Pi­o­neer­ing In­done­sian­ist a model scholar-ac­tivist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Francesca Bed­die

JEMMA Purdey’s bi­og­ra­phy of Herb Feith (1930-2001) ap­pears in the year we have farewelled two prom­i­nent In­done­sian­ists: Mur­ray Clapham and Jamie Mackie, both of whom found their way to Jakarta thanks to Feith’s pi­o­neer­ing work in es­tab­lish­ing the Vol­un­teer Grad­u­ate Scheme in In­done­sia in the 1950s.

We are los­ing the gen­er­a­tion whose com­mit­ment to In­done­sia has been piv­otal to the way we un­der­stand our neigh­bour and en­gage with its peo­ple.

Let’s hope that this bi­og­ra­phy in­spires oth­ers to ex­plore the ar­chi­pel­ago with open minds and hearts.

Purdey had a lot of ma­te­rial to work with. It must have been in­tim­i­dat­ing to sift through all the let­ters and notes Feith left be­hind (most of her foot­notes re­fer to his writ­ings). She also had to put these in con­text. Some­times she does so with a di­dac­tic in­ter­lude de­scrib­ing the events of the time; else­where, she is able to in­ter­weave Feith’s per­sonal con­nec­tion with the his­tory she re­counts.

Purdey’s writ­ing flows. On oc­ca­sion, she seems swept up in the mood swings of her sub­ject: for ex­am­ple, when she ex­plores Feith’s writer’s block and de­pres­sion, her own prose loses its tight­ness.

Re­flect­ing on Feith in­vites con­sid­er­a­tion of the role of the pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual in Aus­tralian life and as a com­men­ta­tor on In­done­sia more par­tic­u­larly.

For a reader such as me, who has had con­nec­tions with the world Purdey de­scribes, this story is fa­mil­iar, though it of­fers new in­sights into the man and rightly airs the quandary Feith faced through­out his life as a scholar-ac­tivist. That was a big­ger ten­sion and jour­ney than the one the book’s ti­tle con­veys.

Yes, Feith came from a Jewish refugee fam­ily who fled Vi­enna in 1939 and for whom the op­pres­sion of mi­nori­ties and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism had per­sonal echoes.

But it was less these than the dilemma be­tween ob­serv­ing a sit­u­a­tion and do­ing some­thing to im­prove it that tested his in­tel­lec­tual ap­proach, con­tribut­ing to the bouts of de­spon­dency that plagued him. And while his mother, Lily, was dis­turbed by his em­brace of Chris­tian­ity, Purdey’s ac­count sug­gests that for Feith him­self this caused lit­tle angst. His stead­fast hu­man­ism over­came ec­u­meni­cal dif­fer­ences.

What is not clear from the book is Feith’s attitude to­wards Is­lam. He was close to many lib­eral Mus­lims in In­done­sia but we do not hear of any com­men­tary on the Is­lamic faith.

Ob­servers of In­done­sia dur­ing the New Or­der (1966-98) had to tread care­fully if they wanted to main­tain their con­nec­tions. In­done­sian com­men­ta­tors be­came adept at selfcen­sor­ship and the dou­ble en­ten­dre. Jakarta was an ex­cit­ing place to be, not least be­cause of the riddles and ru­mours that were an an­a­lyst’s raw ma­te­rial.

For­eign­ers, too, had to think about what they said pub­licly and whether they wanted to risk be­ing banned from re­turn­ing. This could re­sult in what Feith called ‘‘ visa cow­ardice’’, some­thing he de­bated with his fel­low aca­demics.

His de­ci­sion to be crit­i­cal — for ex­am­ple, he wrote an open letter con­demn­ing In­done­sia’s treat­ment of po­lit­i­cal prisoners dur­ing pres­i­dent Suharto’s one visit to Aus­tralia — did him no favours in of­fi­cial cir­cles in Jakarta.

Feith’s cri­tique went fur­ther. Un­der the in­flu­ence of rad­i­cal the­olo­gian Ivan Il­lich he came to view those who praised In­done­sia’s eco­nomic progress as apol­o­gists for the regime. This was a shift to the left for Feith (he had been no cham­pion of Sukarno), which took him in the 70s and 80s away from In­done­sia to greater par­tic­i­pa­tion in the an­ti­nu­clear move­ment and to cham­pi­oning global peace stud­ies.

This ori­en­ta­tion led him to con­clude that the tiny half-is­land of East Timor could sur­vive as an in­de­pen­dent state, though for some time, in­flu­enced by his deep un­der­stand­ing of In­done­sian at­ti­tudes and his­tory, he was more in­clined to the prov­ince as­sum­ing a form of spe­cial sta­tus within In­done­sia.

As with the 1965 at­tempted coup and mass killings that fol­lowed, so with East Timor, Feith tried to use his in­tel­lect as well as his moral com­pass to guide his re­sponses. This re­sulted in painful rifts with some of his clos­est friends, no­tably US scholar Ben An­der­son and for some time Mackie, in­ter alia foun­da­tion pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial change at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s re­search school of Pa­cific and Asian stud­ies.

Purdey con­cludes that Feith’s model of schol­arly en­gage­ment, with its con­stant grap­pling be­tween ethics and science, is one worth striv­ing for. This is a stretch too far. Feith’s best aca­demic work emerged from im­mer­sion in his sub­ject mat­ter, keen ob­ser­va­tion and crit­i­cal nar­ra­tive. His least pro­duc­tive years, as Purdey re­counts them, are those when he tried to force what he saw and knew into a the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct.

In the end, the an­a­lyst came sec­ond to the ar­chiv­ist and ed­u­ca­tor. Feith’s legacy was to ini­ti­ate and sup­port through­out his life deep per­sonal en­gage­ment with In­done­sia.

Thanks in great part to him, new gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents are able to work in vil­lages or of­fices or class­rooms along­side their In­done­sian col­leagues. With the de­cline in sup­port for In­done­sian stud­ies in many Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties they are less as­sured of the op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to an aca­demic mi­lieu where they can make sense of that ex­pe­ri­ence.

At least they can now read about the man who paved their way. Francesca Bed­die was a diplo­mat in In­done­sia in the 1980s. For a cou­ple of months in 1997 she lived down the road from Herb Feith in Yo­gyakarta.

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