Dec 05 2013

Celebrating 20 Years of IIAS

Philippe Peycam

IIAS’ twentieth anniversary is an occasion to take stock of what has been accomplished, and in particular, to gauge the institute’s capacity to evolve from a consortium-grounded national organization with an international reach to a locally embedded institution, member of the newly established area studies platform ‘LeidenGlobal’, acting as a global clearing house in the field of Asian studies.

THE ELEMENTS OF CONTINUITY should be stressed. More than ever, IIAS remains the network builder and research facilitator that its founders envisioned two decades ago. With a reinforced profi le and a more focused program- matic orientation, the institute has gained in visibility and credibility. This has led IIAS to engage in the development of ambitious collaborative projects; not only does the institute serve as an incubator of new research but it is also a facilitator of research-led teaching and public service initiatives. This special issue of The Newsletter will amply demonstrate the diversity of IIAS’ accomplishments, and the institute’s transformation in the past two decades. For this special occasion, the Editor, Sonja Zweegers asked me to reflect on ‘what makes the institute so unique’. It is a challenge I am willing to take on, but with the realization that I may not give full credit to all the interesting aspects of the institute or to the people who have made it what it is today.

Often I am asked by visitors how such a small team of 15 people can manage to accomplish so much and be visible in so many parts of the world? Part of the answer is implied by this question. IIAS is fi rst and foremost a team with a remarkable group spirit and a shared commitment toward the – collective – success of the institute. Behind each of the activities performed – the IIAS fellowships, the website, offi ce and fi nance management tasks, conferences and events, the cluster activities, ICAS, The Newsletter, the publications, etc. – there is one or sometimes two dedicated people. When one staff member gets really busy, colleagues are always ready to assist. The IIAS staff is not only commit- ted, it is also self-reliant. This has to do with a shared appreciation, I suppose pride, for the unique role and mission of the institute. There is also a Dutch-style combination of refreshing informality with an inclination to deliver concrete results, cutting through unnecessary hierarchies and formalities. It is rare to see such a synergy operate in a workplace among colleagues, all ‘comrades in arms’. This is one of the secrets behind the institute’s success.

Another characteristic of IIAS is its unique institutional set up. There are few precedents in Asia, Europe or the US, of an organization entirely dedicated to facilitate a field of study: Asia is taken in the most inclusive sense of the term, and with an interdisciplinary and multi-sector mandate, with very few restrictions in terms of nationality, specialization, or bureaucratic constraints. IIAS manages its own budget. It is free to organise events anywhere in the world, or to engage in open collaboration with whichever partner it sees fit. This versatility, and indeed inclusiveness, enables IIAS to serve as a springboard for new research ideas and for new interactions and networks. Needless to say, IIAS’ flexible and ‘extravert’ character ultimately benefi ts the community of people and institutions it is founded on.

Some people may be surprised, as I was myself at the beginning, to hear from colleagues from Asia or the United States how familiar they feel about IIAS; that they always thought of it as an ‘Asian’ or an ‘American’ entity. We feel proud that our institute should somewhat be considered as belonging to everyone in the fi eld. This is, I believe, another mark of IIAS’ success.

As for the programmatic offering of the institute, it has been shaped and refined throughout time. I have mentioned, on numerous occasions, how the three thematic clusters of Asian Heritages, Urban Asia and Global Asia, were designed to reinforce IIAS’ global intellectual position. IIAS has steadily evolved from primarily a mechanism to facilitate projects, often owned by others, into a structure that shapes its own programmatic agenda along the lines defi ned by its three clusters. Yet, it is always open to collaborate on new initiatives taken by individual scholars or partner institutions.

With time, many activities have come to be identifi ed as ‘IIAS signatures’: The Newsletter, the fellowship programme, the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS). Other activities are now fast becoming associated with IIAS: its intensive ‘Summer/Winter School’ (page 35), its in-situ Heritage Roundtables, the numerous collaborative events, etc. The credibility gained by the success of these projects enables IIAS to act as a sharer of expertise, while it concen- trates on exploring new grounds and new collaborative ventures. This is true of the Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA), the joint graduate programme on Critical Heritage studies (page 35), or the institute’s support for the African Association of Asian Studies (page 11). One essential point that distinguishes IIAS from many institutes is its fundamentally collaborative character. It neither seeks to build ‘enclaves’ in Asia, nor does it wish to act on its own without engaging other partners. This collaborative nature is another of IIAS’ forces.

These reasons, and probably many other ones, mean that IIAS is succeeding in propelling itself as the global institute of Asian studies, at least in the purview of its three thematic clusters. The institute’s orientation is a truly global one implying the recognition of multileveled modes of knowledge on/about Asia and the necessary decentering of the field through a diversifi ed distribution of knowledge powerhouses. IIAS is responding to this latter current by, for instance, enabling a ‘global’ governance model for ICAS.

I would also like to say a few words on the importance of the grant IIAS recently received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York (page 16). The Mellon Foundation is well known for its unfl inching dedication to the Humanities in higher education. The recent grant made to IIAS is intended to assist it in its eff orts to operate as a global trans-regional ‘broker’ with an even more balanced interaction existing between scholars and institutions from Asia, Netherlands /Europe and North America, together with their emerging counterparts in Africa, Latin America and beyond. The project, in the form of fi ve ‘forums’ and a total of 17 events, seeks to frame alternative realms of knowledge about Asia, while helping us to bring activities of research, teaching and dissemination closer together. This is an experimental undertaking that, I hope, should help IIAS and its partners to move the fi eld of Asian studies forward in today’s always more interdependent global knowledge village.

This special issue of The Newsletter celebrates 20 years of IIAS’ successes made possible by IIAS Fellows, strategic partners, IIAS staff , research programmes and networks, IIAS and ICAS publications, conferences and workshops, ICAS, outreach projects and annual lectures, The Newsletter, and many more people, activities and initiatives. All ‘the Study’ articles in this issue have been contributed by former and current IIAS Fellows; ‘the Focus’ has been compiled by Dr Mario Lopez from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Kyoto University, one of IIAS’ longstanding partners; ‘News from Asia’ is provided by our colleagues at ISEAS in Singapore, who generously contribute to each issue of The Newsletter; ‘the Review’ features contributions made by our faithful reviewers, courtesy of our literature/review website New Asia Books (, page 38); and ‘the Portrait’ for this issue highlights just one of the many unique benefi ts of the institute’s location. Furthermore, befi tting the celebratory mood we fi nd ourselves in, IIAS is holding a Photo Contest to engage even further with The Newsletter readers and IIAS’ friends, colleagues and partners. At IIAS we endorse story-telling by way of pictures – The Newsletter uses an abundance of colourful images, which has become one of its most recognisable features. Our contributors and readers come from all over the world and speak dozens of diff erent languages, so what better medium is there to represent a global language we can all understand? Go to page 7 to see how you too can take part and contribute to our growing image collection. We would like to thank everyone who has participated in the making of this special issue, and hope that like us, you too are looking forward to the next 20 years of IIAS!