Amrita Malhi on Connecting the ASAA with a Wide Research Network

Amrita Malhi on Connecting the ASAA with a Wide Research Network

Dr Amrita Malhi is a Historian of Southeast Asia, with a primary interest in Islam, shifting identities and identity conflict in colonial Malaya and contemporary Malaysia. She was the ASAA Secretary from 2013 to 2016. In this post, she considers how the ASAA can connect with a far-reaching research network. Read the other posts in this series celebrating women’s contributions to the ASAA here.

What role/s did you hold on the ASAA Council, and when and why did you get involved?

I first became involved in the ASAA Council in 2011 when I started out as a General Councillor. My expertise is in the History of the Malay World. I had just completed my PhD on an anticolonial Holy War in Malaya at the ANU and was looking for an academic job. I got involved in the ASAA because Kathryn Robinson, an academic at the ANU who I was working for as a project manager on her Sulawesi Nickel Project at the time, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to do it. I didn’t mind, so I said yes. I then served in a volunteer capacity as Secretary from 2013 to 2016.

During your time serving ASAA, what were some of the initiatives you were involved with to support women academics?

I undertook several initiatives to support women specifically. For example, when we set up the post-doctoral writing fellowship in the early 2010s, I argued that the definition of ECR needed to be expanded to account for periods spent in non-academic employment and periods of parental leave, to appropriately acknowledge the time out of academia that many people experience, particularly women raising children.

I also played another role I feel especially proud of, on the three-university organising committee that ran the Ninth International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS9) in Adelaide in 2015. As Secretary, I was the ASAA councillor on the Committee. The co-convenors were Gerry Groot and Purnendra Jain, both academics at the University of Adelaide. ICAS9 was a collaboration between the University of Adelaide, the University of South Australia, and Flinders University.

It was a major operation, bringing a global conference to Australia. We had to mobilise Australian scholars to show up and represent us well in Adelaide – and make it work financially – so we rolled the conferences of the ASAA’s affiliated regional associations into ICAS9. This included the Chinese Studies Association of Australia (CSAA), the South Asian Studies Association of Australia (SASAA), and the Malaysia and Singapore Society of Australia (MASSA).

We also ran a policy outreach workshop to include policymakers and other leaders in a discussion about South Australia’s future as an increasingly Asian population, interacting more with Asia.

It was challenging as there were lots of stakeholders involved and not all of them were friendly. But the whole thing turned out great. It was the best Asian Studies conference I’ve ever been to and it had more than a thousand people at it.

What do you see as the value in being involved in academic associations like ASAA?

Professional associations like the ASAA can be part of your strategy for exploring alternative career paths outside academia, as well as for gaining the skills and experience you need for them. As evidence of my advanced skills, I’ve found it especially useful to point to the major initiatives I managed while serving on the ASAA Council. For example, I’ve managed national grant schemes, participated in committee-based decision-making, helped run a profitable conference, performed extensive policy outreach, and been an effective advocate who can think ahead of others.

Right now, I’m the Asia-regional Head of Research and Evaluation in one of the largest NGOs in the international development and humanitarian sector. My work consists of activities like managing a brilliant pan-Asia team, many of whom have PhDs, mentoring on research projects, designing research training, building university and other partnerships, pitching for business, building projects that can genuinely scale up, and so on.

And it’s an excellent job. There are lots of institutions that perform research, and that value employees who have high level organising skills and who can write well, speak convincingly, and manage large initiatives that need to work and grow financially. Many of them are great employers that value expertise – they pay for it, and they listen to it.

What else do you think ASAA, or academic associations, need to do to support women academics?

Perhaps think more laterally about what advancing women in Asian Studies means – maybe find out where women Asian Studies ECRs end up working in the first place, why they leave universities, and where they genuinely wish to advance to. Are they really focused on becoming language and culture teachers, or have they spread out into the rest of the Asia-facing economy? And are they building a wider research environment that the ASAA could start interacting with, especially now that universities are so keen for their academics to build their engagement, impact and industry profiles?

Tell us about an example of your recent research and the ways it intersects with both Asian Studies and debates in Australia.

I‘ve historically always worked on Southeast Asia – I have articles and book chapters on a few anticolonial uprisings in the northern Malay Peninsula, and more recently, on the Malayan Emergency, which readers could look up or find via my Substack newsletter.

But since that ICAS9 conference I’ve also been working on Asian-Australian diasporas and how they’re transforming Australian politics, and how Australian policymakers have sought to fix, manage, and harness diaspora identities for their own ends. One example is my 2017 essay in the Griffith Review, on how I felt when I realised I’d been “discovered” by Australian politicians as a member of “the Indian diaspora.”

Another is my 2023 article, “Enumerating Australia’s “diverse”: ethnicity and raciology in census and workplace diversity surveys,” published online ahead of print in Ethnic & Racial Studies. My argument here is that the practice of sorting us by “ethnicity” – which we see in a wide range of surveys and nearly saw in the Australian Census from 2026 – reveals a statist desire to freeze dynamic social and political processes that produce super diverse identities. Classifying the natives is a classic technique of colonial statecraft – as our Asian Studies degrees have taught us, right?

Image: Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Dr Amrita Malhi is a Historian of Southeast Asia, with a primary interest in Islam, shifting identities and identity conflict in colonial Malaya and contemporary Malaysia

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