Over the coming months, New Mandala will publish a series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies. These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field.

The third in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with the University of North Carolina’s Professor Kevin Hewison.

This interview will be posted in two parts. The first part focusses on the general field of Southeast Asian Studies and Professor Hewison’s career. The second part, which will be posted on Monday 20 August, discusses his work at the University of North Carolina and his thoughts on the state of Thai politics.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Hewison, thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions.

Professor Kevin Hewison: It is my pleasure. All the more so as I am a regular New Mandala reader.

Nicholas Farrelly: Great – we are glad that you find the site useful. Of course, many New Mandala readers will already know that you have now been a serious student of Southeast Asia for over 30 years. What was it that first attracted you to the study of the region?

Professor Kevin Hewison: This is going to be a long-winded answer….

My recollection of how I first became interested in Southeast Asia was when I was quite young and was reading the newspapers in Perth – where I grew up – and the sensational reporting about the 1965 coup in Indonesia and its aftermath. I think this was the first time I became vaguely aware of the region and of the deep fears harboured by many Australians about the region.

This interest didn’t develop much until I began university at the then Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT, now Curtin University). In high school we learned little about Asia, save for a little about Australia’s involvement in the Pacific War. I entered university in 1972 to train as a high school teacher. Of course, this was a remarkable time to be at university. The anti-Vietnam War demonstrations were at their peak and university life was not only highly politicised but also a lot of fun. The politicisation of campuses was heightened in the campaigns to elect a Labor government in Australia after years of conservative rule. The election of Labor, led by Gough Whitlam, and the quick implementation of progressive social policies – for example, universal health care and free university education – made politics real and immediate for many students. Whitlam’s progressive foreign policy was a breath of fresh air after years of conservative toadying to US and British interests.

In terms of the courses I was taking, there wasn’t much focus on Southeast Asia, but I do remember taking some courses that in hindsight shaped my future interests. One was a course on US history, that examined revisionist texts and looked at the US as an expansionist power, moving west and then across the Pacific.

More significant, however, was the radical approach taken by some of the sociology courses. I was introduced to the works of the dependency school – particularly Andre Gunder Frank on Latin America and some well-known Australian authors on the Left, including the political economists E.L Wheelwright and Bruce McFarlane, amongst others. Ideas about exploitation, imperialism, underdevelopment and ruling class power were new for me, at least in a context of having to understand them intellectually.

Reading this material was the first time that I really “connected” with academic work and realised what research was about.

Of course, the social life of university was also interesting and it was this side of university life that got me interested in travel. My first overseas trip was to New Zealand. Not very adventurous! The following year, during the long Christmas vacation of 1974-75, myself and three university friends decided to go to Southeast Asia. I think we chose this region because that was about all we thought we could afford. I had to work part-time in factories and in a petrol station to save the money, so this was going to be travel on a shoestring – US$10 a day was the budget. At the time, the Australian National Union of Students had a travel operation that arranged cheap student charters. We figured that we could get to Bangkok on one of these flights, and spend 8 weeks in Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, getting as far as Bali before returning to Perth.

I’m sure this sounds like the hippie trail in Southeast Asia. But it wasn’t that for us. Sure, we sought out banana milkshakes in Chiang Mai and stayed in some dingy guesthouses, and spent a lot of time finding bargains, but we were quickly caught up in political events in Bangkok.

We stayed at the Viengtai Hotel in Banglamphu. This put us close to the Grand Palace and National Museum, but it also put us close to Thammasat and Silpakorn universities. Walking around Sanam Luang we soon found ourselves caught up with students. They were still exultant from the overthrow of the hated military regime in October 1973, and they were busy reading, campaigning and learning in a new and freer atmosphere. They were interested in many of the same things we had been reading about in our classes in Australia: political freedoms, liberalism, student activism, underdevelopment, imperialism, the war in Indochina, Marx, Mao, Che Guevarra, revolution, and so on. These were fascinating encounters. We didn’t get to Laos, but we covered a lot of territory. And, we decided to return the following year.

It wasn’t all politics. I well recall a visit to Patpong, beginning with Lucy’s Tiger Den (a well-known CIA/Air America haunt), motorcycling in the north, visiting the Grand Palace, museums, innumerable temples, eating Thai food for the first time – a curry was made with raisins and jam in my home! – and the marvellous Weekend Market at Sanam Luang.

The experience the next year (1975-76) was different. We received the same great hospitality but it was clear that political attitudes had hardened and polarised. We understood that the mood had changed when at Thammasat we heard someone shout, “Yankees go home!” This was a bit odd for Australians who had been campaigning against US bases in Australia but emblematic of the times.

Now to get closer to the point of your question. During that trip – in 1975-76 – I purchased as many English-language books as I could find on Thailand. Some of these were works on the 1973 student uprising but most were books on history and Buddhism. I read these seriously when I returned to Australia and began buying as many of the standard books on Thailand as I could – Riggs, Siffin, Ingram, Wilson and so on. I had also begun subscribing to journals and magazines, many of them on the Left. For example, I had begun subscribing to the radical Journal of Contemporary Asia in 1975. As an aside, I am pleased that my connection with this journal continues, and Peter Limqueco and I are co-editors.

Back to the story. The event that cemented my interest in Thailand was the 6 October 1976 massacre at Thammasat. What really hit me was the extent of the violence and hatred displayed. I was staggered by this event. So much seemed different and unexplainable in all the things I’d been reading about Thailand. Not just the violence, but the role of the monarchy and right-wing thugs, politicians, monks and so on. My interest in explaining this event – at least for myself – began my long and continuing research and teaching interest. It was why I began an Honours thesis in 1978 at Murdoch University, which was my first serious academic undertaking on Thailand.

I’m sorry that my answer has taken so long, but it was a reasonably complex process of engagement with Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Farrelly: You have held academic positions at institutions like Mahidol University in Bangkok and the Australian National University in Canberra. Over those years you would have met many of the leading scholars in the field of Southeast Asian Studies. In your opinion, what characteristics generally make for a good “Southeast Asia academic”?

Professor Kevin Hewison: A good Southeast Asia academic has the same characteristics as a good scholar in any field: theoretical rigour, a critical perspective, an ability for independent learning, a capacity for conducting sound research (and that may include a need for language competence), and good writing skills. A good Southeast Asian academic will also have a sound disciplinary background that informs research and writing. More than this, I believe that a good academic always remains a student. That means that a good academic continues to learn from others and listens to criticism without the arrogance that individualised academic work tends to instil.

Nicholas Farrelly: In your experience, are there common traps that young scholars, new to the field, need to avoid?

Professor Kevin Hewison: Arrogance, including being long-winded in explaining one’s own ideas without sufficient grounding in the basic literature. Learning to say, “I don’t know” when you really don’t is also a good discipline. Theoretical trendiness and unreasonable eclecticism. Some of my colleagues will hate me for this, but I also think that a potential trap is in spending too much time on language and literature and neglecting the learning involved in becoming a discipline specialist. Another trap is not reading enough outside one’s country or region. This latter trap is one that I am always falling into. I read far less general theory than I did a decade ago. Part of this is due to other demands on my time – mostly administrative – and some of it is just struggling to keep up with what’s happening in Thailand. But it is a trap.

Nicholas Farrelly: What have been the major changes in the study of Southeast Asia since you finished your doctorate? Have all the changes been for the better?

Professor Kevin Hewison: I completed my PhD in 1984. A lot has happened since then in the region. Southeast Asia has seen remarkable changes over this period: rapid economic development, urbanisation, political development, the end of the Cold War, the rise of China, and so on. These changes have had a major impact on the study of Southeast Asia.

For me, a significant change was the gradual retirement of a generation of scholars who cut their teeth on the Vietnam War experience. When I began studying Southeast Asia the Vietnam War was in its final days. Much of what I read was highly influenced by the Vietnam experience. The first two Asian studies journals I subscribed to, the Journal of Contemporary Asia and the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (now Critical Asian Studies) were born of the anti-war sentiments in Europe and the US. A number of my early teachers were of the generation that opposed the US war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Some of them were Americans who had taken positions in Australia. They were motivated, concerned, critical and engaged. That kind of scholarship can be seen as partisan, but it seemed to me that these scholars encouraged broad reading, debate and research. If you showed an interest in Southeast Asia they tended to be enthusiastic and encouraging. They were motivated by big issues (although all had specialist areas of interest and research). These scholars are now retiring, and the new generation replacing them seems less passionate and more career-oriented. At the same time, I think the new generation is remarkably well-trained and have had some wonderful opportunities for fieldwork and so on.

Another change has been the rise of scholars from the region. When I look at the work being published locally – and I can really only speak of the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore – the scholars of these countries are producing some really great work. Many of these scholars are also publishing in the best international journals and with the best presses. 20-30 years ago this trend was just beginning, so seeing it develop has been interesting. These scholars are well-trained and well-connected and are leaders in their fields. Of course, there are still problems related to academic freedom, language training, access to research funds and support for publishing, but the advances made in recent decades have been substantial.

That development has a flipside. My perception is that in Western Europe, the US and Australia there has been a diminishing interest in Southeast Asian studies. I don’t have figures at hand, and colleagues may correct me, but I sense a decline. In the past, one thought of Cornell, SOAS and ANU as international centres for Southeast Asian studies. They remain centres, but I get the feeling that they are not what they once were. As I look around Australia I see a general decline in Southeast Asian studies and my impression is that the US is seeing a similar decline. In Australia, part of this decline owes something to the managerialist “reforms” in universities which have emphasised other disciplines/areas as growth areas.

Part of it also has to do with changing student demand as more fashionable areas have developed (e.g. cultural studies, communication studies and international/global studies). One response by Southeast Asian studies has been to embrace some of these new studies. At the recent American Asian Studies Annual Meeting in Boston, these areas seemed very strong, so I think we are seeing a generational change. Personally, I am not yet convinced that this is the right strategy for Southeast Asian studies and I remain sceptical about some of the research topics and outcomes I read.

Perhaps related to other points I have made, I see a declining political orientation in work on Southeast Asia. Here I mean big picture politics. Maybe this is me just hankering for the more passionate times of my university days, but I also think it has to do with changes in methods and philosophies in the disciplines and the careerist orientation I mentioned earlier. These days, too much of our work seems politically bland.

Nicholas Farrelly: Many New Mandala readers will be aware that you have published a huge number of books, articles and chapters over the years. Some of your major works have been part of larger collaborations. Do you see such collaboration as integral to good academic practice?

Professor Kevin Hewison: This will be my shortest answer: Yes, absolutely. Now let me add the detail.

I have had been fortunate to have had many productive collaborations and have worked with some wonderful colleagues. Many of your readers would be aware of the long-standing collaboration between Dick Robison, Garry Rodan and myself. Actually, Richard Higgott should be added to this group. Richard came to Murdoch University when Garry and I were Dick’s first doctoral students. He was far more ambitious about publishing than any of us, and he led us in getting our first collaborative edited collection out in 1985 ( Southeast Asia: Essays in the Political Economy of Structural Change, edited by Higgott and Robison). Through this enterprise, Garry and I were introduced to the idea of getting publications out very early in our academic careers.

Robison, Rodan and Hewison in various combinations have now teamed up in numerous publications and this more than 20 year collaboration has been the most productive and fulfilling academic experience of my career. Being Dick’s doctoral students helped cement the relationship, and Garry and I had known each other since we had played Australian football against each other in our early teens. The collaboration really grew out of similar theoretical interests and political concerns. Even when we weren’t collaborating directly, we were talking. Dick’s Indonesia: The Rise of Capital was a model of political economy when it came out, and you can see that Garry and I were substantially influenced by his work and ideas. At the same time, we also influenced him. These kinds of collaboration are easiest. Where there are mutual interests and a concern to publish and to put a perspective out there for others to assess and criticise has been productive and rewarding.

We always hope that our collaboration has made a contribution that others find useful. When we hear references to the “MurdochSchool” we are encouraged, even if we don’t feel like there ever was something as coherent as that term suggests. However, it is easy to see how outsiders see some consistency of approach.

Nicholas Farrelly: Alongside this prolific output of publications, you have also been regularly involved in consultancy projects. You have, for example, advised AusAID on human rights in Myanmar, worked as a community activities specialist in Vietnam and even undertaken reviews of large NGO projects in Mozambique. How has this work contributed to your intellectual life?

Professor Kevin Hewison: Before answering your larger question, let me say a couple of things about the Burma human rights mission. This was my last real excursion into the consultancy field, in 2000. I did it simply because the idea of talking human rights to the Burmese military seemed absurd to the point of being Monty Python-esque. As it turned out, the whole experience was bizarre but memorable. We dealt with the “liberal” element in the government, seen to be associated with Khin Nyunt. “Liberal” was a term used by various Australian officials to characterise a bunch of people associated with police, prisons and intelligence. My task was to identify potential development projects should Australia have decided to re-engage with Burma. My brief was to find projects that did not provide support for the military regime. Of course, this was very nearly impossible. But the mission was interesting for the insights it provided into the nature of the regime’s paranoia, rigid control and ignorance. I think the outcome was some training for Burmese officials in Rangoon but I think it also convinced some aid officials and maybe some politicians that providing openings for “reform” in Burma was not going to be as easy as they had imagined.

The broader question you raise is interesting because in my mind I have always had a kind of compartmentalisation of the two activities. This is really a false compartmentalisation because these two professional activities were intertwined for a number of years. In reality, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Thailand and Laos, consulting work was my fieldwork. While I didn’t write directly about my consulting activities, some of my publications grew out of the experience. Village Life: Culture and Transition in Thailand’s Northeast is a good example. In my consulting work I had come to know Seri Phongphit and that led to collaboration on the book. I guess the other outcome of that period was my defence of the practical value of the cultural development perspective, challenging one of your other interviewees, Jonathon Rigg in the pages of World Development (1993). Again, if I hadn’t been out there working in the field, with government and with NGOs, I doubt that I would have taken up such a debate.

In teaching, the experiences gained through consulting have been especially valuable as I was able to provide students with a “feeling” for development issues and for Southeast Asia that I might not have been able to give them if I had remained a political economist studying the relationships between state and capital in Thailand.

There’s no doubt that the contacts I made through consulting work have been useful and personally satisfying. While I am not a great “networker,” I made friendships with colleagues in universities and NGOs that have persisted for more than two decades.

A final – personal – point worth is mentioning. I was late to learning Thai, only beginning it just prior to my PhD studies, and continuing it under the expert guidance of Tony Diller and Vacharin McFadden at the ANU. For all their efforts, though, it is fair to say that my Thai wasn’t particularly fluent when I went to Khon Kaen in 1986. By the time I returned to academic life in mid-1991, my Thai had improved remarkably and my Lao wasn’t too bad either.

Nicholas Farrelly: In your experience, what can an academic social scientist bring to such consultancy work?

Professor Kevin Hewison: I was mainly working on rural development projects that involved infrastructure (roads, bridges, water supplies), so my comments relate to them. The skills that a good social scientist brings are rigour, a critical perspective, an ability to conduct research and, hopefully, a deep knowledge of the history, politics and culture of the area where they are working.

The problem is that most social scientists are brought in to provide some kind of legitimacy for decisions already taken by others, be they politicians, bureaucrats or other professionals (especially engineers and planners). In these circumstances, the social scientist can be a “hired gun,” where the characteristics and skills just mentioned don’t matter at all. In other circumstances, the social scientist might be in a position to ameliorate the negative consequences of development projects. This is always difficult because the social scientist needs to learn a lot about the other disciplines – especially engineering, planning and economics – that tend to dominate rural development projects. One also needs to understand the bureaucrats managing the projects. This is often a frustrating experience. However, a competent social scientist can eventually come to influence development outcomes.

…to be continued in “Interview with Professor Kevin Hewison- Part Two” on Monday, 20 August 2007…