Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation


Knowing Indonesia from Australia

Jemma Purdey

It is so terribly important that we should admit that we have a dickens of a lot to learn, not only about but from Asians (Feith, 10 September 1952).1

This book explores the deeply complex and intersecting influences on the ways in which Indonesia has been studied and ‘known’ in Australia from the 1950s until today. These influences fall under three linked themes: nation and policy, discipline and institution, and self and morality. As political scientist Simon Philpott writes, ‘[k]nowledge arises from a complex interaction between individual authority, institutional authority and scholarly discourse’ (Philpott 2000: xvii).

Approaches to the study of Indonesia by scholars within the Australian academy come out of a variety of scholarly disciplines and theoretical perspectives, or what Clifford Geertz terms, ‘branch[es] of knowledge of teaching’ (1995, 96). The study of ‘Indonesia’ as a field emerged from area studies and comparative government within the American social sciences in the post-war years and was by its design a multidisciplinary endeavour. Geertz described his first engagement with the field of Indonesian studies, under the banner of a hybrid social science team of scholars in 1952, as an experiment trying to make sense of ‘what other conceptions of knowledge, of knowing, and of the uses of knowledge could be brought into play’ (1995, 104). Scholarship related to the use of knowledge and the role of the intellectual by major twentieth century social science theorists, including Weber, Foucault and Said, inform this exploration of the interpretations and ‘ways of knowing’ applied to the study of Indonesia. Practitioners have in the past made attempts to reflect on the nature of their ‘knowledge’ of Indonesia. In particular, debate related to historiography in Indonesian studies has a long trajectory (Benda 1962; Smail 1961; Reid 1981), and a conversation about the role of values and its impact on the work of the Indonesianist is similarly not new. For example, Indonesianists such as John Legge and Benedict Anderson are among those who have had a long interest in the subject. In 1973, Anderson wrote, ‘That academics are not simply specialists in particular fields of knowledge but also members of specific cultures and social orders, is something at once obvious and yet too frequently ignored, not least by academics themselves …’ (Anderson 1982, 69).

The contributors to this book include Indonesianists working within the Australian, Dutch and Indonesian academies, and from the disciplines of anthropology, political science and history. They respond to questions about the ways in which these influences – the nation, discipline and the personal – impact on how we ‘know’, represent and write about Indonesia today, with particular focus on the Australian academy. They engage with debate as old as the field of study itself, asking where the study of Indonesia should sit within the academy. Is it within existing categories and structures: area studies or the disciplines? Or is there a possible ‘third way’ of framing our knowledge about Indonesia that is more reflective of the globalised nature of our world? They grapple with questions raised by Anderson and others over decades related to the ways our personal approach, our own sets of values and conceptions of morality impact on how we approach and know Indonesia; asking whether there is a place for activism alongside rigorous scholarship. The book reveals the diverse ways in which knowledge of Indonesia has been and is being attained in the Australian academy in particular, but also elsewhere in the developed world, where disciplinary training but so too personal affect and influences of national policy are relevant.

Herb Feith as a starting point

The initial proposal to bring together Indonesianists on this theme had at its heart the example of Australia’s foremost scholar of Indonesia, Herbert (Herb) Feith (1930–2001) and his almost lifelong engagement with Indonesia as a scholar and an activist. He is author of the definitive account of Indonesia’s period of parliamentary democracy in the 1950s (Feith 1957; 1962) and pioneer of the study of Indonesian politics in the Australian academy. After his death in 2001, his importance to the field and to Australia’s relations with Indonesia was recognised by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (DFAT 2001). While I was researching a biography of Herb Feith (Purdey 2011), Indonesia historian Heather Sutherland put it to me that the initial point of engagement of the scholar with their subject, in this case Indonesia, impacts upon their way of ‘knowing’ it: analysing, writing and teaching it. Examination of the personal, ‘self’, or to use Anderson’s terms, ‘specific cultures’ and ‘social orders’, emerged as a third theme through which to approach the study of scholarly engagement with Indonesia.

Each of the contributors to this volume knew Herb Feith as a peer, teacher, colleague and friend. In proposing the conference panel that led to this book, they were asked to consider questions Herb asked himself about how we as scholars engage with our subject. An understanding of journeys undertaken by individual scholars within this field as they have come to ‘know’ Indonesia, and critical analysis of the field as they see it today, provides valuable insight and will stimulate debate about future directions for study. Again, a focus on Herb Feith was a more than useful place to start this investigation.

Herb’s initial ‘engagement’ with Indonesia had a moral compulsion behind it. In June 1951 and at the age of 20 a recent graduate from Melbourne University, he responded to a call from Indonesians to join them in building their new nation. Indonesia lacked skilled people to fill civil service and professional positions vacated by the Dutch colonial authority. The premise of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme under which he worked was that Australians would be placed in jobs and locations where their skills were most needed and that they would work under the same conditions as their Indonesian colleagues. The objective was, therefore, one of deep engagement in the communities in which they worked. How did that commitment flow to his scholarship and that of others who followed him? How does the way in which we as scholars first ‘engage’ with Indonesia impact on the way we then interpret and know it?

Herb Feith was often at the forefront of debate related to complexities associated with the role of the Western scholar as analyst and expert on the non-West, and how to balance scholarship with a moral obligation. In Chapter 1 of this book, I explore Herb’s complex approach to his scholarship and his moral compulsion to activism throughout his career, during which he initiated debate and deeper thought around the role and responsibility of the intellectual in his fields of study: Indonesia and the Third World. A participant in the wave of studies in the late 1950s of non-Western societies and comparativism and modernisation theory, but also of the ‘Kahinian’ school of historical method and democratic liberalism in Cornell’s Modern Indonesia Project, Herb occupied a unique position at the nexus of the dominant ways of knowing the non-West at that time. This perspective meant that although he took up comparativism in his work, he was also critical of its application. Moreover, his experience in the 1950s as an Australian volunteer graduate working for the Indonesian civil service meant he was keenly aware of the pressures and influences from governments on their scholars. In 1964, he wrote disparagingly of the tendency within the studies of non-Western societies for the scholars’ only frame of reference being their own nationalities, and their objective the provision of recommendations for policy. He called for them to see themselves first ‘as intellectuals, rather than as Americans, Frenchmen or Australians and that they should make a serious effort to develop relations of full understanding with intellectuals of the countries they are studying’ (Feith 1964). This remains a central issue tackled in recent publications exploring the development of the field (Kratoska et al. 2005).

Key debates around interpretation and approach to ‘Indonesia’ within the academy were often reflected in Herb Feith’s work. An early example of this critical perspective, his debate (Feith 1965) with Harry Benda in 1964–5, is examined here by Bob Hadiwinata in Chapter 5. This became a pivotal exchange in relation to the direction of Indonesian studies, opening vital debate about universality of values embodied in democracy and cultural relativism in studies of the non-West. Later, in his 1974 review of Rex Mortimer’s provocative Showcase State and later debate with Jamie Mackie (Feith 1979), Herb challenged scholars in Indonesian studies whom he believed were being too much persuaded by the New Order’s apparent economic successes. In the late 1970s and 1980s, as the New Order regime took hold, many Indonesianists, including Herb Feith, sought theoretical and moral solutions outside the conventional disciplines of political science and Asian studies. In 1982, Herb Feith initiated the first Peace Studies course at an Australian university. The question – how to write as ‘foreign’ analyst while also giving space to the moral questions – greatly preoccupied Herb Feith in his work on Indonesia and on the study of the ‘Third’ or ‘developing’ world more generally all his adult life.

Herb Feith’s knowledge of Indonesia was in large part a product of his many friendships, interactions with Indonesians and with foreigners like himself, who were engaged deeply with it. He was clearly buoyed by contact with others – he loved to listen, to probe and question. This was the way he gained a great deal of his ‘knowledge’. Herb’s ‘insight’ was largely achieved by way of his interpersonal skill-set – or ‘craft skills’ as he called them – not primarily from books and models (although he would process what he learned in a very systematic and structured form). This helps to explain his need to visit Indonesia often, to talk to people there, ‘to witness’ in order to be free to ‘know’ what was happening. Herb’s ability to ‘connect’ with people from all walks of life, and in various cultural contexts, is important in understanding his approach to his work and activism.

In many ways the example set by Herb Feith and other early scholars of Indonesia beginning in the 1950s and 1960s – one involving prolonged periods of living and travelling in Indonesia in an effort to fill the void of knowledge about our large and complex neighbour – is a pattern of engagement that has continued to dominate. In Chapter 2 Lea Jellinek, who was a student of Herb Feith in the 1970s, shares the story of her ‘deep’ and embedded engagement with Indonesia from the beginning. Knowledge of the language, culture and society through close interaction was then and is still perceived to be a most effective means for achieving meaningful scholarship in this field. For how long, however, is this approach sustainable? At a time when interest in Indonesian studies is declining across the Australian academy, while political and public engagement with our nearest neighbour expands (Pietsch et al. 2010; Lindsey 2010), the time is right for reflection and, if necessary, reconceptualisation of the study of Indonesia in the Australian academy.

Scholarly engagement with a neighbour: a brief history

Today the field of study of Indonesia within the Australian academy is recognised as world leading. Since the late 1940s, the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia has oscillated between viewing our closest neighbour and indeed the region as a whole as a threat or as an opportunity, and back again. This changing status has often been reflected in shifting interest from students and levels of research funding. The national and political imperative of the bilateral relationship greatly impacts on the study of Indonesia in our schools and universities. However, it can be argued that they are not overwhelmingly decisive in terms of its future. The history of this field of study in Australia reveals that it was the initiative of individuals and groups of concerned Australians, more than politicians and bureaucrats, who laid its foundations and engendered an autonomous and, in many ways, humanist approach to the scholarship.

While the formal study of Indonesia in Australian universities can be traced back to the 1950s, as studies by Walker (1999), Legge (1976) and Thomas (2010) show us, its origins lay decades earlier in the awareness-raising and lobbying of public intellectuals, scholars and some politicians in the 1920s, but particularly, from the late 1930s – around the importance of knowing the region in which we are placed, until then ignored in favour of Europe. In his 1936 book Possible Peace, William Macmahon Ball condemned Australia’s lack of knowledge of Asia as a combination of ‘ignorance and apathy’ more appropriate to ‘desert tribesmen’ with a ‘low state of mental growth’ than to citizens of a modern democracy. The clear national imperatives of the time, including trade and a growing urge to mark out Australia’s place as a nation in its own right, guided this push. However, for individuals like Ball and groups agitating for the development of the field at this time, knowledge of Asia was also seen to serve a broad social purpose. In Australia, this ‘campaign’ to know our neighbours was led by individuals associated with the American-based Institute for Pacific Relations, like Ball, Ian Clunies Ross, Jack Shepard, Max Crawford and the organisation Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), which began publishing its Austral-Asiatic Bulletin in 1937. These academics and public intellectuals saw their roles as much in terms of educating the public about the region as lecturing to the elite. They saw themselves as shapers of public opinion and government policy about Australia’s place in the world. In 1939, they were given a considerable boost from one of Australia’s most senior and well-respected public servants with considerable international experience, Sir Robert Garran. Garran wrote an article for the February 1939 edition of the Austral-Asiatic Bulletin in which he called for the establishment of a school of Oriental studies based on the premise that our ‘national recovery … depends on international recovery … [which is] not a job for any country by itself; it is a job for countries in cooperation’ (Garran 1939). As Garran saw it, Australia could potentially have a special role as ‘interpreter of the East to the West and of the West to the East’. His vision for a college or institution for the study of the ‘East’ or ‘Orient’ was multidisciplinary and comprehensive, involving exchanges of academics and students between Australia and Asia. Garran expanded on Ball’s linkage between peace and knowing our neighbours, comparing the cost of such an institution with current spending on defence. He appealed to the policy-makers: ‘Is it not common prudence to supplement this expenditure by a comparatively trivial amount towards the removal of some of the chief causes of war’ (Garran 1939).

After the Second World War, the international politics of the region and Australia’s own foreign policy changed entirely. The relationship Australia had with its great and powerful friend America was as strong as any in international relations. In the region, Australia’s mission was now one of engagement, for it was keenly aware, as David Walker puts it, that ‘Survival now seemed to demand a neighbourly response to Asia …’ (Walker 2003, 340). Australia gave its wholehearted support to the Colombo Plan in the late 1940s partly for geo-strategic reasons, but more than that it also saw the project as a means for defining itself within the region. Walker explains, ‘In doing good deeds, we hoped that we were not like other Europeans, burdened by the excesses of empire, or even like the Americans with their truculent sense of mission’ (2003, 340).2 In an early Cold War context, America charged forward, establishing centres for the study of Asia and the developing countries in what was a convergence of its national priorities to ‘know’ these places in the spirit of modernisation and ‘progress’; what Cumings (1997, 10) refers to as a ‘new era of reformist thinking on an interdisciplinary basis’ within its academy. In contrast, the first such institutions in Australian universities were not founded until the late 1950s, almost 20 years after Garran’s call.

Timing and scale

In his memoir Available Light, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz reflected on the beginning of his career.

I have, in any case, learned at least one thing in the course of my scholarly career: it all depends on timing. I entered the academic world at what has to have been the best time to enter it in the whole course of its history; at least in the United States, possibly altogether (Geertz 2000, 3–4).

Compared to the United States academy in the immediate post-war years, which Geertz remembers so fondly as a source of opportunity to study and get to ‘know’ other societies and cultures, the Australian universities were slow to react to the new world order. Nothing akin to the US Defense and Education Act was forthcoming from the government until much later, although this was not through want of trying on the part of those like Macmahon Ball, whose own Asia knowledge was employed directly by the government in the immediate post-war period, and who stressed this message to his students at the University of Melbourne in the late 1940s and early 50s. In its April 1946 edition, Austral-Asiatic Bulletin’s editors highlighted the situation of Indonesia as the most urgent of the current problems ‘agitating’ in the Pacific (Austral-Asiatic Bulletin 1946). Nevertheless, despite the urgency of foreign policy issues and pressure from some within the academy, direct government intervention and emphasis on the study of our neighbours and their language did not eventuate until the relatively late timeframe of 1956 to 1958.3 Australian government funding was finally dedicated for centres for language and Indonesian and Malay studies at Universities of Sydney and Melbourne and Canberra University College (later incorporated with the Australian National University), with each institution more or less left to design its own model.

This relative lag in institution and capacity-building in Australian universities in area studies, and Indonesia in particular (Reid 2009), is contrasted with the high levels of public interest in the situation in Indonesia itself after its declaration of independence in the late 1940s.4 The support of Australia’s waterside workers for Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945, and opposition to forced repatriations of Indonesians exiled in Australia during the war, excited wide public interest extending to university campuses. At Melbourne University in particular, this interest together with Macmahon Ball’s influence (he was a professor of politics from 1949) led to an initiative among students there to live and work in Indonesia. This was inspired by calls from Indonesian students for assistance to build their nation and excited by the prospect of doing something useful. In 1951 a group of students from Melbourne University from across various faculties founded an organisation called the Volunteers Graduate Scheme, which a year later gained the official recognition of both the governments of Australia and Indonesia. Earlier, the students had taken advice from Macmahon Ball and others on how to lobby both at home and in Indonesia, but it was their own endeavour.

It was largely made possible by the work on the ground in Jakarta by Herb Feith, a Melbourne University graduate and a student of Ball who went to Indonesia on his own initiative in 1951. From 1952 onwards, a steady stream of young Australian graduates worked in Indonesia, mostly in the civil service. They learned the language and gained insight and knowledge of the country from the unique position of working alongside Indonesians under equal conditions. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, they became some of Australia’s best informed and first ‘Indonesianists’.

In 1956, when the Australian Government eventually provided funding for departments of Indonesian and Malayan studies at three universities, the sums of money involved were moderate. Melbourne University employed a single staff member to teach language and existing academic staff contributed to the teaching program. There were also some resources to build library collections. This could not compare with the funds being poured into ‘area studies’, including Indonesian studies, in the US at this time. In addition to direct government funding, this included the Ford Foundation’s investment of over $270 million in research training and building research ‘centres of excellence’ in the 1950s and 1960s.

As a beneficiary of one of the earliest programs funded under the US scheme, Geertz counted himself lucky: ‘And once again, I caught the wave. An interdisciplinary research team, handsomely funded by the Ford Foundation in the open-handed way that foundation funded ambitious, off-beat enterprises in its heroic early days …’ (Geertz 2000, 9). Geertz and the team from Harvard University’s Department of Social Relations lived in East Java from 1951 to 1954 at the same time that Herb Feith was living and working in Jakarta as a civil servant in the Ministry for Information’s foreign language division. Herb returned again in 1954 for a further two years to research his dissertation, once again employed with the ministry as a civil servant, teaching English to supplement his small income. Comparing these two young researchers – who both went on to be world leaders in their field – illustrates the differences in terms of timing, scale and support for the study of Indonesia between America and Australia in the early 1950s.

Over the next decades, as Indonesian studies developed in the Australian academy into a vibrant and world-class field, scholars were attracted from overseas, and it grew many of its own. Herb Feith and others like him who encountered Indonesia first as volunteers, evolved into one of the dominant groups within the field in Australia. Their early moral commitment to Indonesia imbued their scholarship with lifelong dedication to the nation and its peoples, and profoundly shaped the field more broadly.

Seventy years on from Macmahon Ball’s critique of its knowledge of Asia as that of ‘desert tribesmen’, Australia’s knowledge of its neighbours within the academy and more widely too, is sophisticated and in many cases world leading. To get a sense of where Indonesian studies is situated in Australia after more than 50 years of teaching and research, a search of theses produced at Australian universities listed on the Australian Library Collections Database (1954–2008) using the keyword ‘Indonesia’ found 2254 masters and PhD theses. The first is dated 1954 (Feith’s ‘Wilopo Cabinet’ MA at Melbourne University), but almost 50 per cent (1091) of these were completed in the 11-year period 1996–2007.5 The listed theses ranged across the sciences, engineering, medical research and linguistics as well as the humanities and social sciences. These results mirror those at one institution, the University of Melbourne. In the period 1973–1996 only nine PhD theses were completed; for the period 1997 until 2006, this expanded to 46 theses in total (Coppel 2006).

In addition to the relatively recent surge in postgraduate research on Indonesia, two other interesting trends emerge from the combined data. Of the 46 theses completed at Melbourne University in the period 1997–2008, all but nine were by people with Indonesian names. As the report’s author writes: ‘The list demonstrates a dramatic growth over the last decade in the number of PhD theses completed as well as in the proportion of their authors originating from Indonesia’ (Coppel 2006). The third trend is similarly interesting, and reveals much about the future direction of research in the field of Indonesian studies in Australia. A further search of the Australia-wide database using keywords ‘Indonesia’ and also ‘Islam’, identified 58 theses (a relatively small percentage of the overall number), of these 39 were completed in the period 1996–2007. The data tells us that more PhDs and Masters theses have been produced in this decade than at any other time, but that most of them were written by Indonesians; and that there is also a trend towards studies of Indonesia that include Islam in their focus. Whilst this is not in itself a cause for concern for the present state of the field, when these findings are read together with data compiled by Hill (2012) on the state of Indonesian language teaching in Australian schools and universities in the period 2001–2010, showing a national decline in enrolments by 40 per cent, we must be duly concerned about the future of Indonesian studies in the academy.

The future considered

The absence in Australia of non-government foundations that provide funding for Asia-related research like the Ford Foundation and Luce Foundation6 in the United States, means that scholars in the academy rely almost entirely on the government for their significant research funding. The administering body, the Australian Research Council (ARC), holds annual competitive grants rounds for the entire academy, from which it distributes a variety of different types of grants and fellowships. The peer-review structure under which these grants are awarded is a complex web of interaction across and between boards of academics, based on discipline, and government apparatchiks pursuing national policy priorities. Besides the scholarly and intellectual value, rigour and potential of the applicants and their proposed research project, this system requires the demonstration of its application and relevance to a set of National Research Priorities and to the national interest more broadly, although this was slightly modified in 2011. As Ed Aspinall discusses in Chapter 4, in some respects this consideration may have resulted in Indonesia-related research being promoted ahead of others, although the number of successful grants as an overall percentage would counter this.

In recent years, major reports on Australia’s Asia knowledge and its future have been produced by stakeholders from within the academy. These reports warn that Australia’s Asia knowledge base is in jeopardy (ASAA 2002; 2007; Hill 2012). The ASAA reports include data about the number of ARC-funded ‘Discovery Grants’ (three years in duration and the premium research grants available for scholars in Australia) by country or region of study. They show that Indonesia-related research is, after China, the second-highest ‘country’ awarded in the period under study, 2002–05. In 2006, however, the position of Indonesia-related research dropped to equal fourth alongside East Timor. These numbers have since returned to more ‘normal’ levels. What is concerning is that the numbers are extremely small to start with. In 2002, five grants were awarded; 2003, nine; 2004, six; 2005, nine; 2006, three; 2007, seven; 2008, eight (this is less than 1 per cent of total awarded grants for 2008) (ASAA 2007; ARC 2008). There are many possible explanations for the small numbers of Indonesia-themed grants awarded, including low application rate and quality compared with other proposals. However, this data does not stand alone. The ASAA’s 2002 report, which was directed at government, raised the alarm. It warned that the ranks of scholars within the field would be depleted in the next few years by retirement of those scholars and researchers who were part of the boom in the 1960s and 1970s, and that they were not being replaced by universities eager to make budget cuts; and that in the previous 10 to 20 years Australia had not sufficiently invested in the renewal of its Asia knowledge resource (Lindsey 2010, 2007; Hill 2007, 2012). Hill’s 2012 report on the state of Indonesian language teaching in Australian universities further reiterates these concerns. The report demonstrates statistically how the decline in numbers of students studying Indonesian as part of their degrees will impact in the short to medium term; with some states failing to have Indonesian programs in any universities by as early as 2017 (Hill 2012, 22).

A ‘community of assessment’

While funding issues, declining student numbers and, following terrorist attacks in Indonesia since 2002, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warnings against travel to Indonesia (see Hill 2012, 26) have impacted on the growth of the field in Australia,7 arguably a further and important set of structures and restraints on the direction of future research on Indonesia are those from within the academy itself. These structures and systems include access to funding, peer approval and support, and thereby promotion and wider influence. In Australian Indonesianist Robert Cribb’s article ‘Circles of esteem’ (2005), he highlights the internal structures and systems within the academy, and particularly Indonesian studies, and exposes the patterns of interaction and influence. It is, Cribb argues, a structured system of rules governing interaction and the exchange of research in which conferences and publications and their citation are its key vehicles. Cribb’s ‘circles of esteem’ are akin to what Arjun Appadurai calls, ‘a community of assessment’, which decides whether knowledge is new and compliant with the protocols in the field (Appadurai 2000, 9). A decision to step away from this system or to operate outside it will result in the marginalisation of your work.

Such a system of protocols within the field of study of Indonesia includes deep local knowledge as a consequence of immersion in the language and place, regardless of discipline. As Daniel Lev put it when introducing the edited volume of papers Interpreting Indonesian Politics, published in 1982, ‘there are few false notes in these papers … [T]he basic reason, I suspect, is that all but one of the authors had done extensive field research in the country and knew the country as well as any foreigner can.’ This meant, he went on, that ‘All were aware … of just how complex and hard to reduce Indonesia is; none was about to play fast and loose with Indonesian realities …’ (Lev 1982, 10). In his article analysing the responses of Australian scholars to the West Papua struggle against the central government, Indonesian scholar Freddy Kalidjernih (2008), supports such a ‘standard’ for ‘knowing’ Indonesia. He argues that the absence of this ‘deep’ local experience results in a diminished claim to expertise on Indonesia issues, even though they may be international in orientation. He warns, ‘If this group of scholars [non-traditional Indonesianists, that is, without formal training in Indonesian studies] does not have sufficient astuteness, but only knowledge and experience of Indonesian social and political issues, their criticism of the Indonesian government will endanger Australia–Indonesia relations’ (Kalidjernih 2008, 89). As Kalidjernih observes and both Hadiwinata and Aspinall contend with in their chapters in this book, ‘traditional’ Indonesianists are no longer on their own in making comment and influencing policy on West Papua and other issues in Australia, but that nevertheless, there is inevitably tension and conflict between these groups of scholars (Kalidjernih 2008, 87).

Although various criticisms of this type of argument exist,8 the question with which they are all preoccupied is who has the ‘right’, the expertise, the ‘knowledge’ among Australians to provide authoritative assessments of Indonesia? If it is, as Kalidjernih asserts, only those with deep local, social and linguistic knowledge of the people and place, as numbers of Australians with Indonesian language training declines,9 the question becomes who will fulfil this role in the Australian academy in generations to come? As Aspinall ponders in his chapter here, and others do elsewhere (Heryanto 2002), it may rightly rest with Indonesian academics themselves.


The chapters in this book explore the ways in which the themes outlined above have intersected and produced different ways of interpreting and representing ‘Indonesia’. Highlighting the importance of the individual scholar’s initial point of engagement with their subject and particularly the example of Herb Feith in the Australian academy, the book opens with my chapter related to Herb Feith’s particular struggle between his scholarly and moral motivations in his approach to knowing Indonesia. I argue that his initial engagement with Indonesia as a volunteer graduate influenced the ways he interpreted Indonesia and communicated it through his writing, teaching and actions thereafter. Significantly, this was always a tension that brought considerable difficulties to his work. Highlighted here, too, is Feith’s importance as a role model for Indonesianists in the Australian academy, who were both challenged and led by his commitment to this approach.

In Chapter 2, Feith’s former student Lea Jellinek presents a similarly personal narrative of her more than 30-year-long engagement with Indonesia in which she examines her constant struggle between the worlds of academic analysis, consulting and activism. Jellinek details her approach to knowing her subject – Indonesia’s urban poor – beginning with her disillusionment with the conventional methods in academic research in the 1970s, and later in her roles as consultant for international NGOs and aid organisations in the 1980s and 1990s. As a student at a university where ‘Asianists’ resided within their disciplinary departments, Jellinek’s approach to her research was, she believes, better suited to the ‘area studies’ model popular on and off in many parts of the Western academy over the past 50 years. Her commitment to knowing Indonesia, as she puts it, in a way that might assist her in solving the problems she sees there, is based on experiential learning over time with long and deep in-country experience, coupled with a multidisciplinary approach to scholarship on Indonesia, poverty, economics and culture.

As with Jellinek, questions about balancing scholarship with an impetus to activism are the subject of Indonesia historian Robert Elson’s Chapter 3. He poses the provocative question: ‘Can historians really be “a powerful positive force in society”?’ Through an examination and close reflection of his approach to his own work and many years of experience in his field, Elson concludes that the scholar should honour his discipline (in this case as historian) and the rigorous pursuit of ‘contingent truth’ above all else. Elson argues that a ‘middle ground’ can be found between interpretation and relativism and the search for the facts, and it is by adhering to the strictures within the conservative discipline that the historian will fulfil his social responsibility. He describes the scholars’ role as that of ‘skeptical watchdogs’ surveying their areas of ‘specialised truths’.

Ed Aspinall shifts the discussion to also focus on the third theme under consideration, nation and policy. He presents an analysis of the unique position of the study of Indonesian politics within the Australian academy, as imperatives related to the national and public create a complex set of sometimes competing and sometimes complementary influences. Aspinall begins by examining the long-held debate between an area studies and disciplinary approach to the study of Indonesia. He presents a close analysis of the study of Indonesian politics in the Australian academy, considering the ‘academic political economy’ in which the debate over the future of area studies is played out. Aspinall sees Australia’s unique geo-strategic position and its strong, internationally renowned scholarship, as a fillip for the ongoing future of a deep, multidisciplinary areas studies approach to the study of Asia, and Indonesia in particular. He provides us with a complex structure or frame by which to understand this rich and varied field of practice. In the field of Indonesian politics in particular, the intersections of national policy as they influence public opinion and educational planning and funding, with the theoretical and personal ‘politics’ or, to use his term, ‘affect’ of individual scholars are especially evident. The foreign policy imperative of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia means that works of scholarship by Australians on Indonesia’s politics is given a greater role than it might be given in other countries. Like Elson, Aspinall tackles questions about a scholar’s social responsibility in balance with her obligation to scholarly rigour, concluding that there may always be inescapable tensions and conflicts, which are based not only on the personal but also on the national influence on this particular field.

Following on from Aspinall’s analysis of Australian scholars’ approaches to Indonesian politics, in Chapter 5, Bob Hadiwinata presents a critical perspective of such debates and struggles in the Australian academy as he sees them from Indonesia. He argues that, while the approaches of Australian Indonesianists were always and continue to be both scholarly and grounded in the academic disciplines due to the complex relationship between our two countries, elements of political activism and cultural relativism are unavoidable. His study of two separate debates over approaches within Indonesian studies – one theoretical and that took place 50 years ago, and the other political and contemporary – demonstrates that this is a highly dynamic field within the academy, and is accommodating of a wide variety of approaches; and that while the emphasis of these debates has shifted, we can recognise a continuity of particular tensions within the field along the fault lines of discipline, nation and self.

In Chapter 6, Heather Sutherland raises epistemologically based questions about the study of Indonesia itself and also institutional questions such as: ‘Where should we as “Indonesianists” sit within the academy?’ She provides a historical summary of the rise of ‘area studies’ in the West after World War Two, beginning with her own experience in Australia in the 1960s and later in the US and in the Netherlands. Her chapter, like Aspinall’s in part, deals with the ongoing and ‘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’. Using the Dutch academy as a comparative example to the situation in Australia, Sutherland details how recent trends there show a combined drop in both national funding and interest in ‘Indonesian studies’, arguing that the future for the field lies in engagement with the disciplines. Sutherland proposes a compromise solution, a ‘middle way’ through this, which does not mean abandoning the specialist knowledge about a country made possible by ‘area studies’, but rather ‘embedding’ Indonesian studies within the wider programs on Asia, ‘globalisation’ or the non-West.

In sympathy with Sutherland’s views on the changed future for the study of Indonesia in the Western academy, Richard Tanter argues in Chapter 7 for an approach to knowing Indonesia through a global understanding of the problems and types of issues facing its people and all humanity. Like Aspinall, Tanter recognises that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is imbued with a heightened significance in the broader context of Australia’s foreign and security policy. He tackles the particular question here of how Australia’s security and foreign policy relationship with Indonesia has been configured and, in turn, has impacted on how we have studied and come to know it. Tanter issues a challenge to academics, media professionals and civil society alike to rethink how we define the Australia–Indonesia relationship in order to shed new light on our shared interests and shared problems in a globalising world, where issues like climate change require a new non-state-centric approach. He argues that ‘the question of how we in Australia think about Indonesia politically – not just analytically – is now very firmly on the agenda’.


The slow and in large part unstructured and independent beginnings of Indonesian studies in Australia (Reid 2009; Thomas 2010), meant that the field emerged amid great diversity in disciplinary and personal approaches to scholarship. Early on, its scholars developed a degree of autonomy and, although greatly preoccupied with concerns about Australia’s relationship with Indonesia and with educating Australians about Indonesia, they maintained a non-parochial approach. This autonomy, it can be said, is guarded by each and every scholar who works in a foreign country, although it is not always easy to maintain. There is no evidence, nor indeed vocal suspicion in the Australian academy of what James H. Mittelman has described in the American academy as ‘post-9/11 infringements on the free exchange of ideas’ and ‘Intrusions on academic freedom’, specifically in the field of international studies (Mittelman 2007, 363). Nevertheless, there are causes for concern. Increasingly we see that the independence to choose research topics and to travel to Indonesia for fieldwork is challenged by foreign policy and national interest priorities of the Australian government in a way that has rarely been seen in the history of engagement since the 1930s.

The motivation for individuals to study Indonesia in the past often came from personal experiences, interactions, an awareness or concern for their neighbours or fascination with their rich culture. These traits remain within the general nature of Indonesian studies in the Australian academy, although these too, as the contributors to this book show us, are under challenge as Indonesia features less in Australian public and intellectual consciousness as an opportunity for learning, and more as a threat to be feared (Lindsey 2010).

As the contributors to this book confirm, across ‘Western’ scholarship, area studies as a field of study and public examination is necessarily being reconceptualised and repositioned as it faces the realities and challenges of globalisation. As Barbara Andaya has observed, for Indonesianists and all of those engaged in the close study of ‘other’ nations, ‘the great challenge will be to balance a participation in global conversations with the specific, pressing and often quite different needs of localised research’ (Andaya 2002, 284).


Andaya, Barbara Watson. 2002. ‘Review: Southeast Asia, Historical periodisation and area studies’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient: 45, 2: 268–287.

Anderson, Benedict. 1982. ‘Perspective and method in American research on Indonesia’. In Interpreting Indonesian politics: Thirteen Contributions to the Debate. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 69–83.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2000. ‘Grassroots globalization and the research imagination’, Public Culture. Vol. 12.1: 1–19.

Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA). 2002. Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge: Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset: A Report. Bundoora: Asian Studies Association of Australia, 2002.

Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA). 2007. Suez to Suva: ARC Asia Pacific Futures Research Network. ‘Suez to Suva’ website, Bibliometric data. Accessed 3 March 2008. Available from:

Austral-Asiatic Bulletin. 1937. 1 (1). ‘Review’ (April).

Austral-Asiatic Bulletin. 1946. (April).

Australian Research Council (ARC). 2008. Discovery Funding Outcomes for grants commencing 2008. Accessed 3 March 2008. Available from:

Benda, Harry J. 1962. ‘The structure of Southeast Asian history’, Journal of Southeast Asian History 3: 106–138.

Benda, Harry J. 1964. Review of The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, ‘Democracy in Indonesia’ in Journal of Asian Studies (May): 449–456.

Coppel, Charles, 2006. Melbourne University Indonesia Forum Annual Report.

Cribb, Robert. 2005. ‘Circles of esteem, standard works and euphoric couplets’, Critical Asian Studies 37 (2): 289–304.

Cumings, B. 1997. ‘Boundary displacement: Area studies and international studies during and after the Cold War’, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 29: 6–26.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). 2001. Media Release ‘Australia Indonesia Institute establishes scholarship in honour of Herb Feith’ (27 November). Available from:

Feith, Herbert. 1957. The Indonesian Elections of 1955. Ithaca, NY: Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Department of Far Eastern Studies, Cornell University.

Feith, Herbert. 1962. The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press.

Feith, Herbert. 1964. ‘Some political dilemmas of Indonesian intellectuals’, Paper presented at conference of the Australian Political Studies Association, Canberra.

Feith, Herbert. 1965. ‘History, theory and Indonesian politics: A reply to Harry J. Benda’, Journal of Asian Studies 24 (2) (February): 305–312.

Feith, Herbert. 1974. ‘Review of Showcase State: The illusion of Indonesia’s “accelerated modernization” ‘, by Rex Mortimer, editor, Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 10 (3) (November): 114–118.

Feith, Herbert. 1979. ‘From Sukarno to Suharto: A reply to Jamie Mackie’, in Jamie Mackie et al., Contemporary Indonesia: Political Dimensions, Monash University: 15–20.

Garran, Sir Robert. 1939. ‘A School of Oriental Studies’, Austral-Asiatic Bulletin (February–March): 15.

Geertz, Clifford. 1995. After the Fact. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 2000. Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Heryanto, Ariel. 2002. ‘Can there be Southeast Asians in Southeast Asian Studies?’. Moussons 5: 3–30.

Hill, David T. 2007. ‘Return to Asian Studies’, Australian (23 May). Accessed 3 March 2008. Available from:,20867,21776842-12332,00.html.

Hill, David T. 2012. Indonesian Language in Australian Universities: Strategies for a Stronger Future. National Teaching Fellowship: Final Report, Murdoch University, February, (

Kalidjernih, Freddy K. 2008. ‘Australian Indonesia-specialists and debates on West Papua: Implications for Australia–Indonesia relations’. Australian Journal of International Affairs 62 (1): 72–93.

Kratoska, Paul H; Raben, Remco; Schulte Nordholt, Henk, editors. 2005. Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of knowledge and politics of space. Singapore: Singapore University Press; Athens: Ohio University Press.

Legge, J D. 1976. ‘Southeast Asian history and the social sciences’, in Southeast Asian History and Historiography: Essays presented to D. G. E Hall, edited by Cowan, C D; Wolters, O W. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press: 388–404.

Lev, Daniel S. 1982. ‘Introduction’. In Interpreting Indonesian Politics, edited by Anderson, Benedict; McVey, Ruth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University: 9–14.

Lev, Daniel. 2005. ‘Conceptual filters and obfuscation in the study of Indonesian politics’, Asian Studies Review, December: 345–356.

Lev, Daniel S; Ruth McVey, editors. 1996. Making Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.

Lindsey, Tim. 2007. Lingua Franca, Radio National (24 March). Accessed 3 March 2008. Available from:

Lindsey, Tim. 2010. ‘ “Preposterous Caricatures”: Fear, Tokenism, Denial and the Australia–Indonesia Relationship’. The Price of Fear: Dialogue 2010 29 (2): 31–43.

May, R J; O’Malley, W J, editors. 1989. Observing Change in Asia. Bathurst: Crawford House Press.

Mittelman, James H. 2007. ‘Who governs academic freedom in international studies?’ International Studies Perspectives. 8, 4: 358–368.

Mortimer, Rex. 1973b. ‘From Ball to Arndt: Liberal impasse in Australian scholarship on Southeast Asia’, in Showcase State: The Illusion of Indonesia’s ‘Accelerated Modernisation’. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

Philpott, Simon. 2000. Rethinking Indonesia, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Pietsch, Juliet; Clark, Marshall; He, Baogang. 2010. ‘Generational change: regional security and Australian engagement with Asia’, The Pacific Review 23 (2) (May): 163–181.

Purdey, Jemma. 2011. From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Reid, Anthony. 1981. “Alterity” or “Reformism”: The Australian frontier in Indonesian studies’, Archipel 21: 7–18.

Reid, Anthony. 2009. ‘Indonesian studies at the Australian National University: Why so late?’, Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs (RIMA), 43, 1: 51-74.

Reid, Anthony; Marr, David, editors. 1979. Perceptions of the past in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Heinemann.

Smail, John. 1961. ‘On the possibility of an autonomous history of modern Southeast Asia’. Journal of Southeast Asian History 2: 72–102.

Thomas, Paul. 2010. ‘Menzies “Bahasa”: The Cold War and the introduction of Indonesian to Australian tertiary institutions in the 1950s’, Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Seminar Series, 2 September.

Thomas, Paul. (Forthcoming). Talking North: The Journey of Australia’s First Asian Language.

Walker, David. 1999. Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press.

Walker, David. 2003. ‘Afterword’. In Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia, edited by D’Cruz, JV; Steele, William. Clayton: Monash Asia Institute: 335–341.

1  Herb Feith, Letter to Dr Hans Leyser, 10 September 1952, Herb Feith Papers, Monash University archive, MON 78.

2  The Colombo Plan was a scheme under which young Asians studied in Australia before returning with their skills to contribute to their own nation’s development. The encounters between Australians and Asian youth mostly from Southeast Asia and South Asia were also instrumental in shaping public perceptions of the region and creating personal links into these cultures and societies.

3  For a detailed discussion on the history of Indonesian language teaching in Australia see Thomas, Paul. (Forthcoming). Talking North: The Journey of Australia’s First Asian Language.

4  See Mortimer, 1973b, for discussion of how this limited the significance of the comparative politics and modernisation theory models.

5  Keywords used were ‘Australian’; ‘Theses’; ‘Indonesia’. Accessed 15 January 2008. N.B. There is some repetition.

6  Ford Foundation gave $US25 million in the period 1999–2003; Luce Foundation gave $US12 million, in 1999–2002.

7  In May 2012 DFAT changed its travel advisory for Indonesia from a level 3 or 4, ‘reconsider the need to travel’ for all the country, to a level 2, ‘exercise a high degree of caution’ for most of the country with some areas excepted.

8  In his book, Philpott focuses an Orientalist lens on the study of Indonesian politics in the West and challenges Lev’s approach and that of Kalidjernih’s lauded ‘traditional’ Indonesianists as a ‘naïve realist interpretation’. It presupposes, Philpott argues, that an outsider, appropriately trained and immersed in Indonesian culture, can have even better insight and objectivity than an Indonesian herself. (Philpott 2000, 132).

9  In Australia in 2010, 1100 Year 12 students studied Indonesian. This is half the number of a decade before (cited in Lindsey 2010, 40). Furthermore, as Hill pointed out, ‘There are fewer Year 12 students studying Indonesian in 2009 than there were matriculating in the language in 1972’ (Hill 2012, 25).

Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

   by Jemma Purdey