Indonesia is more than just the place where President Barack Obama went to elementary school.
It’s the fourth-most populated country in the world. It is the most populated Muslim country in the world. Its GDP is ranked 16th, and its economy has been growing fast enough to put it into the same league as China and India as Asian powerhouses.
Yet, apparently, the country still isn’t worth studying at Penn. In fact, the entire Southeast Asian region — home to approximately 10 percent of the world — is largely ignored in the curriculum. For a school that has the resources to house departments in fields far more esoteric, it’s a shame that there is a gaping hole over such a thriving and dynamic part of the globe. But there is.
Ignoring Indonesia is even more problematic today, as it has emerged from the political and financial instabilities that plagued Southeast Asia in the late-1990s as a destination of choice for investors, entrepreneurs and tourists.
Economically, it offers the fourth-largest consumer base. That’s a lot of people who are looking to buy stuff. It’s also a lot of people who make stuff for cheap that then gets sold to the rest of the world. And here Indonesia has a leg up on even China and India because foreign companies don’t face China’s strict regulations (think Google or Facebook) or India’s miserable infrastructure (think collapsing bridges and unfettered corruption). Studying Indonesia will give Penn students the ammunition to be confident in a country which is increasingly becoming a driving economic force.
Worldwide, Indonesia has the largest amount of Muslims. Especially in a world where the religion continually gets a bad rap because of extremists, and the American population faces real anxiety over terrorism, Indonesia shines as an example of moderate Islam. It also opens the door to studying a peaceful coexistence and fascinating intermingling of multiple religions within the borders of one country.
So, if acknowledging Indonesia in our curriculum is so important, why don’t we do it? It’s not that we’re lacking the materials to teach it. According to Undergraduate Chairman of the Religious Studies department Justin McDaniel, our library houses a number of ancient pieces from Java, the country’s largest island. Additionally, he said, the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a rich collection of Southeast Asian musical instruments, statues and manuscripts.
Rather, the issue is that there isn’t anyone to do the teaching. “We’re so strong in East Asian Studies and South Asian Studies; it’s strange that we have a lack in Southeast Asian Studies,” McDaniel said. Though half a dozen faculty members across the University are experts in the region, he noted, none of them teach classes that are at all related to it.
Ignoring Indonesia seems to be the norm at educational institutions along the East Coast. With few exceptions, no major research university on this side of the country offers courses related to Indonesian history, culture, language or religion. Traditionally, Indonesian immigrants have been more likely to settle on the West Coast, but now even that is changing. Philadelphia definitely has a significant and ever-growing Indonesian community, which creates an even greater urgency for Penn to start focusing study on the country.
The answer is never simple — it would be impractical and unrealistic to advocate creating a Southeast Asian Studies department overnight. But it is reasonable to take baby steps. As McDaniel suggested, “One to two hires [in these fields] would really strengthen student offerings.”
A couple of hires in Southeast Asian studies would also make Penn one of the strongest-staffed Southeast Asian faculties. The whole world has been taking notice of Indonesia lately. Some rapid hiring could easily position Penn as the American hub for a region of greater and greater global importance.
Tanvi Gupta is a College senior from Southeast Asia. She is a member of the Student Activities Council Executive Board. Her e-mail address is gupta@theDP.com. Cosmopoli-Tanvi appears on alternate Mondays.Comments powered by Disqus
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