Opinion 001: Few Intellectuals in Court of Public Opinion

Few Intellectuals in Court of Public Opinion

By: Benedict R.O’G. Anderson

Over the past few weeks, I have had the enjoyable experience of reading through most of the annual volumes issued by the Nippon Foundation. Most of the contributions are eye-opening, not merely for their quality, but also for their comparative reach, and the doors that they open to various networks of people concerned about the adequacy of a long list of state policies. Nonetheless, as a whole, they arouse certain anxieties in my mind, possibly because I spent many academic years as a so-called political scientist.

The past decade, say 1998 to 2008, has seen many rapid changes not only on the countries covered by the foundation’s initiative, but in the globe as a whole. It has ended with the most colossal, and global, economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and followed the regional financial crisis of 1997-1998.

Politically speaking, the decade started with an admirable outburst of reformist politics, but has ended depressingly with the entrenchment of oligarchies in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. In all these places, the level of economic inequality has rapidly increased, human rights have been constantly abused, and state control of the mass media has become more formidable.

What struck me on reading many of the papers in the foundation’s volumes was the relative invisibility of all this turmoil. One could use as an example Thailand, now in the grip of a long-term political crisis, of which the signs were already visible at the start of the new century. But the Thailand papers barely mentioned Thaksin Shinawatra, the problems of the monarchy, or the bitter insurrection in the Muslim, Malay-speaking, far South. There was no warning in them of the coming red shirt movement we read about every day in the newspapers. One could read most of the papers on the Philippines without getting any idea of the disastrous presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and so on.

Why Should this Be So?

One could start with the long-term decline of the traditional public intellectual, whose primary readership or audience was the public at large. In the 1960s and 1970s the most influential public intellectual in the Philippines was certainly Renato Constantino, who wrote many historical studies with a strong left-nationalist character, and who was bitterly hostile to what he called the persisting “colonial mentality” among his fellow citizens. He was not alone. For example, the Protestant American William Henry Scott also wrote influential books about the early history of the Philippines, and about the abused pagan minorities in the Luzon Cordillera. Neither of them was an academic or a professional journalist. Today almost no such commanding people exist. No Indonesian had so grand an output as the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who never finished high school, but wrote a series of extraordinary novels and short stories for the general public, even though he spent many years in prison. As yet, he has no successor.

In Thailand, Sulak Sivaraksa has for decades been his country’s most powerful social-political critic, and has repeatedly been accused of insulting the monarchy. He has no academic appointment, and is not a journalist. But he is now in his 70s, and has no obvious successor.

Malaysia has one such person, who is still quite young, the satirist, editor, outstanding film-maker, and essayist Amir Muhammad. Again, not an academic, journalist or civil servant.

You will have noticed that I emphasise particularly the absence of academic occupations. This point leads me to the first of two profound changes making the survival of public intellectuals difficult: it is professionalisation of universities, following the American example, which in turn borrowed heavily from 19th Century Germany. This professionalisation was originally built on the powerful institution of the disciplines, in other words the fragmentation of knowledge and study according to the logic of the division of labour. In itself, it discouraged historians interested in anthropology and economists interested in sociology; but it also meant that success in scholarly life was largely determined by senior figures in the disciplines.

In addition, professionalisation encouraged the development of technical jargon understandable only by people in the same academic disciplines. This in turn meant that, more and more, academics wrote for each other, published in “professional journals”, and in university presses. The general public was increasingly excluded by this tendency.

Writing books for this kind of readership was typically regarded as superficial and unscientific. Elegant prose was less and less esteemed.

Nonetheless America was in some ways unique. First of all, it had no national-level state-owned universities, unlike almost every other country in the world. Most of the top universities were private. Second, the country developed thousands of universities in response to popular demand, at a time when university degrees were thought of as requirements for well-paying jobs within and without the universities themselves. Thirdly, the country has a long tradition of hostility to university intellectuals in general, meaning that only a small minority of professors had any powerful connections to the political elite or the mass media. Yet the American example was very powerful from the 1950s onwards, given the country’s hegemonic global position during and after the Cold War. Tens of thousands of youngsters from most parts of the so-called Free World were invited to to come to America to get advanced degrees, and were amply funded by private foundations and state agencies. On their return home, they were supposed to follow their teachers’ example and reinvent university life, often with substantial American financial and political support.

But this task was carried out only in part, given the character of the societies from which the youngsters had come. In Southeast Asia, for example, the top universities are usually owned by the state, and their staffs are civil servants of one sort or another. There is a long tradition of respect for learning, based on both pre-colonial and colonial-era social orders. This respect for learning is fortified by the strong connection to the state.

Professors have access to the political elite and the mass media in a way almost unthinkable in the USA. On the other hand their social status has usually not been paralleled by comparable financial support. In the US professors are very highly paid, many senior professors earning US$100,000 (3.2 million baht) plus every year. In Southeast Asia, in contrast, professors are badly paid, so end up working on useless state research projects, moonlighting at other universities, speculating in real estate, and various kinds of mass media opportunities such as becoming columnists in newspapers, TV personalities and so forth. Students are often neglected or ignored, or treated in a bureaucratic manner.

A good many academics prefer not to teach at all, but sit in research institutes which is rarely very productive. This is why so many of the best students are largely autodidacts and despise their nominal teachers.

Under such circumstances many academics pragmatically align themselves with the political elite. Otherwise they compete fiercely for grants made available by agencies in the rich countries, who have their own agenda.

Moonlighting for the mass media has its own problems. TV slots pay well, but usually no one is given more than 5 minutes, which is not enough to explain anything important. Writing columns at least encourages academics to write for a wide general public, but serious scholars cannot turn out weekly columns without endlessly repeating themselves, chatting about themselves, and obeying the instructions of the editors and owners of newspapers. They become employees – of the state, of the foreign foundations, or newspaper moguls, and TV managers. Small wonder that they have little time to do real research, write significant books, or seriously challenge anything. They are also peculiarly isolated.

Let me give you one striking example. A couple of years ago, I gave a lecture at a top Bangkok university for about 300 professors and students. In the course of this talk, I spoke at some length about the first genuine genius Thailand has produced since the 1960s – the great film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won two top prizes at Cannes within the space of three years, and has also won awards all over the film world. At the end, I asked those who had ever heard of Apichatpong to raise their hands. About 10 hands were raised, all by students. How many had seen any of his films? About six, again all students.

I suddenly realised the isolated ignorance of the professors, who only watch Hollywood films, and their arrogance: film-makers have no university degrees!

Almost no bridges between professors and film-makers, novelists and painters, and so on. No wonder that film-makers and novelists usually have a very low opinion of professors. Only unprofessional students are connected to the two worlds. All of this suggests some of the reasons why it is unlikely to find public intellectuals in universities, though there are always important exceptions.

But one cannot blame universities without considering the environment in which they exist. Here I come to the second major change affecting the survival of the public intellectual. This can be described as the changing culture of the elite and the ways in which they make use of the power of the state.

The first thing to notice is the gathering trend for the elite to send their children to so-called international primary and secondary schools in their own countries, then send them overseas for various tertiary degrees, mainly to the US and the UK, as well as France, Japan, Australia, Singapore and so on. This outlook obviously implies indifference to, if not contempt for, the countries’ own educational institutions. For this reason, the elite have few qualms about massive political interference in university life. In the end, only degrees from foreign universities have any real prestige.

This situation is the opposite of what occurred in the early days of independence when everyone was proud of their schools, and teachers were still generally respected. What do the children of the elite study, if they study at all? You can be sure the degrees will be mainly professional-commercial: business management, marketing, economics, technocratic or small scale projects unlikely to create problems – not only for themselves but also for the youngsters that they sponsored and financed.

Anecdote: When I last spoke with Amir Muhammad, he told me that his little publishing firm had just printed a collection of short stories by gay and lesbian writers. Knowing the harsh legal penalties for “abnormal” sexual relations in Malaysia, I asked him if he was afraid of repression. “Not at all,” he said, laughing. “Our rulers never read books, only two-page policy recommendations and the daily press. Plus, the book is in English, which they are not very good at anyway.” [MAS]


Notes: This opinion article was published in Bangkok Post, on June 28, 2010. Accessed by ASPENSI in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, on October 9, 2011.

Benedict R.O’G. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University and a well-known authority on 20th Century Indonesian and Thai history and politics. This article was also the first part of his keynote speech given at the International Conference on the 10th anniversary of the Nippon Foundation Fellowships Program for Asian Public Intellectuals held recently in Manila, Philippine.  Benedict R.O’G. Anderson was passed away in Indonesia on December 13, 2015.