Oct 29, 2016 Last Updated 11:16 PM, Oct 27, 2016

Daniel S Lev

Published: Apr 14, 2007

Tim Lindsey

Emeritus Professor Daniel S Lev, who taught Political Science at the University of Washington for 29 years, died on 29 July 2006 from lung cancer. A specialist in the comparative politics, legal systems and human rights of Southeast Asia, Dan’s research on Indonesian law and politics was seminal. He set standards for both scholars and law reformers.

Dan always closely identified himself with Indonesia’s beleaguered law reform activists and they welcomed him to their ranks. As a friend, David Thornton, recalled in the Seattle Times, ‘A natural raconteur in any language, Dan would spend hours smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee (often Scotch) arguing, debating and joking with Indonesians.’

The reasons for Dan’s strong links with Indonesia’s law reform community lie in Dan’s past. After graduating from Ohio’s Miami University in 1955, he became fascinated by politics in Indonesia while a graduate student at Cornell. As a member of the Modern Indonesia Project, he made his first trip there in 1959 with his wife, Arlene. Then in their early 20s, they stayed for three years. ‘We kind of grew up there,’ Arlene has said. During this time he made friendships with lawyers, judges, politicians and intellectuals that would form the basis of his work for decades to come and make him an influential figure in Indonesia’s legal sector.

He was never a detached observer. From the 1950s, Dan documented the systematic dismantling of Indonesia’s once impressive legal system, first by Sukarno and then by Suharto and it made him a passionate proponent of law reform. He shared the hopes, dreams and disappointments — sometimes also the bitterness and anger — of the small group of Indonesian lawyers and activists who were prepared to sacrifice advancement and prosperity for the elusive goal of ‘negara hukum’ (law state/rule of law).

Deflating class pretensions

Dan grew up among the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio and he was a carpenter and a Golden Gloves boxer long before he became an intellectual. He revelled in this and delighted in deflating pretensions of class or status.

Dan brought the forthrightness and vigour of this NGO milieu to his research, sometimes to the discomfort of his colleagues. Jemma Purdey has quoted him writing to Herb Feith, his close friend and fellow Cornell alumnus, ‘Christ, I too wish there were some way of determining just how far one can go to call an ass an ass and a silliness a silliness and even a spade a spade …’ If there are such limits, Dan certainly ignored them. He showed no reluctance to thump the table in conferences and classrooms or over a meal, energetically denouncing ‘grand myths’, hypocrisies and errors of analysis wherever he found them.

Back in the United States, Dan taught at the University of California, Berkeley for five years, until 1970, when his outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War seems to have cost him a tenured position. He then moved to the more liberal University of Washington in Seattle, where he established the school’s Political Science honours program.

Dan’s legacy will be lasting. His influential publications include The Transition to Guided Democracy (1966); Islamic Courts in Indonesia (1972); ‘Colonial Law and the Genesis of the Indonesian State’ (1985); and Legal Evolution and Political Authority in Indonesia (2000). In Indonesia, the Indonesia Institute for Social and Economic Research, Education and Information (LP3ES) published a collection of his classic essays in 1990 as Law and Politics in Indonesia, adding to the many volumes of his work circulating in English and translation, often in well-thumbed photocopies.

To the end, however, Dan remained deeply concerned to support Indonesia’s law reform NGOs, travelling between Seattle and Jakarta even in his last years. In June, he shipped the bulk of his research materials to the Jakarta-based Center for Study of Law and Policy (PSHK), a young lawyers’ NGO. He died just before they could formally launch their new Daniel S Lev Library. He would probably have wanted to skip the formalities anyway, to sit and argue with his Indonesian friends instead.

Tim Lindsey (t.lindsey@unimelb.edu.au ) is a Federation Fellow and professor in the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

Latest Articles

Food sovereignty and peasant activism

Oct 24, 2016 - Sarah Mourney

Farmers and would-be farmers in Lombok are fighting a land-rights battle against the tourism industry

Review: Troubled transit

Oct 16, 2016 - Max Walden

Asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia 

Why size matters

Oct 10, 2016 - Diana Pakasi

Young people at a hangout in Sentani. Source: Diana Pakasi

Young men in Papua reassert their manhood through penis enlargement

In Memoriam & Ten weeks in Bali, Java, Singapore and Sumatra, December 1981 - March 1982

Oct 03, 2016 - Anton Lucas and John Barnard

Many older readers of Inside Indonesia will remember John Barnard, who died earlier this year in Melbourne after a brief illness. John, who worked as a technician in the science laboratory...

Review: Witnesses to Holland's war in Indonesia 1945-49

Sep 17, 2016 - Joost Coté

Joost Coté

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.


Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Readers said:

  • Food sovereignty and peasant activism
    Dave - 26 Oct
    Interesting article. Sadly to me it confuses two very fundamentally separate issues, changing land usage, develop and ensuring land rights and equity ...
  • Food sovereignty and peasant activism
    Jon - 25 Oct
    Good article. I wonder if there's a way to engage the tourists with the farmers' battle. Surely many would sympathise if they knew.
  • Why size matters
    Anthony - 21 Oct
    Very good and enlightening article. I had no idea that existed among these young men. Too bad the challenge of living comes down to this unnecessary ...
  • Why size matters
    Jonathan Foe - 19 Oct
    In one area of the Philippines, some guys insert small ball bearings under the skin. This gives women more pleasure supposedly. But although Filipinos ...

30th Anniversary Book

Inside Indonesia - 30th Anniversary Photo Book


Have you bought your copy of Inside Indonesia's 30th Anniversary book yet?

The book features 30 of the judges' favourite images from the 2013 Inside Indonesia Photography Competition.

Preview the book  and order your copy online (Soft cover approx AUD$23.00 / Hard cover approx AUD$35.00).