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Daniel S Lev

Doyen of Indonesian law and politics, Dan Lev (1934–2006) was at home with Indonesian activists.


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.