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Public Intellectuals (or A Tribute to Books)

Ben Anderson | english.emory.edu

Ben Anderson | english.emory.edu

by Benedict Anderson

Pengantar: Tulisan Oom Ben ini asal usulnja adalah pidatonja do’i di depan konperensi internasional di Manila menjambut 10 tahun program beasiswa Asia Tenggara jang dikeluwarin sama Nippon Foundation. Udah gitu ini tulisan nongol di Bangkok Post, edisi 28 Djuni 2010, sajangnja tjuman sebagian. Selidik punja selidik ternjata koran ibukota Thailand itu njalinja kagak tjukup gedhé. Maklum pada bagian achir tulisannja Oom Ben ada kritik pedes pulitiknja Thailand. Trims deh sama Oom Ben, kerna sekarang liwat Facebook ini kita bisa nikmatin ini tulisan seutuh-utuhnja. Selamat batja jach dan setiap komentar jang masuk dipastiken akan dibatja sama Oom Ben sendiri.


Over the past few weeks, I have had the enjoyable experience of reading through most of the annual volumes issued by the Nippon Foundation. Most of the contributions are eye-opening, not merely for their quality, but also for their comparative reach, and the doors that they open to various networks of people concerned about the adequacy of a long list of state policies. Nonetheless, as a whole, they arouse certain anxieties in my mind, possibly because I spent many academic years as a so-called political scientist.

The past decade, say 1998 to 2008, has seen many rapid changes not only on the countries covered by the Foundation’s initiative, but in the globe as a whole. It has ended with the most colossal, and global, economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and followed the regional financial crisis of 1997-1998. Politically speaking the decade started with an admirable outburst of reformist politics, but has ended depressingly with the entrenchment of oligarchies in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. In all these places, the level of economic inequality has rapidly increased, human rights have been constantly abused, and state control of the mass media has become more formidable.

What struck me on reading many of the papers in the Foundation’s volumes was the relative invisibility of all this turmoil. One could use as an example Thailand, now in the grip of a long-term political crisis, of which the signs were already visible at the start of the new century. But the Thailand papers barely mention Thaksin Shinawatra, the problems of the monarchy, or the bitter insurrection in the Muslim, Malay speaking Far South. There is no warning in them of the coming Red Shirt movement we read about every day in the newspapers. One could read most of the papers on the Philippines without getting any idea of the disastrous presidency of Gloria Arroyo-Macapagal — and so on. Why should this be so?

One could start with the long-term decline of the traditional public intellectual, whose primary readership or audience was the public at large. In the 1960s and 1970s the most influential public intellectual in the Philippines was certainly Renato Constantino, who wrote many historical studies with a strong left-nationalist character, and who was bitterly hostile to what he called the persisting ‘colonial mentality’ among his fellow citizens. He was not alone. For example, the Protestant American William Henry Scott also wrote influential books about the early history of the Philippines, and about the abused pagan minorities in the Luzon Cordillera. Neither of them was an academic or a professional journalist.

Today almost no such commanding people exist. No Indonesian had so grand an output as the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who never finished high school, but wrote a series of extraordinary novels and short stories, for the general public, even though he spent many years in prison. As yet, he has no successor. In Thailand, Sulak Sivarak has for decades been his country’s most powerful social-political critic, and has repeatedly been accused of insulting the monarchy. He has no academic appointment, and is not a journalist. But he is now in his 70s, and has no obvious successor. Malaysia has one such person, who is still quite young, the satirist, editor, outstanding filmmaker, and essayist Amir Muhammad. Again, not an academic, journalist, or civil servant. But he too is rather alone.


You will have noticed that I emphasize particularly the absence of academic occupations. This point leads me to the first of two profound changes making the survival of public intellectuals difficult: it is professionalisation of universities, following the American example, which in turn borrowed heavily from 19th Century Germany. This professionalisation was originally built on the powerful institution of the disciplines, in other words the fragmentation of knowledge and study according to the logic of the division of labour.

In itself, it discouraged historians interested in anthropology and economists interested in sociology; but it also meant that success in scholarly life was largely determined by senior figures in the disciplines. In addition professionalisation encouraged the development of technical jargons understandable only by people in the same academic disciplines. This in turn meant that, more and more, academics wrote for each other, published in ‘professional journals,’ and in university presses. The general public was increasingly excluded by this tendency. Writing books for this kind of readership was typically regarded as superficial and unscientific. Elegant prose was less and less esteemed.

Nonetheless America was in some ways unique. First of all, it had no national-level state-owned universities, unlike almost every other country in the world. Most of the top universities were private. Second, the country developed thousands of universities in response to the popular demand, at a time when university degrees were thought of as requirements for well-paying jobs within and without the universities themselves. Thirdly, the country has a long tradition of hostility to university intellectuals in general, meaning that only a small minority of professors had any powerful connections to the political elite or the mass media.

Yet the American example was very powerful from the 1950s onwards, given the country’s hegemonic global position during and after the Cold War. Tens of thousands of youngsters from most parts of the so-called Free World were invited to come to America to get advanced degrees, and were amply funded by private foundations and state agencies. On their return home, they were supposed to follow their teachers’ example and reinvent university life, often with substantial American financial and political support. But this task was carried out only in part, given the character of the societies from which the youngsters had come.

In Southeast Asia, for example, the top universities are usually owned by the state, and their staffs are these civil servants of one sort or another. There is a long tradition of respect for learning, based on both pre-colonial and colonial-era social orders. This respect for learning is fortified by the strong connection to the state. Professors have access to the political elite and the mass media in a way almost unthinkable in the USA. On the other hand their social status has usually not been paralleled by comparable financial support.

In the US professors are very highly paid, many senior professors earning 100,000 dollars plus every year. In Southeast Asia, in contrast, professors are badly paid, so they end up working on useless state research projects, moonlighting in other universities, speculating in real estate, and various kinds of mass media opportunities such as becoming columnists in newspapers, TV personalities and so forth. Students are often neglected or ignored, or treated in the bureaucratic manner. A good many academics prefer not to teach at all, but sit in research institutes, which are rarely very productive. This is why so many of the best students are largely autodidacts and despise their nominal teachers.

Under such circumstances many academics pragmatically align themselves with the political elites. Otherwise they compete fiercely for grants made available by agencies in the rich countries, which have their own agendas. This tendency has its downside. I well remember a wonderfully dedicated woman who handled the Toyota Foundation’s grants to Southeast Asian academics. She said she was really shocked to notice that Filipino academics attending Foundation-sponsored conferences, not only expected all their expenses to be paid, but even demanded cash payments for their contributions. These cash payments were typically used for shopping expensively.

Moonlighting for the mass media has its own problems. TV slots pay well, but usually no one is given more than five minutes, which is not enough to explain anything important. Writing columns at least encourages academics to write for a wide general public, but serious scholars cannot turn out weekly columns without endlessly repeating themselves, chatting about themselves, and obeying the instructions of the editors and owners of newspapers. They become employees — of the state, of the foreign foundations, or newspaper moguls, and TV managers. Small wonder that they have little time to do real research, write significant books, or seriously challenge anything. They are also peculiarly isolated.

Let me give you one striking example. A couple of years ago, I gave a lecture at a top Bangkok university for about 300 professors and students. In the course of this talk, I spoke at some length about the first genuine genius Thailand has produced since the 1960s — the great filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won two top prizes at Cannes within the space of three years, and has also won awards all over the film world. At the end, I asked those who had ever heard of Apichatpong to raise their hands. About ten hands were raised, all by students. How many had seen any of his films? About six, again all students. I suddenly realised the isolated ignorance of the professors, who only watch Hollywood films, and their arrogance: filmmakers have no university degrees!

Almost no bridges between professors and filmmakers, novelists, and painters, and so on. No wonders that film makers and novelists usually have a very low opinion of professors. Only unprofessional students are connected to the two worlds. All of this suggests some of the reasons why it is unlikely to find public intellectuals in universities, though there are always important exceptions. Professionalisation, civil service status, closeness to the ruling elite, low incomes, Philistinism, contempt for students all play their parts.

But one cannot blame universities without considering the environment in which they exist. Here I come to the second major change affecting the survival of the public intellectual. This can be described as the changing culture of national elites and the ways in which they make use of the power of the state. The first thing to notice is the gathering trend for these elites to send their children to so-called international primary and secondary schools in their own countries, then send them overseas for various tertiary degrees, mainly to the US and the UK, as well as France, Japan, Australia, Singapore and so on. This outlook obviously implies indifference to, if not contempt for, the countries’ own educational institutions. For this reason, elites have few qualms about massive political interference in university life. In the end, only degrees from foreign universities have any real prestige.

This situation is the opposite of what occurred in the early days of independence when everyone was proud of their schools, and teachers were still generally respected. What do the children of the elites study, if they study at all? You can be sure the degrees will be mainly professional-commercial: business management, marketing, economics, engineering, IT, etc., not history, literature, anthropology or psychology. These disciplines are often seen ‘useless,’ and irrelevant for ‘our children,’ who are to take their parents place eventually in political systems in which nepotism is more and more shamelessly promoted.

Anecdote: When I last spoke with Amir Muhammad, he told me that his little publishing firm had just printed a collection of short stories by gay and lesbian writers. Knowing the harsh legal penalties for ‘abnormal’ sexual relations in Malaysia, I asked him if he was afraid of repression. “Not at all,” he said, laughing, “Our rulers never read books, only two-page policy recommendations and the daily press. Plus, the book is in English, which they are not very good at anyway.”

Emblematic in another way, is what happened in the long dictatorship of Suharto. In 1978 there was a nationwide rebellion of university students against the regime, which was quickly crushed. The intellectual leaders were mainly youngsters connected with the prestigious Technical Institute of Bandung. But during the 1998 rebellion against Suharto, twenty years later, this institute was impotent, and did nothing. Why? The reason is simple. Suharto, eager for development without worries, employed large numbers of ITB graduates, usually also sent overseas for advanced study, to man the technology-oriented ministries, which soon became notorious for nepotism and corruption. The dictator knew these people were no threat to him. They no longer had a political or moral base in Indonesian society. The students who took their place came from ‘second class’ universities, often religiously oriented, and private.

The state is a somewhat different story. When I applied for a research visa in 1961, I had to wait nine months before it was granted. The main reason was bureaucratic laziness, but there was also the understandable fear that foreign researchers, especially from the US, could be secret agents of the CIA. Under Suharto, a favourite of the US, changes occurred which made the situation worse.

The ambition of the regime was to exercise full control over all foreign students, banning them from studying anything deemed ‘sensitive.’ The control was exercised by the state intelligence,using as a mask the once open minded LIPI, the Indonesian Institute for the Sciences, a bureaucratic arm of the state manned by reliable researchers who rarely taught students and had little contact with them. This management technique spread to Malaysia and Thailand, and to a lesser extent the Philippines. The veto power of the various intelligence apparatuses in all these countries was such that students applying for research visas either turned to safe, innocuous projects, or studied how to lie intelligently.

Most of these foreign students were financed either by private foundations or by foreign governments. These institutions —American,Japanese, Dutch, British, French, Canadian, etc— had long term goals in mind, and dozens or even hundreds of students depending on their financial support. Foreign governments, with multiple interests in say Indonesia or Malaysia, had to think carefully about not upsetting the host government. Private foundations faced the same problem, how to encourage good research while not offending or upsetting the state apparatus. If they were too bold, they could be banned, their projects blocked, their relations with foreign affairs ministries, ministries of education, and above all intelligence apparatuses, very tricky. Under such pressures, it is quite understandable that these agencies and foundations felt forced to be very careful and conservative. You can thus easily see why their well-meaning programs rarely favoured public intellectuals, but rather emphasised technocratic or small-cale projects unlikely to create problems — not only for themselves but also for the youngsters that they sponsored and financed.


Within, or closely allied with the state, are some very powerful veto  groups, which should also be noted. Let me give you an example from each of the SE Asia countries involved with the Nippon Foundation’s gallant program. In Indonesia, the most important veto-groups are the military and Muslim politicians. I cannot think of a single good book about the Indonesian military (at the national level) published in the last 30 years either by an Indonesian scholar or a foreigner. Most of the best stuff available comes from the world of the NGOS — Amnesty International, Indonesia Watch, as well as small local NGOs, but the work is not systematic and usually focussed on the abuse of human rights at various levels and in various localities. But studying the military’s vast empire of businesses, legitimate and illegitimate, is more or less a no-no. You might think that people might be interested in studying the odd situation where the country is nominally 90% Muslim, but the combined votes for the various Muslim part es over the past ten years has never reached half this number. Or: why is it that while the influence of Islam has been visibly increasing over the past decade, the prestige of Muslim politicians has reached an all-time low? Silence.

In the Philippines the most powerful veto-group is the Catholic Church, which has always successfully blocked any enlightened law on divorce, leading to countless marital separations, which severely damage women and children. It has also largely blocked the widespread distribution of birth-control mechanisms, which not only leads to uncontrollable population growth in an already poverty-stricken country and to massive emigration, but also impedes the struggle against AIDS. The total assets and the internal budgets of the hierarchy are usually well kept secrets. I can’t think of a single book that systematically investigates Church interests, policies, and their social and economic consequences.

In Malaysia, the crucial veto-group is the ingrown UMNO oligarchy, which has held unbroken power for more than half a century. Over the years it has made regular use of the draconic ISA ‘security’ laws, inherited from late British colonialism, but further developed, to suppress rebels, critics and dissenters. All ostensibly to preserve social peace, national unity, and warm inter-ethnic relations. It is true that UMNO today is in decline thanks to deep and widespread social changes, mediocre and corrupt leadership, and simply boredom. It is also true that there are energetic environmental NGOs, NGOs working against racial discrimination especially of the miserable majority of Indians — and so on. But a frontal assault against the corruption, incompetence, hypocrisy, discriminatory attitudes etc of he UMNO elite itself: Not yet, though scholars are getting bolder little by little.

Finally Thailand. The only good, serious book on the monarchy is Paul Handley’s The King Who Never Smiles. Handley is a former Bangkok-based journalist, who is now barred from the country. When news got out that Yale University Press was going to publish his book, the court made every effort to stop Yale’s publication – to no avail. Needless to say, it was quietly translated into Thai and circulates on the Internet, one jump ahead of the state’s electronic censorship agencies. But the deeper effects are most plain in the intellectual academic world.

One small but telling example is the National Museum’s elaborate and nicely framed narrative history of Thailand from its misty origins 800 years ago until the present. The truly strange thing is that this permanent exhibition gives a name to only four or so people, and these are all admired monarchs. Not a single writer, general, doctor, poet, scientist, monk, judge, philosopher, philanthropist or painter, let alone a woman. Such an exhibit would be unthinkable in Indonesia, the Philippines, or even Malaysia. The same kind of thing, even if more sophisticated in form, can be seen in academic disciplines such as art history, history, national literature, political science, ethnology and so on. Naturally there are some free spirits about, including some professors old enough to be retired. But the general picture is far from exhilarating.


Having made my argument —certainly made as a provocation— that the professionalisation and commercialisation of universities, the growing power of state bureaucracies and censorship agencies, as well as oligarchic trends in nation-state leadership, the space for public intellectuals is, at least today, quite limited. But let me conclude with a few words about books and why for the public intellectual they continue to be so important.

Newspapers with their columns are necessarily ephemeral, consumed by the next day’s output. Television can have its vivid moments, but no one watches last year’s programs. Films can be great, but typically they are watched only once or twice, except by specialists. The Internet has emancipatory moments, but the traffic is huge, and the messages in the blogosphere, Facebook etc are necessarily short — meant for the moment. Good books can be read many times over and can survive, reanimated, over very long periods. One can still read Lady Murasaki with pleasure and instruction, like the works of José Rizal, Milton, Hafiz, Voltaire, and so forth. They allow space for everything that is complicated and complex. They are read privately in a person’s mind. And they have no specified-in-advance readers, anyone can learn from them.

It is here that I would like to say that the development of networks, as promoted by the Nippon Foundation, while highly commendable and valuable, still means groups that understand each other and think about similar problems. But this is not, at least in my own view, the same as the contribution of public intellectuals, who, in principle talk to anyone and everyone. They have, we hope, readers, which is not exactly the same as close contacts. But every society needs both.*

(Benedict Anderson is currently professor emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University, and head of its Indonesian program. He is also widely regarded as an authority on twentieth-century Indonesian history and politics. His graduate work in politics at Cornell resulted in a paper (the “Cornell Paper”) detailing the political situation in Indonesia for which he was barred from the country)

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