(1930-2001) was an Australian
academic and world leading scholar of Indonesian
Born in Vienna in 1930, Herb came to Australia as a refugee in 1939 with his Austrian Jewish parents who were escaping from the spread of Nazism. After a state primary and secondary school education he went on to the University of Melbourne
where he studied political science under Professor William Macmahon Ball
who excited in him an interest in east and southeast Asia. This led him, on graduation, to make his first visit to Indonesia. With the aid of Molly Bondan, an Australian woman married to an Indonesian, he managed to get a job in the Indonesian Department of Information and for two years he worked there as an Indonesian civil servant on an Indonesian salary. He made many Indonesian friends and became completely fluent in the language.
During this period he developed the idea of enabling other young Australian graduates to enjoy the same experience. With the aid of embassy contacts and the support of friends back home he managed to bring about an inter-governmental agreement whereby new Australian graduates could volunteer for service as Indonesian public servants, working on Indonesian salaries and on a basis of complete equality with their Indonesian colleagues and making a deep engagement with the society about them. The Volunteer Graduate Scheme anticipated by some ten years the American Peace Corps. It has expanded over the years to include other countries and it still exists as Australian Volunteers International
After a short break in Australia, Herb and his new wife, Betty, returned to Indonesia as volunteers under the scheme. As a student of politics it was natural that he should observe closely the Indonesian political scene, and his detailed knowledge brought him to the notice of George McT Kahin a leading American scholar of Indonesia and led to the offer of a graduate scholarship at Cornell University
. At Cornell, between 1957 and 1960, he wrote what was to be recognised as the definitive study of Indonesia in the 1950s, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia
, as well as other monographs published by the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project. His fellow students in the Program included Daniel Lev, Benedict Anderson
and Ruth McVey.
After a short spell as a post-doctoral fellow at the Australian National University
he was appointed to a lectureship in Politics at Monash University
where he developed a study of modern Indonesia and was one of the founders of the Monash Centre of Southeast Asian Studies
He was promoted to the Chair of Politics in 1968 and then, after six years in that position, he stepped down to a Readership to escape the administrative duties of the chair and devote himself to scholarship. Herb retired from Monash University at the end of 1990. In 1992 his work was honoured at the conference Democracy in Indonesia: 1950s and 1990s
Herb's life however was more than that of a professional academic. He was also known, in Australia and overseas, as a compassionate and intensely moral person who felt himself compelled to speak and act against abuses and injustice. Throughout his life he was always ready to devote himself to important causes involving ideas of democracy and human rights, for example with Amnesty International in the matter of political prisoners, with campaigns for human rights and with international peace movements.
Herb was also a great teacher. His egalitarianism and enthusiasm underpinned his knowledge and wisdom. No matter how inexperienced his students were, he treated them as equals and intimates, listening carefully to their arguments and behaving as though he had as much to learn from them as they did from him.
Because of his personal qualities he attracted followers and maintained friendships across the world. Indifferent to material rewards and status, he gave in his own life an inspiring example of selfless and modest living. As a great humanitarian he led generations of students to share his passionate concern for Indonesia, human rights, peace studies and conflict resolution.
Herb's World View
Herb Feith identified himself as an Internationalist, an Indonesia-person and a Peace-person. These three terms encapsulate the themes of his work and activism throughout his life. He lived by a strong moral code that whilst ever-present and obvious in the way he lived and worked, was never forced upon others.
As Herb described it, the drive to work for good was instilled in him from a very early age by his parents and as a consequence of his experience as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Vienna and then as refugee in Australia. He explained this to an audience of fellow scholars of Asia in 1984,
"(i)t was also the kind of childhood that led me to feel that a terrible lot was expected of me. Basically I was expected to make the world into a better place. As Betty, my wife said to me this morning, they hadn’t gone to all that trouble just so I could be a successful doctor or a successful lawyer. In other words, I grew up thinking that it was important to learn things and search out the truth but also and really more importantly, it was important to do practical things with the knowledge one got.
The compulsion to ‘do good’ and to ‘be useful’ are phrases that apply to Herb Feith and his approach to his work and life as a whole. His work – academic scholarship and teaching – was always considered a means towards improving the world for others. In many ways Herb Feith dedicated his academic career to teaching his students, Australians and Indonesians, about Indonesia, the Third World and possibilities for peace.
What was it about Herb Feith that meant that he left behind an image, impression and affection from others which was timeless, culturally neutral and spanned generations? Herb Feith had an extraordinary capacity for building relationships across cultures. Through his experiences as an ‘outsider’ in Nazi-Vienna in the 1930s, and having to be culturally flexible and adaptive in 1940s Australia and 1950s Indonesia, Herb learnt to blend in whilst retaining a strong sense of himself. These cross-cultural experiences provided Herb with a set of what he referred to as ‘craft skills’, which gave him the ability to cross or transcend cultural and social divisions. These skills were in his interpersonal style of engagement – a style which was open, genuine, respectful and generous. Herb had the skill and inclination to gauge or judge from his interactions with individuals, what was important to them, what they strive for in their lives – and to respect those things. This was his key point of contact and it left enduring impressions on those he met, particularly Indonesians. It was also a main tool in his set of ‘skills’ towards his lifelong quest for ‘moral-scholarship’ and engaged intellectualism in Indonesian studies.
His long engagement with Indonesia led to a deep connection with this place and people. It was a spiritual tie that ran deep and was recognised in memorials celebrated for him in Jakarta and Yogyakarta in Indonesia and Dili, Timor Leste, after his death.
After his sudden death in November 2001, Goenawan Mohamad, an Indonesian journalist, publisher and poet reflected that the manner of Herb Feith’s dying in such a violent manner, in a collision between modern machine and simple pedal-power, was in extreme contrast to the way Herb had lived his life. Mohammad wrote of Herb, “he who would never disturb those around him with ambition or coercion, nor quarrel with anything or anyone”.
Those who knew Herb Feith remember his generosity, sharp intellect and above all his radiating warmth. He inspired people to believe, as he did, in the capacity of all people to make a difference, to spread peace. His dedication to Peace Studies and studies of the Third or Developing World was enhanced by his activism on peace and human rights issues. Herb lived what he taught.
As an eighteen year old youth in Melbourne at the end of World War II, upon his own initiative and inspired by the writings of Victor Gollancz and Arthur Koestler, Herb took up a collection for relief for German victims of war. Herb wrote about the motive for this, one of his first activist roles, “That was part of a humanitarian thing, but it was also a reconciliation thing and I remember arguing with my father about the importance of Jews doing things in relation to Germans at that time”.
Herb would return to the theme of peace and reconciliation again and again throughout his life. He saw all his interests – Indonesia, peace and human rights – as inextricably bound together. Herb outlined this convergence in a letter to Indonesian human rights lawyer, Yap Thiam Hien in the 1980s,
"While I was in Indonesia I was spending most of my time talking to people about the new peace movement and peace consciousness that has been developing, albeit mainly just in First World countries (and few Second World ones) so far. But I am also trying to work on East Timor
and Irian Jaya, as it seems to me that ‘peaceniks’ have a real obligation to work towards long-term answers to the problem of those two unhappy areas.
The independence of East Timor and the ongoing struggle in West Papua (Irian Jaya) were foci for Herb’s activism and work in the last decade of his life. His involvement in the establishment of the Graduate School of Peace and Conflict Resolution at Gadjah Mada University , Yogyakarta in 2000, was the culmination of Herb’s passions for Indonesia, teaching, human rights and peace studies. After his death, his family’s decision to bequeath Herb’s library to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR) was in line with his hopes for the future of this fledgling nation and its efforts to come to terms with its violent and divided past.
- ‘Indonesia’, in George Kahin (ed.), Governments and Politics of Southeast Asia, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1959 (first edition); 1964 (second edition), 183-278.
- The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia. Ithaca (N.Y.); London: Cornell University Press, 1962.
- ‘Dynamics of Guided Democracy’, Indonesia. Ruth T. McVey (ed.). New Haven, Conn.: Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, by arrangement with HRAF Press, 1963, 309-409.
- with Lance Castles. Indonesian Political Thinking, 1945-1965. Ithaca (N.Y.): Cornell University Press, 1970. (Indonesian translation published by LP3ES, 1988).Journal Articles
- ‘Indonesia’s Political Symbols and their Wielders’, World Politics, Vol. 16, No.1, (Oct., 1963), 79-97.
- with Daniel S. Lev, ‘The End of the Indonesian Rebellion’, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1963), 32-46.
- ‘President Soekarno, The Army and the Communists: The Triangle Changes Shape’, Asian Survey, Vol. 4, No. 8 (Aug., 1964), 969-980.
- ‘History, Theory and Indonesian Politics: A Reply to Harry J. Benda’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol24, No.2 (Feb 1965), 305-312.
- 'Suharto’s search for a political format’, Indonesia, 6 (October 1968).
- 'Repressive-Developmentalist regimes in Asia: Old strengths, New vulnerabilities’, Prisma, no.19, (December 1980), 39-55.
- with Ian Bell and Ron Hatley, ‘The West Papuan Challenge to Indonesian Authority in Irian Jaya: Old problems, New possibilities’, Asian Survey, Vol. 26, No. 5 (May 1986), 539-556.