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Critical studies

Published: Jul 26, 2007

A thriving Asian studies is integral to a critical liberal humanities program

Max Lane

The corporatisation of universities in Australia and elsewhere over the last two decades has been part of the general implementation of what was called in the 1980s ‘economic rationalism’, now more frequently referred to as neo-liberalism. This comprises a steady dismantling of the welfare state in order to reduce taxes and other imposts on both individuals and corporations generating high incomes or profits.

A part of the dismantling of the welfare state has involved the slashing of budget for staffing and research at universities. It has also seen the introduction of student fees and government enforcement of a policy to make universities also generate somC of their own income through commercially profitable activities.

Ideologically, even in the early 1980s, the pressure was on for all sections of the universities to prove their usefulness to the political, economic, social and cultural agenda set within the framework of economic rationalism and the dismantling of the welfare state. In the field of Asian Studies, there was much talk of presenting Asian Studies as something useful to the private sector. Universities almost competed to set up research centres that depicted themselves as being useful to understanding the region in the context of the needs of the private sector. A result of this more-or-less systematic accommodation of a philosophical or strategic orientation set by the government’s new agenda has been the decline in government resources being made available to Asian Studies in universities.

From the government’s point of view this reduction in resources is logical and rational. First, business does not require Asian Studies expertise for the furtherance of its activities in Asia, at least not on a large scale. Language problems are overcome by fostering English language teaching in Asia and not the other way around.

The record of Western business in Asia is that it generally rides roughshod over cultural, political and environmental sensitivities, especially at the mass level. It is even dubious that academic economic studies of Asia are seen as particularly relevant for business, except perhaps to provide ideological cover for economic strategies that Australian and other Western governments prefer to see carried out in countries like Indonesia. This has been the major role, for example, of the Indonesia Project at the Australian National University, partly funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. Banks, credit rating organisations, and the research departments of big companies do this work using combined teams of local and foreign economists, rather than using any large-scale mobilisation of Asian Studies trained personnel.

Second, a thriving Asian Studies goes hand in hand with a thriving and critical liberal humanities. A critical liberal humanities sector would espouse and advocate values, ideas and critiques directly inimical to the political and social philosophy that goes hand in hand with economic rationalism and neo-liberalism. The extension and deepening of neo-liberalism throughout most of the Asian region is a policy fully and enthusiastically supported by the Australian government. These policies are, however, causing more and more socio-economic suffering and cultural disruption for the mass of the populations of countries such as Indonesia. Surely this situation would attract greater criticism from within a thriving and critical humanities sector with expert knowledge of the situation in these countries? There would, at least, be an energetic debate around these policies.

Critiquing the Australian state

Those involved in some way in Asian Studies constantly engage in debates about the nature of the state in countries like Indonesia. We analyse and draw conclusions about the kinds of policies that such a state will likely implement. We can apply the same approach to the Australian state. We should be aware of its character and agenda. We should be aware that it has seriously thought about its needs in this sector, and has drawn the conclusion that it does not need a critical liberal humanities milieu, nor a critical public and independent media.

The same applies in the area of security. It does not serve education interests to be appealing to the government to fund Asian Studies using the argument that Australia’s security is bound up with Indonesia. First, it turns the issue upside down. Many more Indonesians do and will continue to suffer because of the so-called security and economic ‘imperatives’ enforced on Indonesia to maintain western hegemony. This is evidenced in the political encouragement by governments such as Australia for the strengthening of the role of Indonesia’s Army.

We can be sure that the Australian state is taking these issues seriously. It will make a serious assessment of the resources it needs to understand the ‘security threat’ to its specific interests. This may lead to more staff and resources for Australian Defence Force Academy, a revival of Point Cook style language training for military officers, more interchange between Australian, American and Indonesian intelligence institutions, and so on.

Given the fact that the threats of ‘terror’ are actually used by the government to foster racism and xenophobia, an understanding of the root causes of the turmoil that gives birth to such irrationality as suicide bombing is also not in the government’s interest. This is particularly pertinent given that it is government policies (or the policies of the governments it supports) that are themselves the root cause.

Building a support base

Asian Studies is not at all dead — yet. In the face of cutbacks and an illiberal attitude towards the humanities, Asianist academics have been able to hold on, and even implement some very good initiatives. This positive activity has produced critics and opponents of Australian policy towards Asia. This is not at all useful for the implementation of the Australian states’ agenda. Does the Australian state really want more articles in the press by more people like Damien Kingsbury, Ed Aspinall and others? Does it want to see not only Max Lane write in the Jakarta media raising issues with a critical slant on Aceh, but also Tony Reid as well?

One very positive initiative by Australian Indonesianist academics has been Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), which has expanded the number of Australian students who have really engaged in Indonesia. This has, in turn, supplied most of the younger generation of liberal critics of government policy, who now write in magazines such as Inside Indonesia. A stronger, more critical Inside Indonesia, and more such journals on a range of different subjects, is not in the interests of the Australian state.

A flourishing critical liberal humanities and Asian Studies are against the interests of the Australian state. The Australian state, through respective governments, understands this and will not be fooled on this question. Does this mean then that there is no hope of getting more funding for Asian Studies or the humanities? It does not mean this. But it does mean that strategies to win increased funding must be based on the realisation that the task is to force the government to do something that it knows is against it interests. Such a strategy requires convincing other sectors of society that a critical liberal humanities and Asian Studies is necessary in order to ensure that a broader coalition of groups support and join demands for more resources.

This kind of strategy means finding ways to prove that knowledge of another culture and society can be intrinsically enriching. Exposure to film, and the translation of literature for a wider audience is important. General books about politics and society are also crucial. But this will never be enough in itself to develop public commitment to a critical liberal humanities in an era where official state policy is illiberal in so many aspects: the abandonment of just livelihood and welfare, and agitation for increased racism and xenophobia.

Active support for a critical liberal humanities sector will come from those in society who are already questioning and struggling to understand this illiberalism. They are questioning why conditions in the developing world keep declining, instead of reaching the alleged existing ‘take-off’ point. They are questioning the turmoil, the war, the poverty, the refugees, the bombs — what does it all mean, and what are the solutions?

If we want support from the community, starting with those who are already questioning and likely to become active citizens, then we have to show we are useful to them, both in curriculum but also in the public arena, especially in publications.

The Australian state has no interest in seeing a strong, liberal, critical and humane Asian Studies. However, there is a community support base, if we can show we are more useful than perhaps we have been able to do in the past.

Max Lane (max_lane@hotmail.com) is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, WA.

Inside Indonesia 77: Jan - Mar 2004

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