The Newsletter 91 Spring 2022

Arief Budiman, Chinese Indonesians, and Indonesian Studies at the University of Melbourne

Jemma Purdey

Arief Budiman arrived in Melbourne in the late 1990s, in the midst of something of a boom in Indonesian studies in Australian universities. Enrolments in Indonesian language at the University of Melbourne were reaching a near all-time high. The array of Indonesia-related subjects and researchers with an Indonesia interest – not only within the Faculty of Arts but across the university – offered students the opportunity for a rich and deep level of engagement with “Indonesia,” then on the cusp of monumental change and democratic reform. When Arief arrived in 1997, I was completing my BA Hons year and making plans to undertake a dissertation under Charles Coppel’s supervision. As historian Heather Sutherland remarked to me years later, the convergence of timing and interest is an especially crucial combination for scholars embarking upon their path of deep research.

I’d not yet met the new Foundation Professor of Indonesian Studies, but from my vantage point on the South Lawn, I immediately recognised Arief Budiman from the photos I’d seen in the newspapers and magazines I read every day in the basement of the nearby Baillieu Library. He was walking slowly along the yellow brick path running parallel to the reflection pool, dressed casually in a patterned shirt and sandals, gently swinging a calico bag over his shoulder. He struck a lonely figure, or was he simply in deep contemplation, or was it just a post-lunch haze?

In early 1998, as I turned my mind to a dissertation topic, Charles Coppel’s attention was decidedly preoccupied with the fate of ethnic Chinese Indonesians, about whom he had written his own thesis and spent many years researching. As we sat down to consider my options, the Indonesian economy was in the grip of the Asian Financial Crisis, and Indonesian-language news agencies were reporting small but increasingly frequent attacks on businesses owned by ethnic Chinese Indonesians. The government rhetoric was turning decidedly nationalistic. Sensing something far more profound was afoot than I could have imagined, Charles set the scene, and I began to see the possibilities for a merging of my interests in the politics of Indonesia and human rights. It was at this point that Charles suggested we immediately head upstairs to meet the new Professor of Indonesian Studies, Arief Budiman. He would, Charles suggested, make a very good advisor for such a research project.  I recall that Arief’s response was enthusiastic and informative, but also deferential to Charles’ knowledge on the subject of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese. I’m pretty sure I was not aware at that time that Arief was ethnic Chinese, nor did I know about his famous brother Soe Hok Gie, though I had heard of his protest against his former rector and his eventual dismissal from Universitas Satya Wacana.

The wave of anti-Chinese sentiment and violence in early 1998 erupted into rioting and mass violence across Jakarta and other cities by mid-May of that year, leading to the eventual fall of Soeharto’s New Order government (1966-1998). Arief easily stepped into a role as media commentator and, luckily for us, he provided up-to-date analysis on the day-to-day machinations at play during this period of transition. 1  Our cohort of Indonesia-followers in Melbourne shared the sense of euphoria felt by the students and pro-democracy leaders on the streets of Jakarta, but also the devastation for the victims of the violence, including mostly ethnic Chinese but also the urban poor.

Together with Tiong Djin Siauw and others, Arief established the Committee Against Racism in Indonesia (CARI) to bring attention to the plight of the victims and to open conversations long taboo in Indonesia about underlying, systemic, and structural racism. In Melbourne in late 1998, CARI held a series of important community meetings and seminars with visiting speakers from Indonesia, positioning the status of Indonesia’s ethnic minorities, women, and other marginalised groups at the centre of academic and community discourse. In a rare example of such a focus in his own academic work, a few years later, Arief wrote a short chapter titled, “Portrait of the Chinese in Post-Soeharto Indonesia” for Charles Coppel’s Festschrift Chinese Indonesians: Remembering, Distorting, Forgetting. 2 Lindsey, Tim and Helen Pausacker (eds.). 2005. Chinese Indonesians: Remembering, Distorting, Forgetting. Singapore: ISEAS.  In it he examines the proposition that 1998 had led to some positive changes in pribumi (native Indonesian) perceptions of the Chinese, who were slowly abandoning one-dimensional stereotypes. Likewise, he argues that there was a shift in the “self-perception” of the Chinese themselves, who now felt emboldened to emerge from their “cocoon,” as Arief described it, and assume their rightful place as citizens. Nonetheless, after what he saw as the initial phase of “euphoria,” Arief went on to observe that a “correction” was underway within a community wary of a backlash: “Chinese Indonesians are still trying to find their place in Indonesia, but now, within a still unstable society undergoing a slow transition towards democracy, this is not a simple process and its outcome cannot be predicted.” 3 Budiman, Arief. 2005. “Portrait of the Chinese in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.” In Chinese Indonesians: Remembering, Distorting, Forgetting. Singapore: ISEAS, p. 101.

A few months after the New Order collapsed, I distinctly recall huddling in and listening attentively to Arief’s advice on the significant barriers still before a researcher embarking on investigations like those I was planning – namely, to examine the position of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese and especially the recent violence ushering in the reform era. Despite the hopefulness of the early post-New Order mood in Indonesia, he advised me to keep a low profile and consult with only trusted sources, which included many of his own close contacts. As a fledgling fieldworker and outsider seriously nervous about tackling the task ahead, I clearly remember him conveying this rather frightening set of instructions with his characteristic smiles and giggles. A cool, calm approach to a problem he’d faced with courage so many times himself. It was a reassurance that I very much needed at the time, and one that I often remembered with appreciation throughout my time in the field. Not to mention the doors opened to me by the mere dropping of his name!


Fig. 1: Book cover, Reformasi: Crisis and Change in Indonesia, edited by Arief Budiman, Barbara Hatley and Damien Kingsbury, Monash Asia Institute, 1999.


Arief’s presence as a senior academic in Melbourne at this critical time in Indonesian history certainly played a large part in generating a high level of energy and dynamism within the wider Melbourne, and indeed Australian, Indonesianist academic community. At this time, Arief was at the centre of a renewal of connections across institutions, which led to a number of seminal events and collaborations, beginning with one of the earliest major conferences held after the fall of the New Order. Titled, Democracy in Indonesia? The crisis and beyond, the conference was held at the ABC’s Southbank studios in Melbourne in December 1998, convened by Arief, Damien Kingsbury, and Barbara Hatley from Monash University. The conference included speakers – both scholars and activists – from Australia and Indonesia, and the event resulted in the book Reformasi: Crisis and Change in Indonesia [Fig. 1]. 4 Budiman, Arief, Barbara Hatley, and Damien Kingsbury (eds.). 1999. Reformasi: Crisis and Change in Indonesia. Clayton, Australia: Monash Asia Institute.  In his own chapter in the book, Arief’s observation of this moment in Indonesia’s history reflected his consistently optimistic outlook;

“Even though there are many uncertainties and difficulties facing Indonesia over the short term, it is not too unrealistic to hold an optimistic hope for the more distant future.” 5 Budiman, Arief. 1998. ‘The 1998 crisis: change and continuity in Indonesia’, In Reformasi: Crisis and change in Indonesia, edited by Arief Budiman, Barbara Hatley and Damien Kingsbury, Clayton Vic., Monash Asia Institute: 57.

In the early 2000s, the University of Melbourne’s standing as a centre for Indonesian studies and related activity was also greatly enhanced by an influx of Indonesian students, largely due to the opportunities offered with the expansion of Australian and Indonesian government scholarship programs, but also significantly due to the pull of Arief himself. The energy, dedication, and deep knowledge of Indonesia available to those who were lucky enough to find ourselves in Melbourne at this time provided a rare opportunity then (and even rarer today) to immerse ourselves in and embark on deep study of Indonesia.

An emblematic figure in Indonesia, Arief represented an intellectual and social activism that fuelled many young adult Indonesians in this reformasi period, further enhanced when Ariel Heryanto arrived at the university a little while later. Arief initiated a series of Friday seminars on all manner of topics related to politics and society, which generated a dynamic and vibrant discourse between students and scholars, Indonesians and Australians, a spirit of exchange and inquiry that continues until today. 


Jemma Purdey, Australia-Indonesia Centre, Monash University. E-mail: