms should be taken into account in understanding human reality; and (4) the ‘hard left’, who have faith in class analysis but at the same put emphasis on the necessity of hypothesis testing and empirical verification in generating knowledge. The work of Christopher Chase-Dunn in quantifying the world system approach is an exemplary of this group (Almond 1990).

In Australia, ideological cleavages in political science appear to be less salient. David Goldsworthy argued that, amid the growing number of political science department or schools throughout the country during the 1960s and 1970s, Australian academics began to think strategically about exploring their various strengths and tactically about ways of improving their positions in performance tables in order to boost publication rates and external funding (Goldsworthy 1990, 28). This allowed new schools and perspectives to swell.

Portraying Australian political scientists in different generations, Goldsworthy posited that while the recruits of the 1960s and early 1970s were shaped by the mainstream style of Australian political science which is individualist, analytical and generally non-prescriptive in character, generations who came to the fore one or two decades later – many of whom were consultants to politicians, policy advisers to government and non-government agencies, and public educators through various television, radio and newspaper commentaries – try to detach themselves from the mainstream by producing policy-prescriptive, highly subjective, partisan, and morally bound essays and commentaries (Goldsworthy 1990, 39). It should be noted, however, that not all Australian political scientists of older generations are absolutely value-free. As their analysis has to some extent been influenced by their ideological purports, including liberalism, socialism and Marxism, as reflected in debates between Herb Feith (1965) and Harry Benda (1964) on the failure of Indonesia’s parliamentary democracy of the 1950s in the 1980s, which will be discussed later in this chapter. But, it can be said that different ideological orientations seemed to be outshone by their methodological argumentations that made the academic debates flow and cleverly avoided mutual accusations.

This is not to suggest that subjectivity, partisan, moral enclosure and policy prescription are necessarily bad; rather, it indicates that scholars (whose main duties, among others, are finding truth and getting better understanding of complex reality of human life) may be deceived by a political agenda that could disrupt their understanding of the social phenomena they are studying. Goldsworthy argued that there has always been a risk that the pursuit of ‘policy relevance’ and preconceived values in political science exercises, if taken too far, may undermine an understanding of the complexity of the social world as the main countenance of the discipline (1990, 40).

Hugh Emy and Andrew Linklater (1990) depicted the trends in Australian political science by using four broad categories of perspectives of Australian political scholars: (1) the ‘scientific empiricists’, who put emphasis on accumulating a body of reliable (empirically tested) propositions about political phenomena from which they can develop a systematic and empirical theory. To achieve this goal, they commit to a ‘scientific method’, the importance of empirical testing and verification, and to maintain categorical distinction between facts and values; (2) the ‘modified empiricists’, who believe that intellectual progress is measured by the ability to devise (empirical) theories which not only explain the causal relationship between key variables but also predict how such variables may behave in different circumstances. This group, however, no longer affirms the ideal of ‘value-free’ social science, as they believe that it is extraordinarily hard to exclude values from empirical testing. They also maintain that political research must have some degree of policy-relevant and problem-solving capacity; (3) the ‘normative post-positivists’, who stress the special significance of culture and identity in understanding socio-political phenomena. They believe that culture and identity could reveal the complexity of the cultural patterning that helps sustain social life. For this purpose they argue that political science requires the use of hermeneutic approaches designed to interpret, deduce and reconstruct the web of meanings embodied in a given context or event. For them, developing a more sophisticated understanding of the symbiotic link between humankind and culture can contribute to building more desirable institutions or societies; and (4) the ‘ethical-normative moralists’, who try to revive moral and ethical dimension in the study of politics. They are more interested in Socratic and classical questions such as: How should human beings seek to live? What is ‘just society’? And how it might be achieved? They strongly believe that politics is much more concerned with elucidating better or ideal forms of human association, rather than separating knowledge and reality as prescribed by the empiricists (Emy and Linklater 1990, 5–14).

Although these categories do not accommodate all Australian political scientists, as Emy and Linklater admitted (1990, 5), the four categories nevertheless portray the dynamic perspectives in Australian views of social and political phenomena in which departure from the tradition of ‘value-free’ objectivism, moral obtuseness and non-partisanship seems to be underway. On the general trend of Australian political science, Goldsworthy commented:

… it has to be said that Australian political science has so far maintained a fairly high degree of professional chastity in relation to divisive political issues. Nevertheless, a minor but honourable tradition of critical partisan engagement does exist within the ranks; and it deserves to be nurtured as we collectively find our way into the new world (1990, 26).

The rise of a new breed of political scientists can be linked with developments within political science itself as well as the changes in career progression of Australian political scholars. More attention on new humanitarian issues such as environmental issues, women’s issues, human rights, world poverty, global injustice, and so forth has prompted scholars to engage in more partisan, morally bound and policy-prescriptive exercises. With respect to career progression, new generations of Australian political scientists no longer confine themselves to teaching and academic research activities as they predecessors did. They instead serve many non-academic activities, such as becoming advisers to politicians or state officials, consultants to government agencies and non-government organisations (NGOs), and media commentators in their capacity as public educators.

A past debate: the failure of Indonesia’s parliamentary democracy of the 1950s

In the 1960s and 1970s, foreign scholars were enticed by the political dynamics of the post-colonial Indonesia, especially with regard to how revolutionary ideas were manifested in daily politics, how leaders set up the political framework in managing a highly pluralistic society, what kind of ideologies shape national politics, and how the newborn republic dealt with political institutions adopted from the West. Examples of influential scholarly works on Indonesia at that time include George Kahin’s Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (1958), Herb Feith’s The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia (1962), Ruth McVey’s The Rise of Indonesian Communism (1964), Daniel Lev’s Transition to guided Democracy: Indonesian Politics 1957–1959 (1964), R. William Liddle’s Ethnicity, Party, and National Integration: an Indonesian Case Study (1970) and Herb Feith and Lance Castles (eds) Indonesian Political Thinking 1945–1965 (1970).

Writing in the early 1980s, Benedict Anderson (1982) divided foreign scholars studying Indonesian post-colonial politics into two groups. The first group, which he termed ‘anti-colonial liberalism and historical method’ can be associated with scholars, particularly George Kahin, a professor at Cornell University, who used historical method with strong emphasis on the uniqueness and intrinsic dynamic of historical experience. Kahin’s Nationalism and Revolution contained detailed accounts on how colonialism had severe impacts on Indonesian society: population disequilibrium, indigenous elites co-opted into the bureaucracy, political repression, economic exploitation, and so on. The liberal-democratic nuance in Kahin’s analysis was the pronounced focus on constitutional politics and parliamentary institutions at work in the post-colonial Indonesia, at least in the 1950s. Kahin’s approach and method was subsequently followed by his students at Cornell such as Harry Benda, Daniel Lev, Ruth McVey, and some others (Anderson 1982, 72).

The second group, which Anderson termed ‘imperial-liberalism and comparative method’, refers to Indonesianists who were under strong influence of comparative analysis and theory developed in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, pioneered by scholars like Gabriel Almond, Lucian Pye, David Apter and Leonard Binder. This group was also influenced by ‘modernisation theory’. This approach argues that for post-colonial states to move away from their traditional ‘backward’ situation to a more ‘advanced’ and modern status they should replicate economic liberalism and Western-style democracy. Anderson cautiously associated this group with Herb Feith, particularly his publication The Decline of Constitutional Democracy (1962; Anderson 1982, 75). Other scholars in this group include Karl D. Jackson, R. William Liddle and Dwight King.

Another category may be added to Anderson’s groupings: that is, ‘cultural–ecological or hermeneutic method’, which can be associated with the works of American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz and his followers. In his seminal work The Religion of Java (1960), Geertz employed an ecological approach focusing on material interdependence of small organisms that subsequently shape the characteristics of a community. With this concept, Geertz was able to portray the internal dynamics of a community by looking at physical and psychological characters of its members. While criticising Western scholars, especially Bronislaw Manilowski, for encapsulating themselves with ‘scientific arrogance’ in analysing socio-cultural phenomena in non-Western societies, Geertz proposed the use of the hermeneutic method to understand a community by looking at meanings in local languages and in other linguistic symbols practised in that community (Geertz 1984, 132–36). Geertz’ path-breaking work enticed other Indonesianists, including Feith, who together with Lance Castles compiled political writings and commentaries written by Indonesians, which was published as a book titled Indonesian Political Thinking 1945–1965 in 1970.

Feith is a prominent Australian pundit who contributed much to the expansion of Indonesian studies in the country and beyond. In the early 1960s, he produced his first masterpiece on Indonesian politics titled The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia (1962). The book – originally a doctoral thesis at Cornell University – offered a comprehensive explanation on the failure of parliamentary democracy in Indonesia during the 1950s. Using data collected from extensive fieldwork and historiography on Indonesia, Feith tried to provide a comprehensive answer to the perplexing question: why did the parliamentary democracy established following the 1955 general election began to founder in the late 1950s?

Using his Indonesian language skills combined with good personal acquaintance with prominent figures in Indonesian politics during that period, Feith linked the collapse of parliamentary democracy with at least two factors. The first was related to disappointment about the post-independence regime, which generated pressures on the democratic institutions. Feith identified three types of unmet demands that led to popular dissatisfactions: (1) material expectations, in which the new government faced difficulties in increasing the national economy’s productivity and distribution due to the lack of infrastructure, population growth and weak bureaucracy; (2) demand for the escalation of social status in which many Indonesians pressed the government to provide more white-collar jobs; and (3) rapid social change which generated confusion among younger generations who were caught between their traditional orientations and modern values (1962, 598–99). These demands had substantially weakened the newly elected government.

Second, leadership conflicts, which involved what Feith termed ‘solidarity makers’ versus ‘administrators’. Solidarity makers, in Feith’s view, refer to politicians whose claim to political power lay in their ability to use symbolic rhetoric in their attempt to integrate the nation and mobilise supports. This type of leadership can be associated with Sukarno, political propagandists, local military leaders, ex-guerilla fighters, religious leaders and some militant Muslims. Administrators include those who retain their political positions due to their modern-type skills, education, and commitment to problem-solving. Because of their skills, this group contributed much in the diplomatic battles against the Japanese and the Dutch, which led to Indonesia’s independence. Leaders such as Mohammad Hatta, Mohammad Natsir, Sutan Sjahrir and Mohammad Roem are certainly representatives of the administrators. For Feith, it was the domination of the solidarity makers (at the expense of the administrators) within the cabinet and the parliament since 1950, which subsequently led to the collapse of the parliamentary democracy (1962, 111–14). During that critical period political leaders were interested in mobilising people to support national unity rather than maintaining democracy. Unable to face these challenges, the Indonesian government was facing serious problems which included a crisis of governance due to short-lived cabinet ministers, a series of rebellions, and ongoing political wrangles among elites, which made the elected government finally crumble.

Upon publication Feith’s book invited praise as well as criticism. Understandably, compliments came from Feith’s supervisor and mentor George Kahin, who wrote in his preface to the book:

In the course of four years work in Indonesia, Herb Feith gathered an impressive body of new data, which in itself constitutes an important contribution. The richness of his findings attests to his full fluency in the Indonesian language, his sensitive understanding of Indonesian culture, and the friendship and respect with which he has been regarded by Indonesians – qualities which made it possible for him to talk candidly to so many of them … I believe his study constitutes a good example of the maxim that a scholar best serves such friendship through frankness of exposition and objectivity of appraisal (Kahin 1962, viii).

Generations of scholars have expressed their admiration of Feith’s book. His biographer Jemma Purdey concludes that The Decline of Constitutional Democracy is considered a ‘magnum opus, a formidable and lasting analysis and narrative of the period of parliamentary democracy in Indonesia from 1950–1957’ (Purdey 2008, 71). The inclusion of this book in the reading lists of Indonesian studies courses around the world attest international recognition of Herb Feith’s scholarship.

Other scholars, however, evaluated Feith’s work in more critical ways. Most direct critics are two non-Australian scholars. While consciously expressing his admiration of the scholarship quality of Feith and his humane approach to the work, Benedict Anderson could not help to say that Feith had moved away from ‘anti-colonial liberalism and historical method’1 set up by his mentor at Cornell University by his affection to comparative method, which carries with it Western ethnocentrism. While criticising Feith for epitomising democratic liberalism by focusing on ‘the decline of constitutional democracy’ rather than on ‘the rise of radical autonomism’ in analysing Indonesian politics in the 1950s, Anderson maintained that Feith did not deliberately aim at discrediting Indonesian local dynamics. Thus, his emasculation of Indonesian nationalism was only an effect of his approach (Anderson 1982, 78).

Stronger critique came from Harry Benda, a New Zealander of Czech origin, who also studied Indonesian politics at Cornell. There are at least three points in Benda’s criticism (1964). First, he blamed Feith for looking at Indonesian politics through the Western lenses, which resulted in a value-laden analysis of Indonesia. He accused Feith of asking an irrelevant question: ‘What’s wrong with Indonesia?’, which for Benda attests to the naïve character of Western scholars of historical parallelism and of methodological Europocentrism. Second, Benda also attacked Feith’s categorisation of Indonesian elites – ‘solidarity makers’ and ‘administrators’ – for oversimplifying and overlooking cultural tensions, especially between Javanese and non-Javanese. He objected to Feith’s association of ‘administrators’ with problem-solvers. Third, Benda accused Feith’s analysis of being unhistoric for looking at post-war Indonesia primarily as a continuation of the country’s most recent history and largely ignoring what had happened before. This omission can lead to significant interpretational errors (Benda 1964, 449–456).

Some Australian scholars developed different views in interpreting political events in the 1950s that led to the collapse of parliamentary democracy. Avoiding direct attacks on Feith’s analysis, historian John Legge pointed to a number of factors as the major cause of the collapse of the democratic government. First, the rise of ‘extra-parliamentary’ political forces which included local military officers and political bosses resenting central government manifested in a series of insurgencies throughout the country. Second, the poor discipline of party functionaries – resulting from poor cadre development – which subsequently led to problems in decision-making and the long wrangles in the parliament, especially on controversial issues. Third, problems of unity within the military that weakened government control of the military, especially when local military commanders were preoccupied with regionalism and resentment against central commanders. Fourth, the growing political rivalry between civilian politicians and the military, as manifested in the aborted coup attempt in 1956 led by Colonel Zulkifli Lubis (Legge 1964, 140–44).

Writing much later, Jamie Mackie, an Australian political scientist, did not attack Feith’s analysis of Indonesia. He instead tried to defend Feith’s position by saying it was neither determinist nor reductionist (1994). With this point in mind, Jamie Mackie provided supplementary explanations of the political events in Indonesia during the 1950s that led to the collapse of the parliamentary democracy. He referred to several factors. First, strong resentment against liberal democracy among several political forces, especially within the army and President Sukarno himself, as they believed that liberal democracy was not suited to Indonesia’s national identity (kepribadian nasional). They made every attempt to weaken the parliament and opted for ‘guided democracy’. Second, a regime crisis that could be linked to the failure of the parliament, parties and cabinet to resolve the challenge from regional dissidents whose aim was to overthrow the government. Third, a combination of political, economic and geographical factors marked by high inflation rates, undervalued exchange rates, and economic takeover of Dutch companies operating in Indonesia. All these factors generated conflict between Java and the outer islands, and between Masyumi (the Islamic party) and other parties (Mackie 1994, 32–36).

The exchange of views on Indonesia during the 1970s and 1980s seems to reflect the dynamic views within Goldsworthy’s category of mainstream political science, where scholars debated for the sake of truth finding, objective analysis, and accuracy. It is clear in the discussions that those scholars debated on how certain methodology affected political research, how norms and values should be treated in political research, and how appropriate paradigm can ensure accuracy. None intentionally tried to suggest that Indonesia should follow a particular path of political development. In his defence of Herb Feith against Benda’s critique of oversimplification, Jamie Mackie, for example, argued that Feith ‘was just trying to single out what he saw as the most deeply rooted set of factors relevant to the explanation, even though he would have admitted that a multifactoral explanation had to be given’ (Mackie 1994, 29).

In their debates on the failure of liberal democracy experiment in Indonesia during the 1950s, unlike non-Australian scholars – especially Benedict Anderson and Harry Benda – who were somewhat disturbed by Feith’s defence of liberal democracy, Australian scholars were too careful in not questioning Feith’s ideological stand point. This seems to corroborate Goldworthy’s ‘political detachment’ of Australian scholars of the older generation. However, Feith himself could not conceal his ideological stance. Writing in the 1990s, he explained:

I first arrived in Indonesia in July 1951 and spent over four of the next six years there. I had wonderful time in those years and so I loved the Indonesia of the liberal period. Those feelings continue to shape my perceptions of that time, and so affect my preferences of the kind of country I would like Indonesia to become (Feith 1994, 17).

Compared with his 1960s strong denial of Benda’s accusation of his value-laden analysis on Indonesia, this indicates a shift in Feith’s ideological point of view (Feith 1982a, 23). Feith’s ideological stance appeared even more confusing given that since the 1970s, as his biographer Jemma Purdey has learned, Feith began to search for a new way to better understand Indonesia by engaging in radical theories of Third World, anti-establishment and peace paradigms. This change somewhat disturbed Feith’s reputation, as many fellow Indonesianists felt they could no longer count on him for objective insight and knowledge (Purdey 2008, 72).

A contemporary debate: Papua

West Papua has drawn interest from Australian scholars for some time. A small number of them conducted studies on various aspects of West Papua. Peter Worsley (1968), for example, studied revolutionary struggles of West Papuan people against Dutch colonialism. Ross Garnaut and Chris Manning (1974) studied economic transformation in West Papua. Robin Osborne (1985) wrote about the guerilla struggle in West Papua. In the post-Suharto era, Australian scholars’ focus on Papua grew significantly amid the revival of Papua nationalism, growing separatist sentiments among West Papuan people, the central government’s plan to split the province into three, the enactment of autonomy law, and continuing human rights violations by Indonesian security apparatus. The new interest on Papua attracts not only those with training on Indonesian studies, but also political scientists and international relations specialists in general.

The debate is much more heated and goes beyond the Australian academic tradition of political detachment and impartiality. Freddy Kalidjernih (2008) categorised Australian scholarly works on Papua into two clusters. While I have a semantic problem with Kalidjernih’s categories, I agree with his differentiation between the pro-Papua and the pro-Indonesia elements in recent Australian scholarly works on Papua.

The first group is what he terms ‘skeptical reformists’ whose views on Papua signal a strong anti-Indonesian sentiment with blatant support for West Papua’s independence. Scholars including Peter King (professor at Sydney University) and Clinton Fernandes (senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales) belong to this group. In his book-length account of the situation in West Papua, Peter King (2004) argues that Papuan people are distinctively different from other Indonesians in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion. He went on to argue that the growing nationalism among Papuans, problematic integration with Indonesia, violence against West Papuans committed by Indonesian military, economic marginalisation, and genocide justify the West Papuan appeal for independence. In his view, Papua’s partition from Indonesia is the only solution to the problem. He also calls on the Australian government to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy in the region with emphasis on ‘peaceful self-determination’ for Papua by pressuring the Indonesian government to negotiate with the independence movement in Papua. In a similar vein, Clinton Fernandes (2006) argues that West Papuans’ struggle for independence is a rational choice. He believes the Indonesian government has intentionally developed racial discrimination and antagonism towards the Papuans. Strongly opposing continuous military repression in West Papua, he indicates that human rights abuses in West Papua take place in various areas of society, including the health sector (high indication of HIV-positive among Papuans), education (low rates of educated Papuans), population (the growing number of non-Papuan settlers), economy (economic dominance of non-Papuan settlers), and with regard to the environment (environmental degradation and deforestation).

The second group, which Kalidjernih calls ‘affirmative revisionists’, includes those who view Indonesia in a more positive way, although they express concern about ongoing human rights violation and economic backwardness in West Papua. Understandably, they maintain that West Papua’s independence is not the best option; they instead believe that full autonomy is the most plausible solution for West Papua. Scholars including Edward Aspinall (fellow at the Australian National University) and Rodd McGibbon (researcher at Office of National Assessments) are members of this group (Kalidjernih 2008, 77–78).

This group – who have Indonesian studies training – have expressed views critical of their fellow observers. Edward Aspinall (2006a) argues that the Australian public, especially activists of the left and the Christian social justice lobby, tend to treat the West Papua issue on the basis of unexamined fears and prejudices towards Indonesia. Consequently, their views on human rights abuses and other wrongdoings in Indonesia tend to be biased, as they narrowly focus on West Papua and fail to show interest on human rights issues elsewhere in Indonesia. Aspinall euphemistically rejects the idea of self-determination as the solution for West Papua. He argues that romanticising self-determination is inappropriate given that independence could cause considerable suffering and disenfranchisement for West Papuans, already facing rampant corruption and embezzlement committed by West Papuan local officials (Aspinall 2006a, 122–23). Moreover, he argues, it seems somewhat awkward for Australians to excoriate Indonesia’s unwillingness to allow self-determination, while Australia’s own constitution calls the Australian federation indissoluble. Aspinall is critical of King and Fernandes for arguing that Papuans should be independent simply because they are so ethnically and racially different from other Indonesians. This view, he argues, emanates from their underestimation of Indonesia’s capacity to run a pluralist society; and Papua is just one of hundreds of separate language and cultural groups in Indonesia. In his reply to Peter King’s criticisms on his position, Aspinall (2006b) refutes the accusation of genocide on West Papuans by Indonesian security apparatus, criticising King for treating all abuses in Papua as ipso facto evidence of genocide. In his view, King’s conclusion is framed by his preconceived belief that Papuans and Indonesians are distinct and incompatible groups (2006b, 140).

Aspinall’s critique of the pro-Papuan scholars is shared by another Indonesianist, Rodd McGibbon (2006) who challenges his ‘pro-Papuan’ colleagues by arguing that their determination to contest Indonesia’s sovereignty over Papua tends to create more problems rather than moving towards a solution (2006, vii). McGibbon posits that the analysis and policy prescriptions made by the pro-Papuan camp face three basic errors. First, an exaggerated sense of Australia’s foreign policy influence. For McGibbon, King seems to be over-confident on Australia’s foreign policy influence in the region, as he suggests the Australian government should serve as a sub-regional hegemon and develop ‘its own initiative’ within the framework of ‘Australian peace-making role’. Such a role, McGibbon argues, will raise the perception among Indonesian nationalists of Australia’s intervention. This can potentially disrupt Australia–Indonesia bilateral relations, which may lead to a serious conflict.

Second, McGibbon argues that these arguments demonstrate the lack of a serious appreciation of the rise of new forces that drive contemporary Indonesian politics. Indonesia’s fledgling democracy has created potential openings for new initiative on Papua, including the drafting of a special autonomy law that grants Papua full autonomy. Despite its troubled implementation, in McGibbon’s view, this law remains the most promising framework for resolving the conflict and ensuring the peaceful integration of Papua into Indonesia.

Third, while acknowledging continual rights abuse and economic marginalisation of the Papuans, like Aspinall, McGibbon casts doubt that ethnic and cultural distinction is enough to justify Australian support for West Papuan independence. He recommends the Australian government engage more vigorously in the public debate in Australia on Papua through promoting of greater knowledge about West Papua and countering inaccurate information, building a better understanding of the importance of Indonesia to Australian security interests, and educating the public on Indonesia’s new democracy (2006, viii–xiv).

In his response to critiques from the pro-Indonesia camp, Peter King restates his argument that West Papua’s partition from Indonesia is justified, given that Papuans, as Melanesian Christians, are essentially different from Indonesians (2008, 5). Elsewhere he reiterates his accusation of genocide committed by Indonesian government (King 2006). He identifies several factors as indications for genocide: transmigration of hundreds of thousands of settlers from Java, Sulawesi and elsewhere, which caused Papuans’ marginalisation; an HIV/AIDS epidemic related to TNI’s prostitution rackets; recurring large-scale killings committed by security agents; and aggressively promoted family planning (King 2006, 132–33). King restates his call for Australia’s intervention on the basis that it is as a sub-regional hegemon and should protect West Papuans as it did the East Timorese in 1999. He argues that Australia’s triumph in an arm wrestle with TNI and the Jakarta elite over East Timor should be considered a precedent for such policy on Papua (King 2006, 135). Agitated by his pro-Indonesian fellows, King launches an attack on those he labels as belonging to the ‘Jakarta lobby’ (see Aspinall, this volume). For him, in their attempt to appease Indonesia, those people – whom he sometimes refers to as the hegemonic coterie of Australian National University Indonesianists – are guilty, as they have for many years borne the burden of covering up, or apologising for the Jakartaled oppression of the Papuans (King 2008, 1).

King’s association with pro-Papuan activists, which include the AWPA (Australia West Papua Association), networks within various Christian denominations, Green and Australian Democrat parliamentarians, a small number of academics and journalists may explain his biased and partisan analysis on the Papua issue.

This seems to corroborate Goldsworthy’s argument that many Australian political scholars have moved beyond their traditional academic role. The call for new duties to consult politicians, provide policy advice to various agencies and serve as public educators has, Goldsworthy argues, driven some Australian political scientists to engage in partisan public activism (1990, 41). The involvement of scholar-activists – such as Peter King and some others clearly turns the discussions into endless political debates that may jeopardise the reputation of Australian academia embodying political neutrality, balanced view, political detachment, and objective analysis. Exchanges between Aspinall and King put them in mutual accusations: while Aspinall labels King as ethnic enthusiast (2006b), King regards Aspinall as and Indonesia lobbyist insensitive to West Papuans’ sufferings (2006).

Debates on the Papua issue clearly shifted Australian political science away from its tradition. According to Goldsworthy:

Australian political science has a strong tradition of seeking to avoid overtly prescriptive stances on contested public issues. Typically it aims to elucidate and expound ‘all sides’ of a problem to its various public rather than espouse controversial views’ (1990, 39).

Peter King’s continuous insistence of Papuan independence and McGibbon’s defence of Papua integration to Indonesia clearly indicate such a shift.


This chapter discusses the changing perspectives of Australian political science where demands for more policy-relevant studies, critical theory’s suggestion of science serving human interests, and activists’ claim of ‘indigenous rights’ have entered political debates. No longer avoiding sensitive public issues, political scholars – many of them serving as advisers and consultants to politicians and various government and non-government agencies – engage in more heated political debates avoided by their predecessors.

This new trend has changed substantially the characteristics of Australian political science scholarship on Indonesia. If debates on the failure of parliamentary democracy of the 1950s pitted what Benedict Anderson (1982) terms ‘anti-colonial liberalism and historical method’ against ‘liberal-imperialism and comparative’ approaches; recent debates on Papua reflect the opposition between what Emy and Linklater (1990) call ‘normative post-positivists’ and the overzealous version of ‘ethical-normative moralists’ perspectives discussed earlier.

Debates on Papua remind us of the potential contamination within academic discussions, of ethnic and religious zealotry. Writing in the context of American academic freedom, Neil Hamilton argues that academic freedom has been assaulted repeatedly by waves of zealotry, which includes religious fundamentalism, unfettered capitalism, leftist radicalism, stringent anti-communism, and so forth. On many occasions defence of academic freedom has fallen short (Hamilton 1995, 4). Edward Aspinall’s fear of the influence of ethnic and religious zealotry brought by his pro-Papuan fellows in analysing the Papua issue indicates his concern for the tendency of some Australian academics to cross the line by suggesting the ultimate solution for Papua. He therefore feels it is necessary to remind his fellow Australians not to engage in problem-solving exercises, especially on sensitive issue such as Papua. In his reply to Peter King, he posits:

While I do not have a view on whether in the long run Papua should or should not remain part of Indonesia (who are we to say?), I do indeed believe that the most desirable long-term outcome would be for Indonesia to become a country in which democratic values and social equality prevail (such that groups like the Papuans do not feel they need to secede) … (Aspinall 2006b, 141).

What practical impact did those two debates make? Debates on the collapse of Indonesian democracy articulated in Western academies in the 1960s had no practical impact given that those scholars made no clear message on Indonesia’s political directions. For the next four decades or so, Indonesia endured non-democratic governments under Sukarno’s ‘guided democracy’ from 1959 to 1965 and followed by Suharto’s authoritarianism from 1966 to 1998. On the other hand, I would argue that debates on Papua have potential practical impact. Indonesia has a lot to learn from those scholars who, despite their differences, agree on the need for Indonesian government to end the ongoing human rights violations and provide better living conditions for West Papuans. Debates on the Papua issue also affect Australia–Indonesia bilateral relations. In his article, Kalidjernih concludes that the writings and commentaries of pro-Papuan scholars – whom he labelled ‘skeptical reformists’ – tend to jeopardise Australia–Indonesia relations (Kalidjernih 2008, 89). In February 2003, Indonesia derailed RMIT’s bid to host an international conference on Papua. RMIT’s Globalism Institute had planned to host a two-day conference on the future of Papua. A few days before its commencement, the university’s management – pressured by Indonesian government – intervened. It contributed some funding, but it did not want the conference carry the university’s imprimatur (Faroque, 2003). As a result, the conference was held at a location outside the university campus, and in May 2006 the Indonesian government blacklisted two Australian academics on the basis that they had been promoting separatism in West Papua. The academic arguments aside, the consequences for such activities as handed out by the Indonesian government would already appear to be clear.


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1  Feith termed this type of analysis as ‘Kahinian’ school of Indonesia specialists. See Feith 1965 305–312.

Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

   by Jemma Purdey