Ranking and the Limits of Learning (II)

Okay, the next seven works in my ranking!

This exercise was quite fun, actually. I didn’t realize there is a definite pattern to the things I remember and what my research interests are. More than that, it reminds me just how limited our learning is. I feel a sense of achievement in having learnt a great deal but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There is a vast amount of searching and questioning that is independent of evaluation, recognition and achievement but has meaning.

By the way, I realized that by putting in the module code, I seem to be privileging some modules over others. Actually, I just wanted to keep track of what I read and for what. Some modules, like archaeology are not remembered for the readings. And some modules are fiction based.  This list has nothing to do with what modules I think are better.

Back to the list:

8. Reconstruction of Malaysian History/Superfluous Men (Syed Hussein Al-Atas for SE5221)

Synopsis: Al-Atas explained why there is a need to deconstruct and reconstruct Malaysian history in order to pay greater attention to the continuity of history, the individuality of the Islamic period and a decolonization of a history that had often used the colonial period as a point of reference.


syed hussein al-atas

Quotable Quote: “The superfluous man is someone who is of no use in society. His talents are wasted. I assessed myself as belonging to this category – someone with useless talents, which nobody wants to put to use. However, aware of being superfluous, I can then decide on my strategy: make use of my superfluous time. I started developing research on many new things. What are you doing all this for, they asked me? You won’t change anything. True, I agree. But what is the alternative? Do nothing? I decided better to do things even though they will not change anything. Because in times to come there may be a change of atmosphere, a new interest in things once considered superfluous”

I quoted him not from the article itself but from a speech he made towards the end of his life because I found it so poignant. I could be wrong, but I think postcolonialism, decolonization and the writing back to colonial powers is often dominated by African and Indian perspectives while Southeast Asia is a marginal voice in the process. Al-Atas seemed to have made this peripheral area his lifework – his most famous book has the self-explanatory title ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native’ – and his scholarship was largely ignored by Euro-American centric circles. I can’t even find the journal where this article was published – it was given directly to us by the professor teaching the module.

9. Exit Suharto: Obituary for a Mediocre Tyrant (Benedict Anderson in New Left Review for SE5243)


the mediocre tyrant

Synopsis: In the event of Suharto’s death, Anderson evaluates New Order Indonesia under Suharto in very unflattering terms, insulting half the important people in his government.

Quotable Quote: “Habibie, who comes from the Celebes, was often regarded as an amiable, lightweight gasbag…but Habibie’s candidacy served another purpose. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Suharto increasingly felt that the armed forces might be slipping out of his control. So he started to manipulate high level promotions in the military: in the first instance Tientje’s nonentity brother, and later a visibly unbalanced and fascist-minded son-in-law…”

See the number of insults just in that quote alone? Its the main reason why I remember this. I wouldn’t recommend it as a balanced look at Suharto’s regime but it was entertaining. We were assigned this to round off our module on Indonesia and a friend and I couldn’t stop laughing over it.

10. Pretext for Mass Murder (John Roosa, University of Wisconsin-Madison Press, for SE5660)

Synopsis: Roosa addresses the question of who is responsible for the failed September 30th Movement in Indonesia in 1965. He explains how the movement was used a pretext by the military in Indonesia to purge the nation of the communists.

Quotable Quote: “The movement has presented historians with an unsolvable mystery. The limited evidence that exists is largely unreliable. The army fabricated much of it while whipping up an anti-PKI campaign in the months after the movement such as stories of PKI followers dancing naked while torturing and multilating the generals.”

In many other works, I am often reminded that writing history is like writing fiction. If there are genres to history-writing, this book belongs to the mystery genre. It keeps people thinking and flipping to the next page. Even my sister, who had no real interest in Indonesia,  found herself turning the pages when she picked it up off my bed.

11. History in Three Keys (Paul Cohen, Columbia University Press for SE5241)

Synopsis: Cohen writes about the Boxer Rebellion in 19th Century China in three different ways – first, as event, secondly as experience and thirdly as myth. In doing so, he shows how the writing of history is as much a matter of framing as of fact.

Quotable Quote: “Is the consummation of the historian’s labors in essence a gathering together and representation of things that have already happened or is it in important respects a new production, lacking some elements that existed in the past and incorporating others that did not?”

I love his idea. Really. But I fell asleep reading it. While not the most riveting of writing styles, the idea of the 3 keys in history always comes back to me and for that, I just had to include it.

12The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (James C Scott, Yale University Press for SE5151 and SE4229)

Synopsis: Scott investigates Zomia – a large swath of mountainous lands cutting through a large part of Asia – and suggests that the way of life of hill tribes was mainly shaped by their desire to escape the oppression of the state and determined by why they chose to remain stateless. In very bald terms, to escape possible state slavery, they ran for the hills, supported themselves and helped the terrain keep the state out.

Quotable Quote: “I open with three diagnostic expressions of frustration. The first two are from would-be conquering administrators, determine to subdue a recalcitrant landscape and its fugitive, resistant inhabitants. The third, from a different continet, is from a would-be conqueror of souls, in some despair at the irreligion and heterodoxy that the landscape appear to encourage:”

My initial reaction to reading this was – has he been watching too much Avatar? – but of course, that was just a facetious response. I like Scott’s big idea approach even though parts of the argument in this books makes me uncomfortable in ways I find hard to articulate. Its a neat narrative for a complex region and its both appealing and disconcerting because of that.

13. Indonesia’s Accountability Trap: Party Cartels and Presidential Power After Democratic Transition (Dan Slater, Indonesia for  SE5243)

Synopsis: Slater described how all five major political parties in post-New Order Indonesia form an elitist cartel for power sharing. As a result, the people are trapped between a delegative presidency and a collusive democracy; an oligarchic cabinet and a powerful president.

Quotable Quote: “If one were to write the names of Indonesia’s top fifteen or twenty political elites on a single page and draw lines between every pair that met behind closed doors at some point during April 2004, the latticework of linkages would have few if any gaps. Everyone seems to have strongly considered pairing up with virtually everyone else at some point during the process…Golkar’s Jusuf Kalla, who decided to pair up with SBY over Megawati..captured the promiscuity of the process perfectly: “I’m kind of like a monekeywrench,” he laughed. “I can fit with anybody.””

After reading this work, someone insisted that this writer had to be gay. (Incidentally, that is highly unlikely.) I was wondering what the connection was between the politics and gay-ness and then realized, its not really the content, its the way he writes. He has this understated sense of humour in describing a rather despicable situation. But there is no getting away it, this is the kind of work that makes you inclined to think that politicians are down there with pond scum. (which is a terrible generalization, of course.)

14. Beyond Flying Geese and Product Cycles (Mitchell Bernard and John Ravenhill, World Politics, for SE6293)

Synopsis: Bernard and Ravenhill supplants the ‘flying geese’ model of development in East Asia with industrialisation based on the hierarchical but scattered production networks. In other words, while the flying geese models suggests that each newly industrializing state will follow the path of the leaders (ie. Japan) and eventually export back to the leaders, this new model suggests that if newly industrialising states don’t build up their own innovation capacity, they would be packing boxes for the rest of the foreseeable future.

Quotable Quote: “To acknowledge the existence of hierarchies and dependencies is not to deny that they be mutually beneficial to participating actors. The regionalization of production has opened new opportunities for entry into networks producing sophisticated manufacturers…contrary to the skepticism of some dependency theorists, the subsidiaries of transnational corporations in the electronics industry in Southeast Asia have generally not behaved in a footloose manner.”

The idea of the flying geese model of development seems a bit laughable now because of the common wisdom about globalization widening inequalities, this was written in 1995 and I thought it was rather depressing but astute. Despite the positive quote , investment is not about helping others equalize and won’t have that effect even indirectly. Why would a well-paid innovator cascade his knowledge to a chipmaker? What would you do if you were the chipmaker?

Btw, I had a really hard time cutting the list down, so here are some honourable mentions

1) The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific (Gananath Obeyesekere)

Obeyesekere challenges the  dominant interpretation of history – that Captain Cook was regarded as a god by natives in Hawaii, suggesting that it was only the Europeans who wanted to believe it was so.

2) Bull*hit He/She Said (Anderson, in Laurie Sears(ed.) Fantasizing the Feminine)

Anderson (again!) takes the fluffy work of an Indonesian romance novelist to reflect on the status and constrictive role of women in New Order Indonesia.

3) Ecothrillers and Cliffhangers (Kerridge in Green Studies Reader)

Kerridge questions why realist novels take so long to incorporate environmental issues when thrillers have jumped on it, cautioning that its not a good idea to leave the green theme to the thriller genre.


Some things I realize:

I like deconstructing themes of narratives – historical and fictional – to see where people are coming from and why they write as  they do. But not text as text, I remember ideas that are linked to human stories and imagery but not any of the abstract literary -isms. Linked to that, I think, is the question of identity – what makes us what we are and  how do we express that identity?

I also remember ideas that have to do with inequalities or power asymmetries or social justice – its a motivating interest that I didn’t realize I had. And I have a surprising preoccupation with people who go against the grain. Oh, and I didn’t realize I was such a fan of Benedict Anderson. I remember practically everything of his that I read.

So, how does that translate into future research or specialization? I don’t really know. At this point I am just glad to taken up an inter-disciplinary course and learnt a lot from it. But while learning is an end to itself, you can’t help when studying the humanities, to feel that you should do something meaningful with that knowledge, and so, what’s next?

What’s next?

Ranking and the Limits of Learning (Part 1)

I was doing some digging to get inspiration to write my SE5151 reflection essay when I came across a list of ’14 most influential books on Southeast Asia.’ The ranking was done by the Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia in 2009.

[In case you are wondering why 14? Such an odd number. The journal actually wanted a top ten list but could not break a three-way tie.]

I couldn’t help noticing that most of the books were written before I was born. And only one scholar based in the region itself was included.  Perhaps these are signs of ‘the crisis of area studies’ – which was what my essay was to be supposed to be concerned with – but I also thought that perhaps, its a simultaneous crisis of short attention spans and the printed book.

I am embarrassed to admit that of these 14 classics, at this point, I have only read 3; and even then, not in their entirety.Which is not to imply that the programme was not rigorous enough. Most of the material we read for class are downloaded from academic journals; 3 per lesson on average. Multiply that by 13 weeks and 10 modules – and we get a whopping 390 readings. (Just to finish the coursework, I am not counting the extra ones from term paper generation). I feel that I have learnt a lot, especially since I started with practically no background.

Since I am still searching for inspiration, I thought it would be amusing to select the top 14 readings I encountered. Of course, this is strictly personal, not academic – my only criteria is that I remember the ideas long after I read them which is an indication that they framed my thinking about the field to a certain extent.

By the way, in the interests of fairness, I am excluding everything written by the teaching faculty in NUS as well as fiction. I also resisted the urge to reread – if the reading doesn’t come to my mind immediately, the ideas cannot have influenced me that much. The synopses are written from memory – don’t take my word for it. I looked up the quotes and title information, though.

The initial shortlist was about 25. These are the final 14  Continue reading