What's Up with Southeast Asian Studies at Stanford? Recap, Prospect, Controversy

The 2008-09 academic year was a busy time for the Southeast Asia Forum (SEAF).  A dozen on-campus lectures by Southeast Asianists from Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and the United States ranged from country-specific topics such as labor resistance in Vietnam, political opposition in Malaysia, and the 2009 elections in Indonesia, to broader-brush treatments of Southeast Asian identities and modernities, regional repercussions of the global economic slowdown, and the wellsprings of “late democratization” across East Asia.

The lecture on “late democratization” was delivered to a capacity audience by the 2008-09 National University of Singapore-Stanford University Lee Kong Chian (LKC) Distinguished Fellow, Mark Thompson.  Mark is a political science professor in Germany at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.  He and another 08-09 SEAF speaker, Australian National University Prof. Ed Aspinall, jointly with State University of New York-Albany Prof. Meredith Weiss, will lead a 28-30 August 2009 workshop in Singapore under the auspices of the NUS-Stanford Initiative (NSI).  The workshop will review and analyze the record and prospects of student movements in Asia.  Attendees will include authors of chapters of a book-in-progress stemming from the research and writing on democratization done by Thompson during his fellowship at Stanford.

A second NSI awardee this past academic year was the 2008 NUS-Stanford LKC Distinguished Lecturer Joel Kahn, professor of anthropology emeritus at La Trobe University, Melbourne, who gave three talks at SEAF this year: 

His insightful interpretations of identity and modernity in Southeast Asia may be heard via the relevant audio icons at the links above.

Off-campus lectures involving SEAF included three panel discussions convened to launch Hard Choices: Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia (introductory chapter and information on ordering the title are available), published by Stanford’s Shorenstein APARC and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore, in 2008-09.  The book was edited by SEAF Director Donald K. Emmerson

Hosting these launches in their respective cities were ISEAS in Singapore, the Asia Society in New York, and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.  Panelists at these events included Ellen Frost (Peterson Institute for International Economics), Mike Green (Georgetown University School of Foreign Service), Alan Chong Chia Siong (NUS), and Joern Dosch (Leeds University). 

Another panelist was John Ciorciari, a Shorenstein Fellow at Shorenstein APARC in 2007-08 and a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution in 2008-09.  In 2009, despite the U.S. recession and a correspondingly competitive academic marketplace, he published several Southeast Asia-related pieces, completed and submitted to a university press the manuscript he had worked on at APARC, and won a tenure-track assistant professorship at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Policy starting in September 2009.  Congratulations, John! 

Apart from speaking at the launches of Hard Choices, Don Emmerson gave papers on Indonesian foreign policies and Asia Pacific regionalism in Jakarta and Manila, and discussed these and other topics at events in Chicago and Los Angeles among other venues.  At two conferences in Washington,D.C. on a proposed U.S.-Indonesian “comprehensive partnership,” he addressed what such a relationship could and should entail.  In Spring 2009 at Stanford, he served as faculty sponsor and lecturer in a student-initiated course on Thailand.  His interviewers during the year included the BBC, Radio Australia, The New York Times, and various Indonesian media.

SEAF organized its final on-campus event of the 2008-09 academic year in June 2009 — an invitation-only roundtable co-sponsored with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.  Nine scholars met with three current American ambassadors to Southeast Asian countries for off-the-record conversations on seven topics of mutual interest regarding the region and its relations with the United States.

None of the above could have happened without the talent, friendliness, and all-round indispensability of SEAF’s administrative associate, Lisa Lee.  Thank you, Lisa!

Prospect:  2009-2010

As of June 2009, SEAF anticipated hosting, directly or indirectly, these scholars of Southeast Asia during academic year 2008-09:

  • Sudarno Sumarto is the director of the SMERU Research Institute, Jakarta.  He will be at Stanford for the full academic year as the 2009-10 Shorenstein APARC-Asia Foundation Visiting Fellow. While on campus, Sudarno will do research and write on the political economy of development in Indonesia.  He is likely to focus within that field on the economic consequences of violent conflict, policy lessons to be drawn from the record of cash-transfer welfare programs, and whether and how such aid has affected its recipients’ voting behavior. 
  • James Hoesterey will spend academic year 2009-10 at APARC as the year’s Shorenstein Fellow.  He will revise for publication his University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral dissertation in anthropology on “Sufis and Self-help Gurus:  Postcolonial Psychology, Religious Authority, and Muslim Subjectivity in Indonesia.” Jim researched this topic in Indonesia over two years of fieldwork focused on the outlook and activities of a popular, charismatic, media-savvy Muslim preacher, Abdullah Gymnastiar.  Jim’s aim is to understand and interpret how a new generation of Muslim preachers and trainers in Indonesia has found a marketable niche and acquired personal and religious authority by combining piety with practical advice. 
  • Thitinan Pongsudhirak is an associate professor in international relations at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, where he also heads the Institute of Security and International Studies.  He will be at Stanford in Spring 2010, one of four visiting experts from overseas in a new joint effort by the Stanford Humanities Center and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies to bring “high-profile international scholars into the intellectual life of Stanford.” 

Together with SEAF, the Center for East Asian Studies and the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law will co-host Thitinan during his stay.  While at Stanford he will lecture and write on Thai politics and foreign policy, among other possible topics.  His op ed in the 18 April 2009 New York Times, “Why Thais Are Angry,” may be accessed at the New York Times.

Christian von Luebke, a 2008-09 Shorenstein Fellow, will remain at Stanford in 2009-2010 as a visiting scholar on a German Science Foundation fellowship.

He will enlarge, for publication, the focus of his doctoral dissertation, on the political economy of subnational policy reform in Indonesia, to encompass the Philippines and China as well.  To that end, he did preparatory fieldwork in Manila in Summer 2009.

SEAF is happy to congratulate all four of these 2009-2010 scholars for winning these intensely competitive awards! 

In addition to sponsoring the lectures these scholars are expected to give, SEAF will host a full roster of occasional speakers from the United States and other countries in AY 2009-2010.  These speakers will analyze and assess, for example, the (in)efficacy of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s welfare programs in Thailand, the role of intra-military tensions in propelling Asian transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule, and aspects of Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II that need reconsideration.

As for the 2009-10 iteration of the NUS-Stanford Initiative and its fellowship and lectureship awards, as of June 2009 this prospect was on hold pending clarification of NSI’s financial base, which has been affected by the global economic downturn.  Whatever the status of NSI in 2009-10, SEAF’s speakers, whether resident on campus or invited for one-time talks, should make up in quality for the modest shortfall in quantity—not filling one slot for a visitor—that the possible absence of an NSI-funded scholar would imply.

Controversy:  “Islamism” and Its Discontents

SEAF expects to learn in 2009-10 of the publication of one or more books written wholly or partly at Stanford under its auspices.  One of these titles is Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam.  It is set to appear by November 2009 and can be ordered now from Stanford University Press at http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=11926. 

In this volume, SEAF’s director debates a friend and colleague, Middle Eastern and Islamic studies expert and Hofstra University anthropologist Dan Varisco.  They disagree over the meaning of the term “Islamism” and the (un)desirability of its use in discourse about Muslims and their faith.  Of particular sensitivity in this context is the (mis)use of “Islamism” to describe or interpret instances of violence that have been or may be committed by Muslims in the name of Islam.  A dozen other experts on Islam, mostly Muslims, contribute shorter comments on “Islamism” and on the positions taken by Emmerson and Varisco.  If one early reviewer turns out to be right, “this lively work will be a great help for anyone concerned with current debates between Islamic nations and the West.” 

At Stanford in February 2009, Don Emmerson conveyed his and Dan Varisco’s views to a standing-room-only lecture and discussion hosted by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies entitled “Debating Islamism: Pro, Semi-pro, Con, and Why Bother?” (audio recording available).  One listener later commented anonymously on the talk.  Also relevant, in the context of larger questions regarding how best to convey Muslims’ lives and religion to non-Muslims, is Jonathan Gelbart's article "Who Speaks For Islam? Not John Esposito".

Don does not know the authors of these posts; ran across their comments by chance while cyber-surfing; and does not necessarily endorse their views, let alone views to be found in the sources to which these comments may be electronically linked.  But the blog and the article do contribute to a debate whose importance was illustrated at the very end of Stanford’s 2008-09 academic year by Barack Obama’s own treatment of Islam and Muslims in the unprecedented speech that he gave at Cairo University on 4 June 2009.  After he spoke, in conversation with an Indonesian journalist, Obama promised to visit—actually, to revisit—Jakarta on his next trip to Asia.  That stop is most likely to take place before or after he attends the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in nearby Singapore in November 2009.  Viewers interested in a commentary can also read Don's Obama's Trifecta: So Far, So Good.