Jul 04 2019

The IIAS Miracle

Philippe Peycam

On the eve of the 11th edition of ICAS, which is proving to be an exceptional event for Asian studies in Europe and beyond, we are getting ready to receive nearly 2,500 participants, scheduled into nearly 550 panels and roundtables and other forms of collaborations of all kinds. I cannot help but be amazed at the huge contrast that exists between the tiny organisation of 20 or so members and the global-scale transformative initiatives that emanate from it. Since I have been working at IIAS I have regularly witnessed the surprised expressions of our visitors when they see the contrast for themselves. People always expect to encounter a much larger staff (and building) at the IIAS offices at Rapenburg 59. In addition, when in Asia, my interlocutors are often astonished to know that IIAS is actually headquartered in Europe, in the small city of Leiden, albeit surrounded by an academic environment of high significance, that of Leiden University. This is what I call the ‘IIAS miracle’. It is primarily built on two solid foundations: its highly committed staff and its unique institutional set-up.

One distinctive aspect of IIAS is the internal chemistry that prevails in its midst. Every one of us works on a specific task or project basis – editing the Newsletter, running the book reviews, coordinating the Urban Studies activities, managing the fellowship programme, overseeing the finances, running the secretariat, leading special initiatives like ICAS, the Humanities Across Borders or The Southeast Asia Neighborhoods Network, etc. Yet, thanks to an open-door policy, not just limited to the people working in the Leiden building (we have colleagues actively collaborating elsewhere, especially in Asia), people at IIAS are used to some kind of fluidity and solidarity that makes each of us highly flexible and versatile. This is perhaps what the Dutch mean with the ‘polder spirit’, a culture in which highly independent people gather together around projects or ideas of larger, common significance. At IIAS, the common purpose is the life and growth of the institute itself. Everything of importance for the organisation must be at some point of its elaboration endorsed by the team. This environment, free from unnecessary hierarchies or formalities, makes it propitious to collective mobilisations and a spirit of shared responsibility. People of course retain their individuality, if not their idiosyncrasies. IIAS is in fact a collection of strong personalities.

The other ‘miracle’ aspect of IIAS has to do with its unique, hard-to-reproduce, institutional set up. IIAS is an academic structure, established in the Netherlands in 1994 with funding from the Ministry of Education, designed to support a new generation of scholars, ‘experts’ and citizens aware of and interested in Asian developments, through a new model of collaboration in regional and international studies around themes transcending disciplinary, institutional and national boundaries. The birth of IIAS was indeed the result of an unusual convergence of interests and visions at a particular time. It corresponded to a period in the Netherlands when a number of intellectuals and scholars seeking to move beyond the colonial-era and cold-war style of Area Studies and its narrow, silo-shaped character, could convince their Ministry of the need to support a totally innovative model of operation. As an academic organisation, IIAS’s mandate is flexible so long as it can act as a facilitator and also a transformative agent in the processes of knowledge development in and with Asia, within a globally connected world.

IIAS staff. Back row (left to right): Thomas Voorter, Aarti Kawlra, Wai Cheung, Sandra van der Horst, Amparo de Vogel, Xiaolan Lin,Mary Lynn van Dijk, Paul Rabé, Rita Padawangi. Front row (left to right): Sandra Dehue, Heleen van der Minne (ret.), Willem Vogelsang, Paul van der Velde, Sonja Zweegers, Erica van Bentem, Martina van den Haak, Annemarie van Leeuwen, Philippe Peycam. Missing from photo: Elske Idzenga and Aafke Hoekstra.

A national-global programme with its own budget and agenda, IIAS was primarily conceived as a research, teaching and public service facilitating mechanism. One that seeks to foster mutually beneficiary collaborations, recognising that Asia and the major trends emanating from this world region would have implications for the world over, and indeed for the Netherlands. The name of the institute itself - ‘international’ - shows an early desire to transcend boundaries, endowing the institute with an extraverted, versatile agenda. IIAS thus operates as a network-based platform equipped to engage with, and impact upon, contemporary Asian and global trends, enabling at the same time Dutch/European scholars and institutions to partake in them.

IIAS’s main features are its adaptability and its capacity to work with very different partners. This has led to a few signature projects facilitating new research and pedagogical trends (rather than strict research), while promoting a cross-sector dissemination of knowledge and the constitution of unusual networks:

  • An international postdoc fellowship programme framed by three interdisciplinary themes (Heritage, Cities, Global), facilitating dialogue between researchers working on different countries and regions of Asia (and beyond), in relation with advanced studies institutions.
  • A free-of-charge periodical serving the Asia studies community globally: The Newsletter (with a global readership of over 50,000), containing editorial collaborations with Asian partners.
  • International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS), a network-based multi-sector trans-disciplinary platform on ‘Asia Studies’ through biennial mega conventions, and facilitation of inter-regional platforms and events, like the African Association for Asian Studies (A-ASIA).
  • A European inter-institutional brainstorming and advocacy collaborative platform: European Alliance for Asian Studies (EAAS) of which IIAS is a founding member.
  • A number of research-led educational and service initiatives under three clusters:
    • Critical Heritage Study analysing the politics of culture and identity by state and non-state social actors, through: (a) in situ community-grounded roundtables; (b) a Double-Degree MA program on ‘Critical Heritage in Asia and Europe’, with Leiden University, National Taiwan University and Yonsei University.
    • Urbanisation Processes in Asia and beyond, interaction urban-rural, through: (a) the coordination of the multi-sector Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA); (b) the support of the Southeast Asia Neighborhoods Network (SEANNET) initiative recognising the role of urban communities in city-making processes (with support from the Henry Luce Foundation).
    • Global Connections Asia in the World, through: (a) the coordination of an African-Asian local-global civic-academic platform on alternative humanistic pedagogy: ‘Humanities Across Borders’ (with support from the Andrew Mellon Foundation); (b) the facilitation of an Asia-Africa ‘Axis of Knowledge’ platform, and the support of new similar axes: ‘Latin America-Asia’ and ‘Indian Ocean Studies’.

The IIAS ‘miracle’ can be compared to that of an act of local-global craftsmanship: from a small office in Europe to often far-away local partners, a team engaged in devising collaborative projects and activities that embrace Asian-global trends, recognising the need to effectively diversify modes of knowledge processes, both geographically and epistemologically, taking seriously the locally embedded experiences in Asia, Europe and beyond. By constantly experimenting with the ways in which these local-global interactions are articulated, IIAS seeks new approaches of inter-regional collaboration that can both support and transform regular academic configurations. 

When in Leiden for ICAS 11, you will encounter the ‘miracle’ of IIAS yourselves, and I recommend that you visit the IIAS office on Rapenburg 59, to see the modest space where it all happens.

Philippe Peycam, Director IIAS