Asian Studies Association of Australia Asian Currents
The Asian Studies Association of Australia's e-bulletin
Maximising Australia's Asian Knowledge
March 2009 | ISSN 1449-4418 | for the plain copy (no images) of this issue please click here

Sponsored by ARC Asia Pacific Futures Research Network

In this issue:



by Professor Samina Yasmeen, Director, Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia

The available literature on militancy in Pakistan predominantly focuses on structural and institutional causes. Emphasis is placed on the role of Muslim parties, Al-Qaeda and state institutions that have willingly or unwillingly promoted militancy among citizens of Pakistan. While the significance of these analyses cannot be discounted, attention also needs to be paid to the role of language – in particular – Arabic – as a facilitator of the process.

Historically, Muslims in South Asia, and particularly the educated elite, had command of more than one language. In addition to Urdu, Arabic (and Persian) were learnt and taught as a means of securing and transmitting knowledge. The process continued during the British colonisation of the subcontinent, though the number of those proficient in Arabic and Persian declined.

Now, in an era of Muslim militancy, the command of Arabic as the language of the Holy Qur'an has contributed to notions of authenticity and leadership: those who can speak the language or even suggest an ability to understand Arabic come to be viewed as holders of Islamic knowledge. Ordinary citizens, keen to learn about Islam in an era of increased emphasis on Islamic identity, search for those who not only understand what Islam means but who can also communicate it to others. This process excludes articulators of Islamic knowledge and information who think of and discuss Muslim ideas in their local languages only.

This has resulted in an increased demand for Arabic language among Pakistanis.

The clientele for such knowledge extends across economic classes. Those belonging to the elite classes, for example, patronise institutions like Al-Huda where females are taught Quranic knowledge and Arabic as a means of re-discovering Islam. Some from the upper economic echelons also join study circles which promote either dogmatic Islamic ideas or more flexible sufi traditions. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, have the option of joining a myriad of courses that promise proficiency of the Arabic language and, through this, answers to people’s questions about Islam.

Many of these learners also assume that the ability to read and speak Arabic qualifies a person for leadership. Such assumptions are often reflected in, for example, television shows on Islam which specifically invite Arabic-speaking participants as spokespersons for particular sects or points of view.

But the language-derived authenticity also allows militant leaders to articulate their views on jihad and the fight against the infidels by referring to Quranic verses in Arabic and then providing their versions of the meaning of these verses. The Khutbat-e-Jihad by Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the banned Jaish-e- Mohammad, for instance, encapsulates this masterly use of Arabic to guide readers into an extremist jihadi outlook.

Countering militancy, therefore, requires an approach that does not simply deal with structural causes but acknowledges and explores the language-related notions of religious authenticity among the elites and masses.



by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, Fellow, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies The Australian National University

This story is about Thiru. It is easier even for an Indian to call him just by that little name – Thiru – than trying to remember his full Tamil name, Thiruppagazh Venkatachalam.

Thiru is currently a doctoral student at the Australian National University. When I first met him, this soft spoken, diminutive, bespectacled figure reminded me of the fictional old timer Indian judge of Letters from an Englishwoman to an Indian Judge. Thiru’s demeanour and his world view have indeed been largely shaped by the Indian Administration Service, the great institution of bureaucracy established by the colonial British.

Thiru is writing his dissertation on post-earthquake rehabilitation in Gujarat, India. The disaster occurred on Australia Day (also India’s Republic Day) in 2001. It turned multi-storied buildings into rubble and wiped out entire towns and villages. The physical scale of the Kutch disaster and its human dimensions shocked the entire world, and raised doubts that it would ever be possible to rebuild the human lives and get the economy back on track again.

Not long after the earthquake, Thiru, then a district magistrate, was called to the state capital, Ahmedabad,

by the Chief Minister of the state and put in charge of the newly established Gujarat Disaster Management Authority. Once Thiru took over, there was no looking back. Thiru lived in his office and worked ceaselessly. In his own words: ‘For the next three years I didn’t once sleep in my own home’.

Kutch is located at the western end of India, on the border between India and Pakistan, and although protected by wide and empty tracts of salt pans, the land has been repeatedly invaded from the West. This has made Kutchis resilient and able to fight back. It is here in this saline and parched country that a new community has been born with the Herculean efforts of people like Thiru.

When I went recently to see the rebuilding work that Thiru had conducted, young kids lined up the streets to welcome him, village elders came to chat and to bless, and local politicians and NGO workers rushed to meet him. I have not seen so much love and spontaneous respect showered on any bureaucrat in India.

In the completely rebuilt hospital at Kutch, the doctors and nurses proudly showed us the new earthquake resistant construction technology used in the building.

Staff and students at the new engineering college and the residential school for orphaned children spoke eloquently of how well Thiru had used the aftermath of the disaster as an opportunity to help those in need.

At the ANU, Thiru comes to us, the pedagogues, as a student. Many of us tend to see students as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with knowledge that they will go back home and use. In this one-way street of exchange, we are represented as the ‘givers’ and our students are the ‘takers’, whose ‘capacity’ we are supposed to build.

Our assumed superiority makes us blind to the wealth of knowledge and the rich reservoirs of experience that our students bring to us. Visiting Thiru's work in villages made me aware of this, and helped me to see him in a different light.

They say that the lonely salt Runns of Kutch does strange things to people. They certainly changed my worldview. I learned that my student was also a man with a mission that he has already accomplished, touching the lives of all around him.



This month we profile Linda Jaivin, Visiting Fellow in the Pacific and Asian History Division, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University whose most recent book is the novel A Most Immoral Woman

Q:When did you become interested in Asia and why?
Stumbling on an introductory course to East Asian history at university hooked me on Asian studies. Chinese history soon became my obsession. At the time (the 70s), China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and closed to the world. It seemed unlikely that a degree in Chinese history or fluency in the language would have much practical use outside the world of academe. Perversely, I was attracted by this; I loved the idea of studying something for no other reason than that it was profoundly and intrinsically interesting.

Then in 1978 Deng Xiaoping came along, flung open China’s doors and launched the economic reforms that would transform China, at the same time repudiating radical Maoism. Suddenly the eyes of the world were on China. Quite accidentally, I found myself with a knowledge and skill (fluency in Chinese) that led to an extraordinary number of opportunities.

I’d always wanted to be a writer, and was interested in all forms of writing, from popular history to novels to essays and cultural commentary. Though young and inexperienced, I was able to walk straight into all manner of writing jobs, from book reviewing to writing travel essays and doing literary translation. I even obtained a position with Asiaweek magazine in Hong Kong as their chief China, Taiwan and Hong Kong correspondent.

Since leaving Asiaweek in 1986, I’ve made a living as a freelance writer. I contribute to newspapers and magazines in Australia and overseas, and have published five novels, a novella, a book of essays and a China memoir cum biography of the singer-songwriter, activist and fengshui master Hou Dejian, The Monkey and the Dragon.

Although not all my writing is directly related to China, it was my Asian studies background and proficiency in Chinese that opened – and still opens – door after door to me.

Q: What are your current preoccupations?
My current preoccupation is blending my abiding interest in Chinese history, culture and language with my passion for writing fiction.

My most recent novel, A Most Immoral Woman, is set in late Qing Dynasty China as well as Japan in 1904. A Most Immoral Woman focuses on an obsessive sexual affair between the great Australian journalist George Morrison and an American millionaire’s daughter in various locations up and down the China coast and in Japan. The broader context is that of the decline of the Qing, the age of imperialism and the Russo-Japanese War, which influenced geopolitical currents in East Asia for half a century afterwards. Then there is the background of rapidly evolving views on women and sexuality, not just in the Anglophone and European worlds but in China too as represented by reformist intellectuals like Tan Sitong and Kang Youwei.

I see A Most Immoral Woman as the first of a number of novels set mainly in China and during periods of great upheaval and friction. My next novel will probably also be set in the Qing but unlike A Most Immoral Woman, which is set in 1904, this next will have a narrative span of about a century.

Q: What are your hopes for Asian studies in Australia?
I’ve noticed a difference between my generation and many of the younger people who study Chinese these days – having come to Asian studies during a time of great openness and opportunity, particularly in business, they tend to be very practical and financially-minded. There’s nothing wrong with this. But I hope that they also will study Chinese culture, language and history for no other reason than that it is as exhilarating as it is enriching.

Student of the month

It was a 23-hour train trip along the southeast coast of mainland China that cemented Philippa Brant’s interest in ‘China’. As one of the only ‘laowai’ (foreigners) on the train, she had some fascinating experiences and interactions that prompted her to examine her assumptions and existing knowledge (or lack thereof) about this incredible country.

Her engagement with ‘Asia’ and Asian cultures began much earlier though. Growing up in a family with parents enthusiastic about the region through their jobs and who regularly hosted Japanese Assistant Teachers not only improved her skill with chopsticks but also gave her an understanding that cultural difference wasn’t an impediment to friendship. Although she didn’t realise it at the time, this fostered an intense desire to learn more about other people, countries and cultures.

Philippa never intended to specifically study China; she enrolled in Political Science and Asian Studies as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne knowing only that she wanted to ‘learn more about Asia’, having studied Japanese all though school. A timetable clash meant that her first choice – Indonesian - wasn’t an option; she instead struggled through three years of Chinese. It wasn’t until she spent a month on a field class visiting an incredible array of places in China,

talking to people about their lives, that she realised she wanted to try to understand this remarkable country better.

Philippa’s research interests span the fields of International Relations, development studies and gender – with ‘Asia’, and ‘China’ more specifically, as the common focus.

After completing an Honours thesis that examined the interaction between the Chinese state and civil society, using the right to education for domestic migrant children as a case study, and which included site visits and interviews in Shanghai, Philippa decided to embark on a PhD, in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

Her thesis manages to combine her interest in China, international politics, development and travel. She is investigating the way China gives foreign aid and how other donors are responding to China’s presence on the ‘aid scene’. Philippa’s thesis will examine the impact China may have on the international aid regime and the dominant development/foreign aid discourse. She plans to undertake fieldwork in parts of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific later this year.

In the first year of her PhD, Philippa was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to attend a two-week China summer school in Torino, Italy where she relished the opportunity to engage with scholars and students from around Europe. It really brought home to her though how important it is for us, here in Australia, to make the most of our situation (and location) and deepen our engagement with the people and countries of Asia.

Website of the month

The Democracy Project was founded to fill a gap in contemporary political analysis and debate. It aims to collapse 'women's issues' into broader societal discourse and debate, and show that a functioning democracy requires that we re-negotiate the boundaries between gender and society.

Recent publication of interest

Chinese Foreign Direct Investment in Australia: Policy Issues for the Resource Sector by Peter Drysdale, and Christopher Findlay. This paper examines two issues posed by the prospect of a significant rise in foreign direct investment (FDI) from China into the Australian resources sector. Is the surge of FDI into Australian mining and energy consistent with achieving the traditional gains from foreign investment? And are there any particular problems associated with investment from foreign state-owned enterprises or state managed sovereign wealth funds? The authors argue there are no issues that cannot be dealt with under the umbrella of the established test of ‘national interest’ in managing the growth of Chinese FDI into the Australian minerals sector. They say that a confusion has been introduced into policy over the questions of state-ownership and supplier-buyer relations in respect of Chinese investments and that clarifying these issues is likely to be important to Australia‘s capturing the full benefits from the growth of Chinese resources demand and longer term economic and strategic interests in China.

Did you know?

Survey data released by the Australia-Indonesia Business Council indicates that in December last year, despite the global financial crisis, 45 per cent of respondents regarded Indonesia as a more valuable commercial target compared with two years ago, while a further 50 per cent felt its attraction had remained undiminished. And while the number of Indonesian-speaking graduates and specialists declines, employment demand for them has grown strongly. Government departments, agencies and private sector firms often are unable to fill vacancies. Skilled applicants earn a premium, with staff in departments such as defence, foreign affairs and AusAID paid a loading of $2000 to $4000 a year for appropriate language proficiency.
Source, article by David T. Hill, The Australian, 25 February, 2009,25197,25101296-25192,00.html

Diary dates

KOREAN DREAMS: PAINTINGS AND SCREENS OF THE JOSEON DYNASTY, Sydney, 5 March - 8 June 2009. This exhibition is the first showing of traditional Korean painting at the Art Gallery of NSW. It will comprise Korean screens, hanging scrolls and album leaves dating from the 17th to 19th centuries. It will be accompanied by a Korean Dreams study day on 7 March 2009 (12pm - 5pm) in the Centenary Auditorium, Art Gallery of NSW, The Domain, Sydney. See

MING WONG VAIN EFFORTS Exhibition, Sydney, 6 March – 18 April 2009. This exhibition is at the Asia-Australia Arts Centre, 181-187 Hay Street, Sydney. Ming Wong lives between his native Singapore and Berlin, working mainly in video and photography. He creates irreverent works that explore slippages in language, cross-cultural experiences and gender stereotyping through appropriation of iconic 20th Century cinema such as the work of Malay film maker P Ramlee and German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Open Tuesday – Saturday 11am - 6pm Admission Free, 02 9212 0380

THE GOLDEN JOURNEY: JAPANESE ART FROM AUSTRALIAN COLLECTIONS, Adelaide 6 March - 31 May 2009. Exclusive to the Art Gallery of South Australia, The Golden Journey reveals the rich heritage of Japanese art held in Australia's major public and private collections. The exhibition, the first comprehensive survey of its kind in Australia, tells the story of Japanese art from prehistoric times until Japan opened its doors to the West at the commencement of the Meiji era (1868-1912).

THE WELFARE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS: REGULATIONS AND SOCIAL POLICY FOR NON-CITIZENS? Seminar, Sydney, 26 May. Cross-border education is a global market and Australia’s third largest export. International students are a vanguard mobile population. Yet little is known about their wellbeing or their vulnerabilities in the host country. This presentation reports on a study of international student welfare in Australia and New Zealand, utilising 300 in-depth interviews across the two countries, 270 with students and 30 with university service-providing staff and policymakers from government departments. Presenters: Gaby Ramia, Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney. 12.30pm at Social Policy Research Centre, University of NSW

THE CHINA AUSTRALIA BUSINESS CONGRESS 2009, Sydney 19-20 May. This congress, supported by Austrade has been organised to highlight opportunities for Australian businesses considering trading, importing, exporting, manufacturing / outsourcing and investing in the greater China region. It will cover issues such as protecting intellectual property; mitigating risk; tax, legal and Government assistance; latest import / export legislation The China Australia Business Congress 2009 is supported by Austrade. Harbours Edge, Darling Harbour, Sydney See

CONFERENCE ON SECURITY SECTOR REFORM IN INDONESIA, Sydney, 12-13 June. This conference will consider current developments in security sector reform (SSR) and the correlation between SSR and the democratisation process in Indonesia. It is being organised by Indonesian Solidarity (IS) a nonprofit human rights organisation at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, 280 Pitt Street. Contact:

TRANSMISSION OF ACADEMIC VALUES IN ASIAN STUDIES workshop, Canberra, 25- 26 June 2009. See Contact

JIU: COMMEMORATION AND CELEBRATION IN THE CHINESE-SPEAKING WORLD, conference, Sydney, 9-11 July 2009. The biennial China Studies Association of Australia (CSAA) conference will be held at Women's College, University of Sydney. It adopts the theme of ‘jiu’, taking up the challenge of both celebrating and commemorating the achievements and hardships of the past century in the Chinese-speaking world. The call for papers and panels closes in March 2009. See

The China Node of the Asia Pacific Futures Research Network is offering 10 student accommodation scholarships for the conference. The scholarship holders are expected to attend a Postgraduate Workshop on 9 July. Registrants who are enrolled in a PhD at an Australian university and are not based in NSW should send 250 words explaining what they hope to gain from the networking opportunity and from the conference itself. Please send this and a supporting statement from a supervisor to both: and

THE 18TH NEW ZEALAND ASIAN STUDIES SOCIETY INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE 2009, Wellington, 6-8 July, 2009. This will be an open, multidisciplinary conference. Participants are invited to submit panel or paper proposals presenting original research on any Asia-related topic. For more information, please the see conference website:

JSAA-ICJLE 2009 Conference, Sydney, July 13-16, 2009. The Japanese Studies Association of Australia (JSAA) is delighted to host JSAA-ICJLE2009, a joint conference for the JSAA conference and the International Conference on Japanese Language Education (ICJLE) in Sydney. The conference will feature research and discussion in various disciplines of Japanese language and studies. The main theme of the conference will be "Bridging the gap between the Japanese language and Japanese studies". The conference aims to provide a forum for Japanese language and studies academics and educators from around the world to meet and share ideas beyond and across their disciplines. See

MAJU BERSAMA The Australian Society of Indonesian Language Educators (ASILE) Biennial Conference, Sydney, 14-15 July, 2009. ASILE is now calling for expressions of interest for papers and workshops at the 2009 conference. This is an excellent opportunity to contribute to and participate in a conference with a national audience interested in directions for the future of Indonesian language education. Small teams of presenters working together on projects are also encouraged to register. Any queries, please contact: Andrea Corston phone: (08) 8683 4751;

TRADE AND INDUSTRY IN ASIA PACIFIC: HISTORY, TRENDS AND PROSPECTS, 19-20 November, Canberra. The ARC Asia Pacific Futures Research Network is pleased to announce its signature event for 2009 supporting the theme of Trade and Industry in the Asia Pacific. This year's event is an exciting collaboration between the Arndt-Corden Division of Economics at the Australian National University (ANU) and the School of Economics and Finance, La Trobe University (LTU). The conference fee, which includes lunches, tea/coffee and the conference dinner (19 November) is A$450, if the payment is received by 15 July 2009. Please note the fee increases to $500 for registrations after this date. Prospective contributors should submit a draft version of the paper or a detailed abstract by e-mail no later than 31 May 2009. Contact:

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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 Asian Studies Review journal and holds a biennial conference. ASAA and the Centre for Language Studies at National University of Singapore also co-publish an annual supplementary issue of the Centre's fully peer-reviewed electronic Foreign Language Teaching Journal (e-FLT). See

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 show national leadership in the promotion of Australia’s Asia knowledge and skills. See Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset

Asian Currents is published by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA). It is edited by Francesca Beddie. The editorial board consists of Robert Cribb, ASAA President; Michele Ford, ASAA Secretary; Mina Roces, ASAA Publications officer; and Lenore Lyons, ASAA Council member.

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