Breaking the walls between theory and praxis

Professor Budianta

An Interview with Melani Budianta, Scholar-Activist

The Cornell Modern Indonesia Project includes a network of scholars, policymakers, and professionals from across the globe—such as Melani Budianta, an intellectual and an activist who has worked tirelessly to promote the women's movement in Indonesia. She is a professor of literature at the University of Indonesia, a member of the editorial collective of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies journal, and a member of several scholar-activist networks working in Southeast Asia. She was born in Malang, East Java, in 1954, into a Peranakan Chinese family. She holds a BA (University of Indonesia, 1979), an MA (University of Southern California, 1981), and a PhD (Cornell University, 1992).

For Budianta, cultural identity is fluid, multiple, and constantly in the making. She believes that we always have room for negotiating our identity and finding a niche. Instead of asking why certain groups are not accepted, she asks how our unique multicultural identities can enrich our communities, our countries, and our world.

“The inter-Asia turn is not an essentializing gesture towards Asia by Asians, but a collaborative movement to tap into into multiple sites of knowledge production from within and outside Asia, and to engage in this heightened moment of inter-Asian dynamics.”


The Interview

How would you describe, for an outsider, the recent changes in Indonesia? What comparisons to events in U.S. history are comparable to the changes occurring now in Indonesia, if any?

One recent change in Indonesian politics was the appointment of a Chinese Indonesian, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, as the Governor of Jakarta, and the election of Joko Widodo ("Jokowi"), the mayor of a relatively small city in Java and a relatively unknown businessman, as the seventh Indonesian president. Both these individuals are self-made men. Although these younger-generation leaders were nominated through the party system, they do not belong to the dominant group of politicians bred from the retired-military-generals, party-politics conglomerate. Both men are hardworking public servants, rather than charismatic rulers. Breaking from the tradition of the previous New Order system, these new leaders convey strong messages of anti-corruption, transparency, and accountability.

The euphoria following the rise of these two out-of-the mainstream political figures mirrored the euphoria in the United States after Obama’s election. But, similar to the American public, the Indonesian people soon learned that the racism, old-style politics, conservativism, and right-wing forces that inform state politics do not easily disappear. Indonesia has suffered many backlashes that have worked against the progressive transformation promised by these young, dynamic leaders.

You were the keynote speaker at a recent conference, "Where Is Home, Place, Belonging, and Citizenship in Asian Century?" at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Do you feel the term "Asian Century" is an appropriate way to describe our present era?

The term "Asian Century" should always be seen in a critical light, as this term is used to refer to the rise of Asian economies, in particular China and India. My work looks beyond popular culture, such as the absorption of J-Pop, K-Pop, and other manifestations of East Asian pop culture across Southeast Asia. In my research, I examine a more complex and problematic aspect of inter-Asian dynamics that has intensified in the last decade. I study the multidimensional conditions (including the economic crisis in Europe) that have made Asian metropolitan cities, such as Hong Kong, Taipei, and Singapore, attractive hubs for inter-Asian temporary work, migration, education, and investment. This inter-Asian dynamic propels unskilled migration from less-developed countries to the more-developed ones, and vice-versa with the flow of skilled workers. Racism, post-war traumas, and economic competition haunt these inter-Asian relations.

Within the cultural studies and humanities, there has been a movement to address inter-Asian issues, and to produce new knowledge by inter-referencing between Asian scholars and by tapping into local knowledge, histories, and cultural praxis. This is not to deny that Asian realities, including inter-Asian connections, are part of the long history of global (including colonial) encounters and scholarship coming from Europe and the United States.

The inter-Asia turn is not an essentializing gesture toward Asia by Asians, but a collaborative movement to tap into into multiple sites of knowledge production from within and outside Asia, and to engage in this heightened moment of inter-Asian dynamics.

Are women in Indonesia perceived or treated differently than they are in the United States? And how are you working to promote greater gender equality?

Male dominance, or patriarchy, is a universal phenomenon. Movements to promote gender equality in Indonesia, as well as in the United States, face greater challenges due to the rise of religious fundamentalism and right-wing conservativism after 9/11. Of course women in Indonesia and the United States live in different cultural contexts and have different histories. Although Indonesian cultural diversity defies generalization, it is safe to say that Indonesian women, especially outside urban areas, exist in an arena where collective spirit is stronger than individualism. The cultural forces in the two countries, however, also change from time to time. Therefore, women activists have had to use different strategies to promote gender equality in different times and places.

In the centralized political structure of the New Order Indonesia before 1998, for example, women activists used Jakarta (the capital city) as a strategic place to enforce transformative changes throughout the nation. In post-Reformasi Indonesia today, where democratization occurs at the regency level, it is hard to find a unified platform for the women’s movement. In this new context, the women’s movement has been splintered and pluralized to fight the return of patriarchies at the regency level. Syariah legislation adopted in the regencies and morality-based legislation at the national level have served as handicaps in the effort to promote equality in public spheres.

On the other hand, the rapid democratization of Indonesia followed by the expansion of plural civil society movements, such as social media, have resulted in the rise of promising women leaders at both the local and national level. To promote equality in this era is to engage in diverse sites for advocacy and to adopt plural strategies. I use my position in academia to promote gender equality through research and teaching. At the same time I network with women’s activists and artists at various levels and collaborate with them for women’s empowerment.

What is the most pressing challenge facing Indonesia today? And what is the role of academia in helping to address this challenge?

The most pressing challenge facing Indonesia today is to safeguard Indonesia’s democratic transition in order to foster politically and economically stable conditions for the growth of a tolerant, multicultural, open-minded, and forward-looking society. Corruption, religious fanaticism, intergroup prejudice and racism—fueled by conditions of poverty and social inequity—are our most serious handicaps. Indonesia has more than 250 million people, 28 million of whom live below the poverty line. More than 80 percent of the country’s manpower is unskilled. And there remains strong gender disparity in literacy: 64 percent of Indonesia’s 15 million illiterate citizens are female.

Education, therefore, is a key to strengthening the people’s resilience and to enhancing their capacity for social transformation. There are so many ways for academic institutions and for scholar/activists to intervene and contribute. Targeted outreach to marginalized women and collaborative research to empower communities—culturally, socially, economically—are just a few of the ways we can make an impact.

Contemporary Indonesia is characterized by flourishing and diverse social media, arts, film and multimedia, and collective arts. With competing voices coming from both the right and the left, and both the secular and the religious, Indonesia’s public arena has become highly contested.

To remain relevant, academics need to use creative and social media and seek new ways of engaging with society. As society and modes of communication change, publishing in academic journals is not enough. We can no longer be armchair scholars. This time of rapid changes requires collaboration between the private sector and the government, and between academics, artists, cultural practitioners, and activists.

When you teach American Studies to Indonesian students, what aspect of American culture is most difficult for them to relate to and understand? Conversely, what is the most difficult aspect of Indonesian culture for Americans to grasp?

With Pancasila (Five Principles), the Indonesian State Ideology, explicitly stating belief in God as the first principle, it is hard for Indonesian students to understand the separation of the secular and the religious in America. They find it peculiar that praying is forbidden in public schools, or that beliefs such as satanism and atheism are not prohibited. Conversely, for Americans, the incorporation of religious rituals in academic activities, such as conferences and seminars, can be quite unsettling.

For both Indonesian and American students, the subject of the relationship between religion and the nation-state is interesting. Robert Bellah’s concept of "civil religion" and U.S. paper currency printed with the phrase, "in God we trust," are good starting points for generating discussion on this subject for an Indonesian audience. For American students, the fact that Islam is not a state religion in a predominantly Islamic country is a good starting point to discuss the crucial position of Islam in Indonesia.

Why did you choose Cornell University for your PhD studies? And what are Cornell’s most remarkable strengths, in your opinion?

I learned about Cornell University when I met Professor Sandra Siegel (who later supervised my dissertation) while she was serving as a Fulbright visiting lecturer in the American Studies Program at the University of Indonesia in the late 1980s. I appreciated the fact that Cornell allows its graduate students to develop their critical thinking through multidisciplinary and liberal arts lenses. At Cornell, athough I majored in English, I was free to take courses from other departments, such as history, government and politics, theatre, and Southeast Asian Studies. Cornell is a place where students can expand their horizons beyond their individual scope of studies. At Cornell I met renowned intellectuals and engaged with international students from all over the world. Cornell and the beautiful city of Ithaca also provided me with the opportunity to participate in local activism, thus preparing me for my life as an engaged scholar-activist.

What is unique about Cornell’s involvement in Indonesia? And how has Cornell had an impact on scholarship and research for and about Indonesia?

For many people the word "Cornell" will always be associated with Indonesia. The works coming out of Cornell by Benedict Anderson, George Kahin, and James Siegel, to name a few, have become classic Indonesian studies that have impacts far beyond area studies. Cornell’s Indonesia journal has provided regular, critical, and high-quality scholarship on Indonesia since 1966. Cornell’s Modern Indonesia collection and the archive on Indonesia in the Cornell University Library are resources that researchers all over the world seek out if they want to do quality research on Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

How has Cornell been involved in shaping policies or programs that impact communities in Indonesia?

While scholarship coming out of Cornell has generally maintained a critical distance from state power and dominant ideologies, Cornell has directly influenced Indonesia’s policies and programs through the works of its alumni in government, politics, and the nonprofit and private sectors. These Cornell alumni come from a wide range of disciplines and professional backgrounds.There are historians (like Taufik Abdullah), sociologists (like Melly G. Tan), sculptors (like Hilda Soemantri), and politicians (like Herry Akhmadi). Many of these individuals have served in policy and decision-making roles where their work impacts the welfare of Indonesian citizens. For example, Desty Damayanti headed the selection committee for the Corruption Eradication Commission, Fasli Djalal served as vice minister of National Education, H.S. Dillon worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Commission on Human Rights, Kamala Chandra Kirana was former director of the National Commission on Violence Against Women, and Irawati Setiady is the director of Indonesia’s largest pharmaceutical company, Kalbe Farma. Cornell’s Indonesian alumni are now collaborating in an effort to improve education in Indonesia.

How has your connection with Cornell influenced your work? And how can Cornell continue to remain relevant to the new generation of Indonesian students?

Cornell University has shaped my career as a scholar and lecturer. It was at Cornell that I got my training as a literary and cultural studies scholar and developed my critical perspective on postcolonial and gender issues. The courses I took in various disciplines and programs at Cornell gave me the versatility and multidisciplinary perspective to succeed both as a university lecturer and as a cultural studies scholar-activist.

For the new generation of Indonesian students, Cornell University remains relevant through the scholarship and knowledge that it has produced and continues to produce, and because of the outstanding academic environment that it provides its students.

What advice do you have for Cornell as it seeks to promote the global engagement of its students and faculty, and enhance its global impact?

American universities used to be the gold standard for Asian studies. Nowadays, there are more options within Asian regions. With the intensification of inter-Asian academic exchanges, the traffic of knowledge is now more varied. Cornell should tap into this dynamic by being more proactive in its engagement. It should increase collaboration with its network of alumni in doing research, policy analysis, and community projects. Initiating exchange programs, traveling classes/workshops, and teleconferences in Asian countries are some promising possibilities. Cornell should continue to build human resources in Asia by attracting the best students from the region. Additionally, concerted fundraising could help provide these students with graduate scholarships and fellowships to conduct research in Cornell’s libraries.


Images: (above) Professor Melani Budianta; (lower left) the biannual Inter-Asian Studies Conference 2015 in Surabaya, where about 400 scholars discussed the undercurrents in inter-Asian discourse and cultural praxis; (lower right) Cornell undergraduate student reading an English storybook to Indonesian children


Cornell student reading to Indonesian children