Asian Studies Association of  Australia Asian Currents
The Asian Studies Association of Australia's e-bulletin
June 2004 | ISSN 1449-4418 | <>


Asian Currents aims to connect Australia's academic experts on Asia with journalists, policy makers, business people, artists and other educators. By telling you what is happening in the research world, we hope you will be able to make better use of the wealth of knowledge available and that you will recognise the importance of fostering Australia's Asia knowledge.

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Each edition of Asian Currents brings you a short insight into topical issues.

Indonesia's presidential election

Colin Brown
Dean of Media Society and Culture, Curtin University, Western Australia

Professor Brown is the author of the book, A short history of Indonesia - the unlikely nation

Five years ago, few Indonesians had ever in their lives voted in a free election; this year, already they have chosen national, provincial and local government representatives in elections which have been remarkably open and free of violence. The next round of voting takes place on 5 July, when the President and Vice President will be elected. This is the first time Indonesians have directly chosen these leaders.

There are five candidates for the top job, but only three with any chance of winning: Megawati Sukarnoputri, the current President; Wiranto, former commander of the armed forces, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (commonly called SBY), a retired general and former senior Cabinet Minister under Megawati. If the polls are to be believed, SBY is the frontrunner, with around 40% support; Megawati and Wiranto are neck and neck but a long way back, with around 10% support. But to win in the first round, a candidate needs an absolute majority of the votes cast; 40% is not enough. If no candidate gets a majority in the first round, the top two candidates will face off in a second round of voting on 20 September. SBY will clearly be one of these candidates, but his opponent is much harder to pick: perhaps Megawati, given she still has access to the trappings of office, and because Golkar - Wiranto's party - remains out of favour with many in the electorate.

But does it make any difference who wins? At one level, it does. For the first time Indonesians have a genuine if limited choice of candidates for the top job, and if Megawati loses, it will be a salutary lesson in the workings of an open political system. But at another level, the choice is unlikely to change the direction of Indonesian politics. The campaign has focussed heavily on personalities and not on policies or platforms. Whoever wins will be faced with the need to push forward with reform of the judicial and banking systems; address separatist demands in Aceh and Papua; deal with internal ethnic and religious conflict. None of the leading candidates is likely to adopt policies which are radically different from the ones we have seen under Megawati. Nor, perhaps, should we expect them to: the institutional and structural constraints on policy-making are so massive, and system inertia so powerful, that change - if it comes - is going to be slow and painstaking, not quick and dramatic. The style of the Presidency might change after the election, but not the substance.

Further links:

To follow the election and get informed Indonesian commentary visit

Water fights

Ann McMillan
PhD scholar, Griffith University

Australians have long argued over sensible water use and debated grand schemes for conserving this most precious of commodities. China faces an even more complex dilemma. Government plans for major water diversion schemes in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region seem certain to add to existing tensions with regional neighbours, Kazakhstan and Russia.

China intends to divert water from the Ili and Irtysh rivers, both of which rise in Xinjiang. The Ili flows through Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and terminates in Lake Balkhash, which has no outlet. The Irtysh rises in China's Altay mountains and also crosses into Kazakhstan. From there it flows through Lake Zaysan to the Russian city of Omsk, eventually joining the Ob River. (The combined Irtysh-Ob system is the longest river system in Asia at 5,410 kilometres.)

Water from the Ili and Irtysh rivers will be used mainly for the development of oil fields in Xinjiang and the replenishment of Lop Nur. This well-known lake had, by the 1990s, totally dried up.

Lake Balkhash is the sixteenth largest inland lake in the world. However, its water level has declined since the 1960s due to increased usage and evaporation. The planned diversion of water from the Ili River - one of Lake Balkhash's three main sources - will only hasten this process, with major implications for the Kazakhs. As well as a source of fish, Lake Balkhash also provides water for irrigation and government infrastructure, including hydropower. It supplies the cheapest electric power in southern Kazakhstan.

The diversion of water from the Irytsh will impact not only on Kazakhstan, but also Russia, causing the Ob River to become non-navigable at the city of Omsk in Siberia. While inconclusive discussions have taken place between China and Kazakhstan (it is unclear whether Russia has been invited to participate or has declined the invitation), construction of the hydro installations has continued, despite the long-term implications for the environment and for political relations such development presages.

Further links:


This month we profile John Legge (, one of the founders of the Asian Studies Association of Australia and Emeritus Professor at the Centre of South East Asian Studies, Monash University.

Q. When did you become interested in studying Asia and why?

I came to the study of Asia almost by accident. My undergraduate course at the University of Melbourne focussed on European history. At the end of my Honours course I found myself in the Army's Directorate of Research, which liaised with the Department of External Territories, and the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU). ANGAU opened in Canberra a school to train servicemen for native administration during and after the war. This setting fuelled my interest in anthropology and western Pacific history. My first research activity was on colonial administration in Papua.

In 1946 I became a lecturer at the University of Western Australia where, keeping a few pages ahead of my students, I developed a general course in aspects of Asian history, although I retained a research focus on the Pacific, especially while on a scholarship to Oxford from 1948 to 1950. But back in Perth I became increasingly dissatisfied with the separation of my teaching and research interests and in 1953 decide to shift my focus to Indonesia. A Carnegie grant in 1956 enabled me to study at Cornell, under George Kahin.

My first field trip was triggered by an extraordinary piece of luck. One of the Indonesian students I knew at Cornell gave me a letter of introduction to his brother-in-law who happened to be engaged in planning local administration changes. He offered his help, gave me a room adjoining his own in the Ministry of the Interior, and arranged my contacts with local authorities in East Java, North Sulawesi and West Sumatra. What research student could hope to fall so thoroughly on his feet in a strange country!

Q. What are your current preoccupations?

Though I retired at the end of 1986, at the then mandatory age of 65, I have retained a toe-hold at Monash and kept up my links with the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies. I've continued with some writing, including finishing a study of the group of intellectual followers of Sutan Sjahrir, first Prime Minister of the Republic, and writing the history of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. More recently an invitation from a Singapore publisher led to the third edition of my biography of Sukarno.

Q. How do these fit into the contemporary scene?

Clearly the ascension of Megawati Sukarnoputri to the presidency revived a focus - in Indonesia and elsewhere - on the career of her father. I have been interested, in particular, in the changing ways in which Indonesian developments and those of other Southeast Asian countries over the past 60 years have been perceived and interpreted both by outsiders and Southeast Asian historians themselves.

Q. What are your hopes for Asian studies in Australia?

I am disturbed by the decline in the number of students taking Southeast Asian languages and societies. Forty years ago Asian studies were only beginning to establish themselves in Australian universities. Then there was a great expansion and all universities placed some emphasis on the study of Asia. Since then, however, more stringent financial resources spread more widely over an increased number of institutions have led to the curtailing of some of these programs.

It still seems to me that the way we organised things at Monash, with some Asian emphasis in a range of disciplines at the undergraduate level and a Centre of Southeast Asian studies at the graduate level in which students from different disciplines, and with interests in different countries, could meet and discuss, was fruitful. But this requires an adequate number of specialist staff, with time to devote to this enterprise. That, it seems to me, is increasingly under threat.

Diary dates

15th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia

The 15th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia (29 June to 2 July 2004) will be opened by the Governor-General, His Excellency Major-General Jeffery at the National Convention Centre in Canberra on 29 June.

The conference's program - with approximately 160 panels and over 400 accepted papers - is now available online at

A special event during the conference will be a major address at the National Press Club on 30 June by Dr John Yu, Chancellor of the University of NSW. Dr Yu will speak on Knowing Asia: Australia's future. For bookings, see

Indian storytelling

To accompany an exhibition of Indian Folk Paintings and Textiles at the Art Gallery of NSW, you can hear stories of India presented by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Australia, the international institute of Indian art and culture, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11.30am until 1 July 2004. The exhibition closes on 4 July 2004. See

Sustainable growth?: China economic update

The Australia China Business Council (Sydney Branch) will present a briefing with guest speaker Dr John Edwards, Chief Economist, HSBC, Australia. Dr Edwards will discuss concerns about the sustainability of China's growth in response to signs that the economy might be overheating and further growth constraints caused by potential insufficient infrastructure, specifically in power generation.

Thursday 1 July, 12.30pm-2.00pm, Coudert Brothers LLP, Level 8, 1 Macquarie Place, Sydney

ENTRY: $33 Asialink/ACBC Members or $44 Non-Members. Light refreshments will be provided.
RSVP: To reserve a place please RSVP via email to: by Monday 28 June.
ENQUIRIES: Australia China Business Council: (02) 9247 0349 or email:

Austrade seminars: Vietnam today

Melbourne (2 July), Adelaide (8 July), Perth (15 July)

Austrade is holding a series of seminars where you can learn about Vietnam today - its trends, developments, and opportunities. Speakers will include Tim Gauci, Senior Trade Commissioner, Vietnam. Please contact Austrade Direct on 13 28 78, or fax (02) 9390 2024, or email

Cultural and religious mosaic of South and Southeast Asia: conflict and consensus through the ages

A regional conference co-hosted by IAHR and UNESCO, New Delhi, 27-30 January 2005. See

You are welcome to advertise Asia-related events in this space. Send details to:

Researcher of the month

Professor Shapan Adnan ( currently teaches in the South Asian Studies Programme of the National University of Singapore. He has formerly taught at the Universities of Dhaka and Chittagong and undertaken research as a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford. His latest work, Migration, land alienation and ethnic conflict: causes of poverty in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, was published in Dhaka earlier this year. The book examines the reasons for the continuing poverty and ethnic conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It also offers suggestions about how to move forward in a more constructive way, for example by restoring alienated land, relocating Bengali settlers and introducing greater economic diversity.

Website of the month

Super language websites: Japanese and Chinese

The University of Northern Iowa has developed these sites to help people learn more about the culture and language of Japan and China. There are drills in grammar, quizzes, games, links and dictionaries.

If you would like to nominate a site which contributes to the maximizing of Australia's Asian knowledge, please contact

Did you know?

The Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo has recently launched two free electronic products for people interested in Asian-Pacific issues:

The e-newsletter provides a roundup of 10 key economic and development news items from developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region. See To subscribe, send a blank email to:

The CD-ROM reviews tell you about the content of CD-ROMs and assess how easy they are to use. See

Recent article of interest

Studying abroad

As anyone who's travelled knows, Australians are famously peripatetic. From Kensington to Kabul, Seoul to San Francisco, you're sure to come across a friendly accent if you stay in town for a few days. However, few Australians go abroad to study. A recent article on how studying abroad would be enriching, can be found at

Peter Thomson took up the theme on his breakfast show on Radio National, speaking to Jane Edwards, the Director of International Programs at Harvard University, which is considering making it compulsory for its students to spend some time studying abroad as part of their degree.


What would be useful for you? Human interest stories, profiles of successful graduates of Asian studies, more news about what's on, moderated discussions on topical issues? Asian Currents is still taking shape. If you'd like to mould it to your needs, send your ideas to

About the ASAA

The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) promotes the study of Asian languages, societies, cultures, and politics in Australia; supports teaching and research in Asian studies; and works towards an understanding of Asia in the community at large. It publishes the Asia Studies Review journal and holds a biennial conference.

The ASAA believes there is an urgent need to develop a strategy to preserve, renew and extend Australian expertise about Asia. It has called on the government to establish a Council for Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge and Skills (C-MAAKS), chaired by an outstanding Australian, to oversee a strategy to preserve, renew and extend Australian expertise about Asia. It has detailed this proposal in Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset. See

Asian Currents is published by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA), thanks to a grant from the Myer Foundation made to assist the ASAA promote the study of Asia in Australia. It is edited by the ASAA's promotions agents, Francesca Beddie and Peter Rodgers.

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