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Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

Chapter 6

Finding a Middle Way

The Future of Indonesian Studies in the Western Academy

Heather Sutherland

When I was in my second year at the Australian National University, in 1961, I was the only student entering the Indonesian and Malay branch of the new Oriental studies faculty.1 The courses I followed were based on traditional European colonial approaches. While the aim was not to train officials for overseas service – as had been the case in Leiden, one of the models for the curriculum (Fasseur 1983) – government funding was nonetheless intended to create a cadre of useful specialists knowledgeable about Australia’s Asian neighbours. This was deemed to require a geographically focused and exotic education, combining languages and a knowledge of Oriental cultures with a straightforward view of their history, framed in accounts of states and dynasties, colonialism and nationalism. Looking back, this program seems to have been both sophisticated and naïve. There was a serious effort to understand societies ‘in their own terms’, but without questioning how these were framed, or the epistemological and political context that shaped their ‘knowing’. Some decades later, shifts in global and national politics in the priorities of academic institutions and in intellectual fashion would all combine to challenge the assumptions sustaining this approach.2 This chapter seeks to outline some points concerning the relationship between area studies and the disciplines, to sketch recent Dutch experience, and, finally, to consider several recurring fundamental problems in the intellectual and institutional organisation of Indonesian (and area) studies.

Area studies

If the content of the initial ANU program (and most of the staff) were of European origin, the area studies model, as it evolved in the post-war United States, soon became a powerful influence, introducing – but effectively after my time – more attention to anthropological and political studies. As in Australia, concern about the stability of ‘developing nations’ was a priority, but, as befits a world power, in the US the new centres were politically justified by their potential contribution to America’s global competition with the USSR for the allegiance of post-colonial regimes. Some of the staff of the new centres had laid the basis for their careers during the Second World War, when military language programs and deployments had created opportunities for contact with other cultures. Despite this background and the strategic context, the scholars themselves did not necessarily share their governments’ Cold War perspective.

Intellectual traditions often combined uneasily with politicians’ plans.3 European colonial training curriculums were strongly shaped by philology (rooted ultimately in biblical hermeneutics), but were also intended to produce young men capable of administering tens of thousands of natives. In a similar paradoxical fashion, Cold Warriors sought tactical insights through anthropology and history as much as, if not more than, political science as such. These combinations had their own liabilities: if the former led to an emphasis on classical cultures and ‘pure’ traditions (on correct grammar rather than on spoken language, with all that that implies),4 the latter could drift towards cultural determinism. Both dimensions in these somewhat strange interactions of scholarly fashions and pragmatic social functions were subject to change.

Decolonisation also encouraged an emerging generation of imperial historians to reframe their research, while the Cold War funding boom of the 1950s gave them new opportunities. US Government money was channelled through the National Defense Education and National Defense Foreign Languages Acts, while the Ford and Carnegie Foundations strongly supported interdisciplinary efforts in area studies. The Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies helped shape the intellectual agendas of the new university centres; the resulting research and teaching were expressed and organised in new journals and associations (Manning 2003).5 For Indonesianists Cornell emerged as the main point of reference. There the Modern Indonesia Project (established in 1956) sought to create a basic body of knowledge through translations of essential material. Cornell’s role was confirmed by path-breaking (if not hegemonic (Cribb 2005)) monographs produced by George Kahin, Ruth McVey and Benedict Anderson, as well as the sense of community created by their journal Indonesia, first published in April 1966. Harry Benda at Yale also played a prominent role, both because of his personal charisma (enhanced by his passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam) and his success in bridging European and American intellectual traditions.

The major contributions of area studies scholars resulted from their tight focus on specific societies; they usually drew on an extensive personal experience of their field, examining it through the analytic lenses of several disciplines. The typical package of skills included knowledge of at least one local language and a familiarity with the relevant historical, anthropological and political literature. New combinations of methodologies also became standard; archive and field work, life histories and oral traditions all became familiar tools. But if the permeability of disciplinary boundaries had always been one of the most dynamic assets of area studies, geographical borders seemed much harder to breach. This reflected both the heavy investment in region-specific language skills and knowledge by researchers, and also the institutionalisation of territoriality in university departments and academic infrastructure.

The tendency simply to accept established geopolitical boundaries and to see regional events in isolation is identified by Patrick Manning as a central weakness in the area studies tradition (Manning 2003, 155; 170). There has been considerable recent interest in this theme of demarcation, for example the collections Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects (Sears et al. 2007) and Locating Southeast Asia (Kratoska et al. 2005; Sutherland 2003), but movement has been slow. Manning (himself a historian of Africa) emphasises that area studies tended to allow regional solidarity to develop into a restrictive emphasis on parochialism and exceptionalism. He explains: ‘Parochialism in that Africanists know about Africa but not other regions, and in that Africanists who know their own corner of Africa tend to assume it is representative of the continent’ (Manning 2003, 155). But exceptionalism is even more pernicious, notes Manning, ‘particularly when an area of study finds itself on the defensive’, as in the case of post-Cold War Russian studies (Manning 2003, 155). Then specialists often try to justify their work (and funding) by claiming that their area is unique, rather than run the risk of weakening their case by opening a debate with other scholars. It is as if the area experts feared that engaging with academics from the disciplines as a whole might suggest that that impressive (and expensively acquired) local knowledge was not actually essential, and that even those without the languages and interdisciplinary background were nonetheless qualified to express an opinion.

This limitation in intellectual reach is all the more surprising, given the pronounced international character of the area studies experts themselves. It is completely usual for a Southeast Asian studies conference to bring together scholars from Europe, Australia, Japan, the US, and the region itself. As Manning (2003) observes, this transnational and interdisciplinary openness of area studies was central to the comparative and methodological advances that have proved to be their greatest contributions. Moreover, some grand themes did cross the boundaries between regions, uniting Africanists, Latin Americanists and Southeast Asianists. An early example is the criticism of teleological notions of modernisation, while more recently, emphasis on such topics as diaspora, creolisation or the role of specific crops or commodities have encouraged a wider focus.

From the late 1980s onward, interest in area studies declined. This can partly be ascribed to the reduced interest in nation states and cultural difference which attended the ‘ending of history’ (Fukuyama 1992) with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The subsequent obsession with ‘globalisation’ fuelled the notion that the serious study of regional societies was irrelevant, perhaps self-indulgent, or, even worse, ‘politically correct’. Later, the ‘War on Terror’, concerns about immigration and the rediscovery of national identities generated new attention and funding in the first decade of the twenty-first century. But this was very unevenly distributed: Southeast Asia and non-Muslim Africa were marginalised. In 2004, the US Social Science Research Council (SSRC), which had always been a major sponsor of area research, identified three important challenges facing such studies. The first was a trend affecting all: ‘the emphasis on global processes and de-emphasis of local contextual and linguistic knowledge’, but the second reflected the major shift in US priorities after 9/11. This was ‘the public challenge … which has increased the workload of some of these centres in terms of student demand and public outreach’ – a problem that many of their colleagues would gladly embrace. The third issue reflected the recognition that some regions of interest, such as Central Asia, were traditionally fragmented between various institutions. In 2004, the SSRC initiated a project on ‘the production of knowledge on world regions’, which is intended to assess the situation of Middle Eastern, South Asian and Eurasian studies in the USA.6

Southeast Asianists were early beneficiaries of geopolitical interests, given the region’s central role in the struggle between the ‘Free World’ and the ‘Soviet Bloc’ in the 1960s and 70s. As potential dominos, doomed to become communist if Vietnam was lost, countries such as Indonesia benefited from official attention. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, however, a collective political hangover weakened official enthusiasm for Southeast Asian studies in the United States, although local circumstances in the Netherlands and Australia helped maintain attention to Indonesia. In the former case this was because of the interest generated by the renewal of bilateral contacts after the investment-oriented Suharto replaced the old anti-colonial Sukarno, while in the latter it reflected the pro-Asia policies of the Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke (1983–1991) and Paul Keating (1991–1996). However, a combination of financial retrenchment and a certain disenchantment blunted this concern. While political factors, such as the end of the Cold War and the rise of global rather than national perspectives (Cummings 1997; Kassimir 1997) did weaken the appeal of area studies, another potent cause was the shifts in intellectual perspectives after the 1960s, notably the rise of the various ‘posts’ – post-modernism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism – and the related role of cultural studies.

The area experts’ strength was their knowledge of how things worked in a highly specific setting. Their holistic integration of insights was grounded in a direct knowledge of local languages and life, so they felt that could speak of why the Japanese or the Javanese did things the way they did. Many felt a strong personal identification with their subjects and felt both able and obliged to represent them to the West. After Said’s Orientalism (1978) this pretension began to seem ambitious at best, and suspect at worst. Later, as post-modernism and cultural studies emphasised the contingency and subjectivity of knowledge, and post-colonial critiques (such as those of the Subaltern Studies Group (Chaturvedi 2000; Chakrabarty 2002; Ludden 2002)) underlined the necessity of ‘provincialising Europe’ and deconstructing the mechanisms of intellectual colonisation, Western expertise lost its self-evident legitimacy (Sutherland 2007). Increasingly, it seemed, assumptions of ‘knowing’ became precarious, particularly when applied to post-colonial societies. Some regional fields (like Pacific studies (Tobin 1994; Campbell 1997; Matsuda 2006)) soon became embroiled in these debates while others, like Southeast Asia, remained relatively insulated. A relatively lonely voice, Ariel Heryanto refers to the ‘deep anxiety over profound political and ethical questions about the perennial discrepancies of power relationships between the scholars and those they study’, adding, however:

Thanks to post-structuralist thoughts we can see better than before that Southeast Asian Studies, or any area studies for that matter, cannot possibly represent or incorporate the authentic voices of those they study. Neither can Southeast Asian studies possibly establish authentic or autonomous scholarships on their own societies (Heryanto 1996).

In any case, the established certainties of the traditional area studies specialist seemed somewhat out of step with the major arguments in the disciplines. Although today there are still an impressive number of Southeast Asian Studies centres,7 closer inspection would reveal considerable variety in actual strength. Some are small coalitions of dispersed specialists, while others are superficially impressive lists of scholars, many of whom have only a marginal interest in the region.

Within academe as a whole, increasing numbers of theoretically inclined scholars began to share the interdisciplinary interests which had once been uniquely strong in region-focused programs. The linguistic and historical ‘turns’ were driven by an awareness that insights and models from different methodologies could transform the way specialists understood their own disciplines (Bonnell and Hunt 1999; Suny 2002). On the whole, historians recoiled from the more rigorous conceptualisations of language, texts and symbols as applied by Foucault, Derrida, Hayden White or Clifford Geertz, but over time such views did filter through and shape general intellectual predispositions. Eventually, many could express sympathy with aspirations such as those expressed by William Sewell or Joan Scott. The former, for example, commented ‘although we obviously cannot hope to experience what nineteenth century workers experienced … we can, with a little ingenuity, search out in the surviving records the symbolic forms through which they experienced their world’ (in Iggers 2005, 129). The latter explained, ‘My argument is not that reality is “merely” a text, but rather that reality can only be attained through language. So social and political structures aren’t denied, but … they must be studied through their linguistic articulation’ (in Iggers 2005, 132). But sympathising with an aspiration does not necessarily entail trying to realise it in personal practice or even accepting the validity of the results. In general, historians, unlike anthropologists, linguists, political scientists, archaeologists – or indeed most professional intellectuals – seem very averse to theory. Indeed, Terrence McDonald, in his introduction to The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences (1996) argued that a rejection of theory is central to the character and separation of the disciplines:

Having been born in history the social sciences would increasingly attempt to distinguish themselves from it by emphasizing theory and method in the years after the 1930s. But this separation was a two way street. Historians in the 1950s turned to the social sciences … constructing their theoretically subordinate role vis-à-vis social science so as not to have their enterprise destabilised … by the responsibility of producing ‘theory’. At the same time, by maintaining an image of history as merely a source of ‘facts’ … social scientists protected themselves from the potentially corrosive effects of historical self-consciousness (1996, 8).

McDonald suggests that practitioners in both disciplines reinforced their claims to separate identities and institutions by staking claims to either ‘facts’ or ‘theories’, with each being somewhat dismissive of the intellectual legitimacy of the other. Historians emphasised the painstaking modesty of their work, contrasting their exhaustive perusal of archives with the casual illustrative story-plucking of historically inclined social scientists. Anthropologists and sociologists deplored the failure of historians to generate comparative or general models, and their reluctance to rise above the level of the detailed, specific case study. According to McDonald, proponents of the ‘historic turn’ sought to become ‘historically self-conscious analysts reconstructing fully contextualised historical actors and representing them in a theoretically sophisticated narrative that takes account of multiple causes and effects’ (McDonald 1996, 10). But he also recognises the ambivalence even among committed scholars as to how far and fast such goals can be achieved, noting Margaret Somers’ (1996) emphasis on the different ‘knowledge culture’ within each discipline (McDonald 1996, 11).

The relationship between area studies and the historians working within the discipline shows some parallels with the mutually wary attitudes of old-school historians and social scientists. Like historians, traditional area studies scholars had a defined comfort zone (in their case, the region) and preferred to remain within it.8 Those (few) historians of Europe with an interest in culturally different societies were inclined either to view them as rather passive objects of Western activities, or to see them as essentially exotic. When either specialist did venture forth onto new terrain, they sometimes burnt their fingers. As Manning comments, although such undertakings could lead to more sophisticated work, ‘[a]t other times, the links to other disciplines caused historians simply to become more audacious, and willing to speculate in areas beyond political history without training themselves in those fields’ (2003, 153). Here he is referring specifically to amateur excursions into economic history, but many an area specialist would justifiably retort that facile generalisations about non-Europeans by unqualified commentators are much more frequent.

Since the formation of the first region-focused programs, there had been a recurring debate about the relationship between area studies, with their multidisciplinary focus on a specific place, and the established disciplines as defined by methodology and institutionalised into secure departments. The concern has always been to seek the best way of organising education and research. The choice has typically been seen as being between creating small bridging units connecting specialists located within traditional departments, such as history or political science, or establishing wholly new centres or faculties focusing on, for example, African, Asian or Latin American studies. Neither option seemed to guarantee survival in hard times, when the entrenched and ‘natural’ subjects, such as the study of the home nation, or of Europe or America, always managed to drain funding away from those seen as a mere exotic fringe.

While the academic and political shifts of the 1960s and 1980s did produce some faltering in intellectual self-confidence and a decrease in political willingness to pay for strategic knowledge, they only became truly threatening to the survival of programs when university funding came under pressure and was more tightly linked to enrolments. Sometimes this coincided with declining student interest. This negative trend was far from universal. While some regions have enjoyed continued or growing interest, such as China, others, including Indonesia, have experienced difficulties, even in those countries that once seemed so naturally committed to its study, such as the Netherlands and Australia.

Indonesian studies in the Netherlands

In 1778 intellectually inclined Dutchmen in Batavia brought the first colonial scientific body into being, the Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences (Bataviaasch Genootschap voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen).9 Further institutes were created in the mid-nineteenth century Netherlands: the still vital KITLV10 (now the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) in 1851 and the Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen or KIT (Royal Tropical Institute), the forerunner of which dates from 1864.11 The collections and libraries of the KITLV and KIT became internationally recognised resources, and although the latter has increasingly specialised in the broader field of development studies, both remain essential sources of books, maps, photographs and documents. Numerous other specialist organisations were also established, ranging from the technical to the religious; all left their paper legacies. The Netherlands’ National Archives and other documentation centres, such as those of the NIOD, IISG (or IISH) and the missions,12 and many museums13 have also contributed to a scholarly infrastructure that remains indispensable to research on Indonesia. Unfortunately Dutch governments are increasingly reluctant to fund these institutions, and in late 2011 both the KITLV and the KIT faced such rigorous cuts in their subsidies that their very survival is doubtful.14 Some of these bodies were founded because of a commitment to scholarship; others were based in practical needs. The combination formed the basis of the Netherlands tradition in Indonesian studies.

The origins of the teaching of Indonesian languages, ethnography and law at university level were pragmatic, driven by the need for more professionally qualified colonial officials (Fasseur 1983). Their training was initially given in a two-year and intermittently three-year practical course in Delft from 1843 and, after 1864, in Leiden. The latter gained full university status in 1921. However, some colonial politicians and businessmen found the staff unacceptably progressive, and in 1925 a new ‘Indology’ course was established in Utrecht, nicknamed the ‘oil and sugar faculty’. A number of academics played an important policy role, such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje15 and C. van Vollenhoven,16 while others are remembered as the founders of specific school or approaches, examples being J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong17 and C. C. Berg. After the war, the Indonesian revolution and decolonisation ended the possibilities of a career in the Indies, and the pool of talent began to shrink. The collapse of the Sukarno regime (1965) reopened the country’s doors to Dutch scholarship, and attempts were made to revive the old intellectual traditions (and funding) by referring to the glories of the past. But the raison d’etre for that past had vanished, and the final decades of the twentieth century were characterised by a faltering sense of direction.

The 1970s were years of readily available finance and university expansion, so there was little need for academic reflection, but by the mid-1980s the Ministry of Education was exerting considerable pressure on the universities to cut costs and to create an efficient division of labour. This was reflected in the demand that those working in ‘Indonesian Studies’ define its role and justify its expense. Scholars had to repeatedly make their case in an effort to sustain access to funding in the face of dwindling student interest and continual budget cuts. The ministry had some success in centralising Asian studies in general, and Indonesian in particular, so confirming the leading roles of Leiden and Amsterdam (and perhaps sharpening their traditional rivalry).18 But the net effect was to limit the range of institutions engaged in Indonesia-related topics19 without producing any extra investment for the two centres. But continuing anxiety over declining traditions led to yet another committee being appointed to advise the Ministry of Education on the preservation of the ‘small humanities’, particularly the more exotic Asian topics. This report, known as ‘Baby Krishna’ or the Staal report (after its chairman, the Sanskritist Frits Staal), and the parallel document on the social sciences, ‘Krishna in the Delta’, both appeared in 1991.

Leiden received €2.9 million from the ministry. These funds, the ‘Staalgelden’, provided a temporary reprieve for a number of specialised courses that were never going to be able to justify their existence in terms of student numbers, but which were rightly deemed to be a rare international intellectual resource. The study of old Javanese, Bugis or Hindu–Javanese archaeology was always going to appeal to minority tastes, but if they were going to be taught anywhere outside Indonesia, then the Netherlands was the obvious place. The expectation was that Leiden would use the time so purchased to reorganise the curriculum to make it more attractive. However, little changed, and within a few years this money was no longer specifically earmarked for the ‘non-Western’ subjects but was increasingly being used for general faculty expenses. The esoteric but (almost) unique Asian courses were then evaluated according to the same calculations of profitability as other subjects in the humanities, and their staff–student ratios made them inevitable targets for further reductions in support (van den Muijzenberg 1991; Weijts 2004).

In a story familiar in, inter alia, the United Kingdom and Australia, the only constant in Dutch government policy was an emphasis on ‘efficiency’, which translated as more work and higher standards for less money. This was not seen as in any way in conflict with the constant harping on quality. The ministry regularly launched plans to create centres of excellence, or institutes, or research schools; the main results of these initiatives were a great expense of staff time and tightened bureaucratic control over research funding and hence over priorities. These were increasingly determined by government wishes, while money was channelled through national bodies such as NWO (the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) or the KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences). Only large projects, typically involving three or four PhD students and a couple of post-docs, could justify the expense of their administration; the increasingly scarce grants for individual researchers could only be subsidised from the universities own shrinking budgets. The universities themselves, locked in competition for money and students, simultaneously claimed distinctive profiles and unique strengths, together with an all-round ability to provide a broad general education. Government policy was consistently inconsistent, as each generation of officials sought to make their mark and move on before the consequences of their decisions became apparent. One year the stress would be on national (and international) cooperation and complementarity, the next, on self-sufficiency.20 But, in a parody of a ‘business model’, productivity was the measure of all things; although all united to decry the very idea of a diploma mill, student numbers became the key to survival.

This had profound effects, particularly in Leiden, where philological traditions still ensured that a solid knowledge of the language remained the core element in separate departments for South, East and Southeast Asian area studies. Each of these units was potentially vulnerable, and while Chinese and Japanese were eventually able to consolidate a defensible position, South and Southeast Asian studies experienced dramatic reductions. Leiden Asian studies were in worse shape than those in Amsterdam, which were traditionally based in the disciplines and had a stronger contemporary focus. Staff from both Amsterdam universities, the UvA (University of Amsterdam) and the VUA (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), had combined in the Centre for Asian Studies Amsterdam (CASA), which was established in 1987, but this was subsequently absorbed by the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research (ASSR). However, the ASiA (Asian Studies in Amsterdam) network, established in 2001, maintained a high profile, organising an MA in Contemporary Asian Studies as well as a range of cultural and outreach activities.

Forced into following ministry guidelines, in late 2008 Leiden introduced LIAS, the Leiden Institute for Area Studies, as part of the new graduate school. The website, rather tersely, notes

This institute will be newly formed from various institutes in the former faculty of Arts. Many researchers from the CNWS will join this institute, as will researchers from departments working in the field of languages and cultures from the Middle East and Asia.21

The brevity of the remarks suggests the intellectual and personal dramas inherent in any such reshuffling. Strong groups resist incorporation, fearing that their staff–student ratios will be driven into dangerous territory as their strength is used to pad the numbers of less popular courses. As in any business takeover, job losses seemed inevitable. In 2010, Indonesian studies was merged with Indian and Tibetan studies into a department of South and Southeast Asian Studies with one joint BA program, while still retaining – as of late 2011 – separate MA programs.22 It is unclear if further forcible integration will be imposed; the more popular Chinese, Japanese and Korean studies could be used to buttress study of their less fashionable Asian neighbours.

In 1935, the Dutch historian Jan Romein formulated the idea of ‘de wet van de remmende voorsprong’, or the ‘doctrine of the retarding lead’ to describe how initial advantages could become liabilities, inhibiting the ability to adjust to change (1935, 9–64). As the political scientists have also discovered, path dependency ensures the survival of established patterns of behaviour, even after they have become inefficient or inappropriate. Breaking such dependency is extremely difficult, as it may require a paradigm shift. In situations of ‘normal science’, as Thomas Kuhn (1996) observed, researchers focus on filling in the gaps within an existing paradigm, rather than questioning the assumptions that frame their enquiries. This holds true not only for the ways scholars shape intellectual agendas, and are shaped by them, but also for academics’ relationships with the structures within which they work.

A parade of plans, committees and reports marked the seemingly Sisyphesian attempts to restructure and rationalise (the Ministry of Education) or preserve (the academics) the traditions of Indonesian studies in the Netherlands. Looking back, it seems that the former have succeeded in achieving their main goals, which were to cut costs and to increase accountability (or political control) of teaching and research by centralising funding. The struggles of the latter, however, have proved a delaying tactic at best. Under threat, the Asianists mustered a familiar arsenal in their defence, combining references to the crucial role of Asia in the global future with evocations of past scholarship. But to little avail.

Three parallel processes have contributed to this crisis: the first was that of institutional politics, while the second was the logical result of decolonisation; the third was related to the second, and reflected the fundamental realignments in history and anthropology after the 1960s. The first process was fairly straightforward. The ramifications of expanding state intervention, and the concomitant imposition of simplified business models on the universities has been relentless. While many supported demands for more transparency, scholars have become increasingly bitter regarding the government’s imposition of quantitative indices for productivity and petty administrative demands as revealing a contempt for core academic values (Lorenz 2008). Meanwhile, as decolonisation swept away the practical need for specialists in Indonesian studies, the job market shrank.

The relationship between university staff and policy bureaucrats has not been a happy one. Academics are the epitome of an epistemic community, ‘a network of professionals with recognised competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain’. Such a community is characterised by shared norms, causal beliefs, notions of validity and common practice (Haas 1992, 3). Like other institutions (including ministries), universities develop sub-cultures, which shape the way their inhabitants view the world and can be very resistant to change. It could be argued that this applies a fortiori to academics: the nature of their work tends to convince them that they know best. However, while the professorial consensus of ‘shared norms, causal beliefs, notions of validity and common practice’ was once unchallenged, it has now been superseded by that of the bureaucrats who hold the purse-strings and hence have the power. Intellectual qualifications and experience in research and teaching is no longer regarded as constituting an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge. But while policy-makers may have had (and have) little appreciation of the academic’s frustration, they could see the potential political value of the Indonesia studies tradition. Because of this, it sometimes seemed that Asian studies enjoyed a privileged position in the Netherlands compared with other region-focused initiatives.

After the renewal of contacts with Indonesia after 1965, there were a number of praiseworthy government efforts to increase access by Indonesians to the Netherlands’ scholarly resources. The Indonesian studies program (1975–1992) brought junior academics to the Netherlands for PhD training; since 1997 this effort has been successfully expanded in the wider TANAP (VOC) project, which resulted in 17 dissertations on early modern history. At the MA level, a similar initiative called ‘Encompass’ (Encountering a Shared Asian Past) brings future intellectual trend-setters from all over Asia to Leiden. Research funding also benefits from this desire to capitalise upon useful tradition: the Royal Academy of Sciences, or KNAW, has sponsored several cooperative research efforts specifically designed to unite scholars from Indonesia and the Netherlands, with some participation from other countries.

This internationally oriented sponsorship also resulted in one of the government’s more successful initiatives, the creation of the International Institute of Asian Studies in 1993. The IIAS was intended to combine the resources of Leiden and Amsterdam to create a leading role for the Netherlands’ Asian studies in the global arena by sponsoring research projects and the accompanying conferences and publications; current emphasis is on urban issues, globalisation in Asia, and heritage. External funds support networking activities, while new initiatives for summer-school-like programs are being developed. On the whole, the IIAS has been a success; the newsletter has established itself as an internationally useful reference. The IIAS has also tried to strengthen Asian studies teaching by supporting designated chairs at several universities. A branch office in Amsterdam was created to ensure that activities would not be too narrowly concentrated in Leiden but this will now close as the University of Amsterdam has withdrawn its funding. Such internationally oriented projects are seen as investments in Dutch status and ‘soft power’, and consequently enjoy some political support.

However, it could be argued that all this investment has had little positive influence on the teaching of Indonesia-focused subjects. Indeed, it seems that government generosity created a distorted structure: a relatively well-funded postgraduate sector enjoyed wide interest and high status, but this was not sustained by a strong undergraduate base within the Netherlands itself. Much of the money has gone to support conferences and visiting academics, and relatively little has trickled down to those most engaged in teaching. The PhDs and post-doctorates produced by the various projects have had dispiritingly little chance of permanent academic employment. On the other hand, there has been an expansion at BA level in East Asian studies, given that knowledge of China, Korea or Japan is seen as useful to a number of future careers, but this has not been the case for Indonesia. This suggests that the weakening of Indonesian studies is part of a rebalancing of the curriculum as a whole, reflecting the logic of the market. However, shifts in preferences are a result not only of changing assessments of job prospects, but also of developments in the intellectual climate of the last decades, which was referred to above as the third factor influencing the crisis in Indonesian studies.

In particular, the Leiden traditions in philology, history, archaeology and even anthropology often seem to be regarded as slightly dated and too demanding.23 Amsterdam has fared somewhat better, as it is perceived as more open to influence from cultural studies and other popular trends. Nostalgia once provided a pool of potential students, particularly among those with a family background in the Indies, but this also has shrunk with time. For this constituency, the old interest in ‘ons Indie’ or our Indies, was not so readily translated into a desire to study Indonesia. When students did choose for Indonesia, most were drawn to either contemporary problems or the role of ‘the Indies’ in Dutch history, memory and culture.24 Neither interest demanded the rigorous training (particularly in languages) characteristic of the old area studies approach. In short, it can be concluded that, despite the continuing international importance of the Netherlands–Asia-focused intellectual infrastructure, there is an ongoing and deepening crisis in Indonesian studies, caused by the loss of interest among Dutch students and a collapse in political support. Given the mathematics of the funding model (geared to the number of graduations), this has had inevitable and serious consequences.

History within Indonesian studies in the Netherlands and Australia

The Netherlands and Australia may both seem to have a natural commitment to Indonesian studies, but the reasons for that interest are very different. The legacy of the Dutch East Indies has left the former with an impressive infrastructure that enjoys international respect, and has proved to be a political resource worth exploiting. There remains within Dutch society a strong, if ambivalent, emotional involvement with the colonial era, but this has not translated into a significant interest in modern Indonesia. In fact, even the Indies’ past is primarily used by contemporary political factions and public moralists as a convenient ‘other’, to create contrasts and parallels with current events.25 The situation in Australia is much more straightforward: Indonesia dominates the ‘near north’, a source of cheap holidays and political anxieties, which occasionally combine in events like the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005. It makes sense for the Australian government to invest in expertise on the region, and as a result Australia must have the highest concentration of Indonesianists in the world, outside the country itself. Indeed, there are probably more scholars working on Indonesia at the ANU alone than there are in the Netherlands as a whole. But even in Australia, despite the highly developed language teaching (even at school level), and the emphasis on in-country training, Indonesian studies was losing ground sharply: between 2002 and 2009 the number of students studying the language dropped by 30 per cent.26

Two separate issues must be distinguished: is there a loss of interest in Indonesia as such, or is the decline specifically in the study of Indonesia as institutionalised in the traditional area studies? Would a trawl through the disciplines and more fashionable fields such as cultural or post-colonial studies reveal that interest in Indonesia is alive and well, and that students are being turned off not so much by the subject, but by the presentation and demands of the region-focused programs?

As described earlier in this chapter, classic area studies were characterised by an emphasis on language, an interdisciplinary knowledge of the literature, and personal experience in the field. Disciplines, on the other hand, while superficially distinguished by subject (non-Europeans for anthropologists, the past for historians) always found their basic identity in methodology: fieldwork for the former, archives for the latter. Here I will focus on history. As mentioned earlier, many historians felt somewhat embattled in the later decades of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, there has also been a great expansion in the discipline as a whole and – at least in the Netherlands – an explosion of public interest in the field.27 C. A. Bayley, in his The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914 concluded that ‘the discovery of history as the essential mode of explanation for all phenomena, natural and human, was the most revolutionary change of the nineteenth century’ (Bayley 2004, 484). It is claimed that ‘history does dominate the public mind: its hold over the social imagination is total’ (Davies 2006) and that ‘history must not be just a subject matter but rather an epistemology’ (Somers, 1996). This last comment goes beyond the relatively factual emphasis on methodology, arguing that historians must consider the relationship between knowledge, assumptions and belief, the questions of what is truth and how can we know it, and the reconciliation of different truth regimes.

If history is a way of knowing, then there is some justification for its claim to be a ‘discipline’, a field of study based on a mode of enquiry with acquired technical skills and controlled by institutions applying acknowledged standards. The ‘shared norms, causal beliefs, notions of validity and common practice’ that form the foundation of the historians’ sense of community are the social expression of this epistemological shared ground. While the institutionalisation of academic fields, discussed briefly in the first section, is shaped by politics at all levels, ultimately their academic legitimation depends on their claim to represent a specific epistemology, reflected in a body of theory and related methodologies. This legitimation has often been seen as strong for the long-established disciplines (history, language, natural and social sciences),28 and relatively weak for newer subjects regarded as providing mere job-training (for example, in the media) or an over-inflated theoretical superstructure with little methodological rigour (for example, black or cultural studies). Generally, these new disciplines – like area studies – were created as a response to political pressures or market interest and, like area studies, have often had a reinvigorating influence on the academy.

Placing area studies in such an epistemologically based framework raises interesting questions. Are Indonesian studies, for example, simply a bundling together of useful practical knowledge into a conventional degree structure, or is there something special about the ways we ‘know’ Indonesia? Is knowing Indonesian history, for example, qualitatively different from the ways a colleague might know fourteenth century France or nineteenth century Peru? I think not. In each case there is a need for special skills ranging from an ability to access sources in other languages, to a general knowledge of context. But whereas a historian of fourteenth century France might be excused a lack of interest in modern French politics or the anthropology of Provence, he would probably be versed to some extent on contemporaneous developments elsewhere in Europe. However, a historian with a background in area studies would probably be familiar with current events, but much less well informed of similar thematic developments elsewhere in the world. The trade-off for the interdisciplinary strength of area studies is the parochialism noted by Manning (2003). This is reflected in a typically wide general knowledge of the region, but relatively little interest in theory, method or comparison. Inevitably, as the intellectual frontier has come to emphasise global trends, cultural exchange and academic self-questioning, area studies have tended to look provincial, old-fashioned and self-satisfied.

The solution would seem to lie in a closer engagement with the disciplines as a whole. It is interesting that work on Indonesia is a natural part of the mainstream in some fields, as in prehistory, anthropology, archaeology or economics, while in others, such as history, the Indonesianists tend to operate in region-oriented organisations and have little or no interaction with the discipline as a whole. This reflects partly the compartmentalisation of the historical profession in general, but even in the explicitly global or issue-oriented journals, such as Comparative Studies in Society and History, History and Theory or the Journal of World History, Indonesia is sparsely represented. A more intensive dialogue with colleagues working on other themes or regions is, however, inhibited by two major factors. The first is the existing territorial institutionalisation and often parochial sub-cultures within area studies; the second is the lack of interest by colleagues in what the Indonesianists have to say.

Like any sub-culture, that of Indonesian area studies is to a large extent self-referring, with its own heroes, themes and fashions (Cribb 2005). While this can be comforting and rewarding for those involved, it does not necessarily translate into intellectual concerns of general interest. This has become painfully clear in the Netherlands, where salvation seems to lie in the embedding of Indonesian studies in wider programs focused on contemporary Asia or, in Leiden, in ‘area studies’, that is, the rest not the West. Such restructuring brings together a number of minority interests, the collective strength of which, it is hoped, will prove sufficient to be viable. This represents a choice for a middle way, between that of the more narrowly defined area studies and the open seas of the disciplines. The latter are seen, understandably, as much too threatening: non-Western subjects will always be first in line for sacrifice in hard times.

The choice for the middle way here, as in most cases, involves compromise. The rigour of the old area studies tradition will be sacrificed, as governments are disinclined to subsidise the most rarefied forms of expertise. This is a pity, as although this sort of BA or MA degree might be unsustainable, the subjects themselves need to be preserved and made available to the international select few who choose them.29 This means staff must be trained and paid. An ‘Asian’ framework is also somewhat arbitrary and unfocused, and may encourage a false confidence in the ease of cross-cultural comparisons. The Leiden preference for ‘area studies’, which effectively means non-Western societies, is even broader, but does offer the potential advantages and disadvantages of wider cross-cultural post-colonial perspectives. Both options perpetuate the risk of isolation from debate in the disciplines, and a consequent intellectual provincialism, without the students necessarily acquiring the compensatory depth of knowledge offered in the classic regional studies programs. The question is how to maximise the security provided by incorporation into new structures, while resisting the limitations imposed.

Institutionalisation is a prerequisite for participation in the professional knowledge establishment, and inevitably it creates vested interests and fosters the development of self-regarding sub-cultures. These resist change, and are typically only broken open through major changes in the social and political context (expressed most concretely in funding shifts), such as those imposed in the Netherlands over the past 25 years. The resulting enforced reorientation can have positive effects, as some of the alliances entered into for strategic or marketing reasons can bear real intellectual fruits. The KITLV in Leiden, for example, a symbol of Dutch colonial expertise, must increasingly compete in the open market by seeking research funds earmarked not for Indonesia, but for general themes, resulting in projects comparing economies in Africa and Southeast Asia, or on the heritage industry.


Indonesian studies in the Netherlands achieved its classic form over 80 years ago, in the Indology training for colonial officials. Only now does it seem that fundamental change has arrived, 50 years after decolonisation, and after decades of political pressure. Even so, we must wait and see what actually happens. As the Dutch say, the soup is rarely eaten as hot as it is served. In Australia the field seems to have encountered less turbulence. This is logical, given the greater continuity in the political context. The threats and opportunities offered by the powerful northern neighbour have remained, even if Indonesia’s role in public rhetoric has fluctuated. The apparent security offered by this geopolitical environment could encourage a false sense of entitlement, with debilitating effects comparable to the colonial ‘retarding lead’ in the Netherlands. Indeed, the challenge posed by changing intellectual interests and declining student enrolment suggest that some reassessment is overdue.

Ideally, in both countries, area studies scholars could use their specific insights into particular cultures in order to contribute to current debates within the disciplines. Political scientists could present themselves not as ‘Indonesianists’, but as experts on, for example, military regimes, democratisation, tensions between central and regional elites, or any number of other topics of wider interest. This would require familiarity with the priorities and sub-cultures dominant in the discipline as a whole, and also a broadening of interest by those disciplinary scholars to whom Indonesia, despite its size, seems peripheral in every sense. Journal editors, conference organisers, and curriculum planners would have to be willing to look further than they have in the past. For historians, a newly emerging field like world or global history offers relatively accessible opportunities to participate in emerging comparative themes (Manning 2003).

The courses I followed at the ANU in the early 1960s included four years of Indonesian and Malay, including the reading of classical literature in Jawi. I also studied Javanese for two years, as well as Minangkabau and basic Arabic. Looking back, I can safely say that I have never made use of most of this training but, at the same time, I regard it as having been of great value. The study of texts in their original languages provides an opportunity for a slow and careful appreciation of their intellectual significance, acquired not through second-hand summaries, but through the painstaking unravelling of concepts and contexts. Similarly, area studies scholars typically build up their knowledge of local societies through the cumulative reading of literature from a number of disciplines, combined with first-hand personal experience. This also fosters a useful skepticism, which, if tempered by a wider knowledge of theory and the potential as well as the pitfalls of comparisons, can provide an excellent point of departure for more ambitious work. It would be a great pity if these sober qualities were lost through a combination of government economising and changes in university organisation. The days of the area studies programs, including those on Indonesia, may seem numbered. But government policies and intellectual fashions are often cyclical, and it could well be that current obsessions with cultural difference, religion, local identities and globalisation will lead to a reinvention of area studies. If so, we should be there.


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1  I am grateful to Leo Douw, Thomas Lindblad and Ot van den Muijzenberg for their suggestions and advice; as always, the faults are my own.

2  In the 1990s Simon Philpott decided, correctly that ‘it was time to consider the culture, traditions and sources of authority in the discourse of Indonesian politics’; ‘Indonesian politics studies is as legitimate a field of study as Indonesian politics itself’. (Philpott 2000, xiv). Philpott emphasises Orientalist discourse; my approach here is more institutional and financial: ‘follow the money’.

3  It is not the intention in this article to look at historiography as such; for a summary see (Legge 1999, 25–26).

4  I am grateful to Ot van den Muijzenberg for this point.

5  See Philpott, 2000: 46–51, 102–120, on the Cold War and capitalism as determining forces in the development of Southeast Asian studies.

6  The title of the project is ‘Producing Knowledge on World Regions’. Accessed February 2012. Available from:

7  A partial list produces more than 20 significant centres: in the US: Cornell, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Hawaii, Michigan, Washington, Yale; in Australia: ANU, Monash, Murdoch, Sydney; in Europe: Amsterdam, Hull, NIAS, London, Leiden; in Asia: Kyoto, NUS Singapore.

8  Anthropologists also worked within specific traditions; see Fardon 1990.

9  From 1910 this was the Royal or Koninklijke (Royal) Society; it finally closed in 1962.

10  Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (Royal Institute for Linguistic, Geographical and Ethnographic Studies) For a history, see Kuitenbrouwer 2001.

11  The Koloniaal Museum was founded in Haarlem in 1864. It then moved to Amsterdam as the Koloniaal Instituut in 1926 and became the KIT in 1950.

12  The NIOD (Netherlands Institute for War Documentation) contains newspapers, documents and objects from the Indies in the period 1940–1950, while the IISG (in English ISSH) or International Institute for Social History, established in 1935, now combines its long interest in economic history, labour and social movements with a commitment to Asia. Both are located in Amsterdam.

13  Illustrative material from various collections is to be found on line in the excellent Atlas of Mutual Heritage.

14  On 7 October 2011, the state secretary for overseas development announced that the KIT would no longer receive its subsidy of some €20 million, virtually the entire operating budget for the museum and library. The Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences, which manages various institutes, including the KITLV, wishes to cut that institute’s budget by 70 per cent. The KITLV may survive in some truncated form, of may be absorbed into Leiden University’s area-studies program. The continuation of their Jakarta acquisitions office, a prerequisite for maintaining the library’s international role, is uncertain.

15  His classic book on Mekka, including descriptions of the ‘Jawa’ community, has recently been translated from, the German (Hurgronje 2007).

16  See Swellengrebel, J L. (1974; 1978); Maier, H J M. & Teeuw, A. 1976; Wills 1991; Burns 2004.

17  De Josselin de Jong’s concept of the ‘ethnologisch studieveld’, launched in 1935, shaped structural anthropology in the in Netherlands; see Ridder and Karremans 1987.

18  According to the stereotypes, Leiden was either the centre of solid language, history and archaeological studies or a conservative bulwark of colonial apologists, while Amsterdam was either committed to the professionally advanced and politically engaged social sciences, or a left-wing cabal of superficial theorists. Politically, Leiden was seen as proestablishment and Amsterdam as progressive.

19  The Comparative Asian Studies Program at the Erasmus University Rotterdam was disbanded in 1987. Indonesia specialists also disappeared in whole or in part from the Universities of Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, Nijmegen and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

20  The International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) was established in 1998 by the Universities of Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht and the Radboud University Nijmegen. Despite its excellent work, in accordance with the swing against cooperation, it lost its funding in late 2008.

21 Accessed June 2008. For current programs, see

22  In 2007 the BA in Indonesian studies in Leiden had seven first-year students, in 2008 12, with a staff of seven. The MA students numbered seven, most in the contemporary Asean oriented project. In 2011 the staff included three professors (Ben Arps for language, David Henley for contemporary Indonesia, Marijke Klokke for art history) one associate professor in history and economics (Thomas Lindblad) and two senior language lecturers; Javanese is no longer compulsory in the BA program.

23  The compulsory study of Javanese has been one of the main obstacles for students contemplating a degree in Indonesian studies in Leiden; too difficult, and not really necessary for the students’ interests.

24  The Dutch campaign to encourage reading chose a 61-year-old novel, Oeroeg, by Hella Haasse, as the book to be distributed free to millions of readers in 2009.

25  Classic recent examples include the debate about the Dutch ‘My Lai’ massacre at Rawagede in 1947, finally accepted as a ‘war crime’ by Dutch courts in September 2011, or a well-known and still frequently cited 2006 reference by then Dutch Premier Jan-Peter Balkenende to ‘the VOC mentality’ see Accessed October 2011.


27  There were 1999 professional historians in British universities in 1980; in 2008 there were 2896; see Corfield 2008, 22.

28  This is not intended to imply that the established disciplines were neutral entities with a self-evident and natural right to existence; see for example (Jasanoff 2004).

29  The organisation of pan-European or international summer schools or intensive courses is an obvious and necessary strategy; seven universities have participated in such MA programs initiated by Leiden University and organised by the IIAS. These have been held in Leiden (2006), Paris (2007) and Naples (2008). Europe can only retain this capacity if, for example, the Netherlands does Javanese, the UK Burmese. The IIAS is active in this regard.

Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

   by Jemma Purdey