In the last half of last century, ANU came from nowhere to become one of the world’s great centres for the study of Southeast Asia. Those who participated in that pioneering initiative are now retired, but academically active in various degrees. Some of them began at the end of 2016 discussing how best to ensure that this formidable legacy in Southeast Asian Studies was not lost to ANU and the world, but suitably showcased. They resolved, with the University’s support, to focus most urgently on securing and cataloguing the research materials and papers of those who participated in this enterprise, and making them available as an ANU treasure for future researchers.
From the 1950s onwards into the 1980s, Southeast Asia loomed as Australia’s great intellectual and policy challenge for hard-nosed political leaders, public intellectuals, creative artists and idealistic students. Unlike the established, partly discredited, academic industries studying India and China, it was seen as a new field where Australians could and should make a creative difference. Expertise on the area had been virtually absent from Australian universities until the federal government initiative in 1955 to fund three centres to teach ‘Indonesian and Malayan Studies’, one of which must be in Canberra. The Canberra University College fortunately secured in 1958 an energetic young idealist in Tony Johns, not a distinguished colonial-era orientalist from Europe, to build this program. Within a decade it had become the world pioneer in the new challenge of making modern Indonesian language and literature an academic subject at both undergraduate and graduate levels, with enrolments exceeding 100 by 1966. Again exceptionally, the staff he recruited were all promising young Indonesians who did their PhDs at ANU while teaching language and culture.
At the same time another Indonesian initiative unique in the world was the establishment of an Indonesia emphasis (later expanded to Southeast Asia) in the Economics Department of the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPacS). Sir John Crawfurd established this in 1960, but persuaded Heinz Arndt to lead it from 1963. In 1985 Arndt could boast that the eight PhD students he had trained represented half the economic expertise on Indonesia in the world outside Indonesia. That program also produced the majority of the University’s substantial contribution to later Ministers in Indonesian Cabinets. In Anthropology, History, Prehistory and International Relations the emphasis gradually expanded from Indonesia/Malaysia to embrace also Thailand, the Philippines and eventually Vietnam and Burma.
While the Southeast Asian appointments of the 1960s had tended to be from a decolonising Malaysia/Singapore (Emma Sadka, Tom Silcock, Bobby Ho, Wang Gungwu, Anthony Reid, Terry McGee) or from the usual British sources, the 1970s brought the professionalism of US Area Studies. Australia, and the ANU in particular, became for a decade the springboard opportunity for Southeast Asianists who had trained in US universities during the boom of the Vietnam War but found nowhere to go in the US during its reaction against Southeast Asian involvement after 1975.
In the 1970s Thai and Vietnamese were added to the language offerings, adding to the role of the ANU as a unique national resource for Southeast Asian language teaching. While less coherent and purposeful a centre for Southeast Asian Studies than the federally-funded Title VI Centers in the US (Cornell, Yale, Michigan, etc.), ANU had a much larger, deeper and more varied concentration of scholars than anywhere else in the world through the 1980s and 1990s. The Faculty of Asian Studies developed at that time an effective training of undergraduate students in disciplines plus language. Many of its graduates had distinguished careers in diplomacy or academe.
Hundreds of graduate students from Australia and around the world were trained to PhD level. By the 1980s the ANU was regarded as a world-leading school of Southeast Asian Studies at the graduate and research level. The breadth of disciplinary strength from economics and strategic studies at the policy end, to old Javanese textual study at the cultural, gave it a unique capacity to generate creative new ideas about the region.
The ANU Archives has begun to expand its collection systematically of papers and documents on Southeast Asian matters. Former and current academics and graduate students are encouraged to donate important materials to the Archive as a resource for future generations, and for researchers around the world. More information is available from the Southeast Asia Archives Project. Enquiries can be sent to Maggie Shapley, University Archivist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Emeritus Professor Tony Reid
This story originally appeared on the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific website