Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world, the largest Muslim-majority democracy and a global player among young democracies that have emerged from military dictatorships. Yet even at Harvard, Indonesia has somehow remained among the less-studied major East Asian countries, overshadowed by China, Japan and Vietnam.
That's about to change, thanks to a fortuitous connection between an Indonesian business magnate and the Asia expert who heads the Ash Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. A $20.5 million gift -- described as one of the five largest in the Kennedy School's 74-year history -- is funding the creation of a new Institute for Asia as well as a new Indonesia Program at the Kennedy School.
The Kennedy School today announced the gift from the Rajawali Foundation, the charitable arm of the PT Rajawali Corporation, one of Indonesia's largest conglomerates. The private company, founded in the early 1980s by billionaire owner and director Peter Sondakh, is a major player in cement, retailing, palm oil, hotels and other industries.
Professor Anthony Saich, director of the renamed Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School, said in an interview that the new Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia and the new Indonesia Program within it would allow an array of education and research initiatives as well as collaboration with Indonesian institutions.
"This will give us an opportunity to both bring in a new tranch of master's degree students, and also to bring in current Indonesian officials into some of our executive programs," Saich said. "We will also be running a fellows program that will bring in some of their good young academics to study with us, and through them establish collaborative research projects on issues like education reform, crisis management and the impact of government decentralization."
Saich said the idea for a new institute flowed from Sondakh's request for a competitive analysis for Indonesia similar to one that Kennedy School researchers had produced for Vietnam. Saich said he told Sondakh that he wasn't comfortable producing an in-depth study of Indonesia because the Kennedy School lacked the expertise on Indonesia that it had built up on Vietnam and China, for example.
So Sondakh offered to help strengthen the Kennedy School's capacity to produce high-level research on Indonesia and to strengthen its academic ties through collaborative with institutions there. The gift includes $10.5 million as an endowment for the new Asia institute, paid over five years, and another $10 million, also spread over five years, to fund Indonesia-related activities.
"I think that one of the big advantages of this gift is that Southeast Asia generally has been poorly studied and understood across Harvard, and we have barely one or two students here a year from Indonesia," Saich said. "As a result we have few contacts compared to other important countries, and little ongoing research."
With a population of 230 million people spread across 17,000 islands, Indonesia is a vibrant multi-party democracy and also a bulwark of moderate Muslim governance in Asia, and thus important not only in the region but for its potential to influence other Muslim nations.
Saich said the Ash Center is on the verge of completing the research study that Sondakh commissioned, and Saich is traveling to Asia on Friday, with a stop scheduled in Jakarta, the capital, to present the findings to partners there.
"If the project works, it has a lot of potential for raising ideas about good governance in a Muslim context," said Saich.
Saich's own background makes for a good fit with Indonesian studies. Previously he was head of Harvard's university-wide Asia center while serving as a professor of international affairs and faculty chairman of Asian programs. The Asia Programs moved into the Ash Center when Saich became director in mid-2008. A British-educated China expert, Saich has studied and visited China since the mid-1970s, and he is also a guest professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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