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A memorial event for Emeritus Professor Harold Crouch is tentatively planned for Friday 29 September in Hedley Bull Lecture Theatre 1, Building 130, corner of Garran Rd and Liversidge St, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 2601.
Emeritus Professor Harold Crouch, who died on August 27 2023, was an eminent scholar of Indonesian and Malaysian politics, and of Southeast Asia generally. The author of numerous works on the region, several of which are considered standard treatments of their subjects even decades after they were published, his career was marked by deep commitment to first-hand research. This included not only meticulous scouring of the written record, but also long periods living in the countries he was writing about, and interviewing the leading politicians, military officers, and others who were shaping their politics.
A member of the Australian National University’s Department of Political and Social Change (formerly in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, now in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs) during the latter part of his career, he supervised many PhD students who have become prominent scholars of Indonesian, Malaysian and Southeast Asian politics in many countries around the world. As well as being an influential researcher, Harold’s personal characteristics of integrity, modesty, and generosity also left a lasting impact on those he taught, mentored and worked with.
Education and early research
Harold’s interest in the politics of Asian countries began at a relatively early age. He enrolled as an undergraduate at Melbourne University in 1958 and, by 1963, he was already in India, enrolled in a Masters degree at the University of Bombay (as it was then called), financed by a Government of India Scholarship under the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. Writing a thesis on the politics of the Indian trade union movement, he met and interviewed numerous labour movement leaders and activists, and forged lasting friendships with several Indian academics (the thesis was published as a book in 1966 – almost a full decade before he completed his PhD).
Harold then switched focus to Indonesia. He moved to Jakarta, teaching in the political science department at the University of Indonesia as a volunteer between 1968 and 1971. Upon his return to Melbourne, he enrolled as a PhD student at Monash University under the supervision of another renowned Australian expert of Indonesian politics, Herbert Feith. During his time in Jakarta, and while on subsequent visits in 1973 and 1975, he collected an enormous amount of material on the history of the Indonesian military and on the tumultuous and violent transition from the “Guided Democracy” regime of President Sukarno to President Soeharto’s authoritarian “New Order” in 1965–1966. Witnessing at first hand the early years of the New Order, he also interviewed many of the leading military and political figures of the time.
This material then became the basis for a monumental PhD, completed in 1975 and published, in significantly truncated form, as The Army and Politics in Indonesia, by Cornell University Press in 1978. Banned in Indonesia under Soeharto, this volume remains a standard work not only on the military’s role in politics during the first decades of Indonesian independence, but also on the birth and early phase of the New Order regime, of which Harold was to remain a leading interpreter until it collapsed two decades later in 1998. A 1979 article in the journal World Politics, “Patrimonialism and Military Rule in Indonesia”, which focused on the fusion of personal interest and public power under Soeharto, influenced not only future studies of Indonesia but also of other countries in Southeast Asia and beyond.
For much of the next 20 years, Harold broadened his focus to incorporate studies of other Southeast Asian countries. While in Melbourne, he met a fellow PhD student, the Malaysian historian Khasnor Johan, and they married in 1973. He moved with Khasnor to Malaysia in 1974, while finishing his PhD. He tutored for a while in the University of Malaya before taking up a senior lectureship at the National University of Malaysia (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1976, where he was effectively the first to teach political science. He remained there until 1985, when he joined ANU as a Senior Research Fellow (but he soon took extended leave, and went back to UKM during 1988–1990, returning to ANU in 1991).
During his years in Malaysia, Harold not only produced important comparative analyses of Southeast Asian politics and political economy (notably the 1984 volume, Domestic Political Structures and Regional Economic Cooperation in Southeast Asia), he also followed Malaysian politics closely, eventually publishing another influential Cornell University Press volume, Government and Society in Malaysia (1996). In it, he argued the ability of the ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to combine responsive and repressive policies helped to explain its remarkable political longevity.
His return to ANU in 1991, meanwhile, was soon followed by growing signs of renewed political tension in Indonesia, and Harold moved to the forefront of analysis of the demise of the regime whose origins he had done so much to interpret decades earlier, and of subsequent efforts to construct a new democratic order. Eventually, he distilled much of this new research into another book, Political Reform in Indonesia after Soeharto (2010).
The final part of his career also saw Harold, with Khasnor, returning to Indonesia. In 2000–2001, he took leave from his position at ANU to become the founding director of the Jakarta office of the International Crisis Group (at the invitation of the group’s then head, Gareth Evans), initiating a period when the ICG produced a series of widely read and influential reports on the – once again – tumultuous and sometimes violent political transition Indonesia was experiencing. Later still, after retiring from ANU in 2005, between 2008 and 2010 he worked as the director of the Aceh Research Training Institute (ARTI) – an Australian-funded body in Banda Aceh that was established to help rebuild the research capability of Aceh’s universities after the devastating losses caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Part of Harold’s legacy is carried on by the large number of PhD students he supervised. During his years at ANU, he attracted many students who wanted to research Indonesia or Malaysia. He instilled in them a commitment to on-the-ground research. Some of these former students, such as Jun Honna (Ritsumeikan) and Kikue Hamayotsu (Northern Illinois) have become noted scholars of Indonesia and/or Malaysia, while others have developed political or professional careers in their home countries.
Harold’s legacy also lives on in ANU’s very strong international reputation for research on Southeast Asian, especially Indonesian, politics. Two of his former supervisees (myself and Marcus Mietzner – a leading analyst of the Indonesian military, political parties and presidency, among other topics) continue Harold’s work on contemporary Indonesia in the department to which he contributed so much, alongside two other Indonesia politics specialists (one of whom, Eve Warburton, also worked with Harold in ARTI).
Harold had a remarkable academic career, an impressive record of scholarship, and a formative intellectual impact on many individuals. But his personal qualities were no less memorable. With a wry sense of humor and a self-deprecating and unpretentious personal style, Harold was wonderful company, and he inspired great affection among his students, colleagues, and others who encountered him.
Those of us who were lucky enough to work closely with him learned a great deal from him, and not only about research and writing. He was a role model of integrity and egalitarianism, eschewing any hint of the affectation that can sometimes afflict academic life, invariably favouring substance and accuracy over style and effect, and always treating others with warmth and fairness, no matter their background or status.
Image: Harold Crouch (left) with PhD students, Marcus Mietzner (now an Indonesia specialist based at ANU) and Inwon Hwang (South Korea’s leading Malaysian politics expert), c. 1997.
Since his passing, his former colleagues have received many messages from academics and others from around the world, recalling times early in their careers, or when they were students, when Harold gave generously of his time to listen to them and share his ideas, treating them with kindness and respect when he had little to gain personally from doing so.
Harold died after a long illness, during which he was cared for with great dedication by Khasnor, his wife of 50 years. He is survived not only by Khasnor, but also by four children and four grandchildren. Around the world, a large community of scholars and students are grateful for the intellectual and personal legacies he leaves, and mourn his passing.
Edward Aspinall Professor and Head of the Department of Political and Social Change Coral Bell School of Asia and Pacific Affairs The Australian National University
This obituary draws on a tribute to Harold Crouch that was written by the late Jamie Mackie, Greg Fealy and myself on the occasion of Harold’s retirement and published as a chapter in the 2010 ANU E-Press volume Soeharto’s New Order and Its Legacy: Essays in honour of Harold Crouch. The volume can be accessed here.