When it comes to talking about Minang history and people, the executive director of the American Institute for Indonesian Studies (AIFIS) Audrey Kahin could not hide her enthusiasm.
The 79-year-old, who earned her doctorate in Southeast Asian history at Cornell University, began to work on West Sumatran history, with a particular emphasis on the revolutionary period, when she was writing her dissertation.
She found herself interested in the national movement in West Sumatra.
Her initial interest in Indonesia was due to her husband, the late George McTurnan Kahin, who was in Java during the national revolution.
Later on, she was attracted to the fact that so many of the revolutionary leaders came from West Sumatra, such as Mohammad Hatta, Sutan Sjahrir and Mohammad Natsir.
“It seems strange that such a small place should provide so many leaders at a national level,” she said after giving a public lecture on the political biography of Natsir at Andalas University’s school of humanities in Padang.
“When I came to West Sumatra, I was struck by how beautiful the area is. I found the people very interesting.”
Kahin attributed this to the Minang historical tradition of merantau [migration] and the quality of education in the province, especially Bukittinggi.
She praised West Sumatrans for a reputation of being intellectual, clever and wise.
“In the 1920s, the Sumatra Thawalib and Diniyah schools provided their students with political as well as a scholarly education. Political parties and movements were very strong and independent at that time” she says.
The two schools were Islamic boarding schools, which were considered more modern than similar ones in Java at that time. Thawalib was for men, while Diniyah was for women.
Kahin has penned several books. Her dissertation on the revolutionary period in West Sumatra has been published as Struggle for Independence: West Sumatra in the Indonesian National Revolution 1945-1950 (Cornell University, 1979).
With several other historians, she authored Regional Dynamics of the Indonesian Revolution (University of Hawaii Press, 1985), contributing a chapter on West Sumatra as well as editing and writing the book’s introduction, while other historians focused on different parts of the country — Jakarta, Aceh and Makassar.
Along with her husband, she wrote a book on the involvement of Americans in the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI) — titled Subversion as Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia (The New Press, 1995).
Her masterpiece — Rebellion to Integration: West Sumatra and the Indonesian Polity, 1926-1998 (Amsterdam University Press, 1999) — dealt with the political history of West Sumatra and the Minangkabau people from the late colonial period until the present, focusing on the course and degree of their integration into the contemporary Indonesian state.
Her latest book is a political biography of Natsir — Islam, Nationalism and Democracy (National University of Singapore Press, 2012).
Regarding her latest book, Kahin emphasized that Natsir was not simply a religious leader, but was also a very prominent democratic figure strongly influenced by egalitarianism and social justice in Islam.
He stayed faithful to the combination of Islam, nationalism and democracy.
“Natsir was a religious, nationalist and democratic person. He maintained those three [characteristics] to his death,” she says.
Equally important, Natsir’s simple lifestyle and incorruptible character have been held up in contrast to the indulgence and corruption that have characterized many of the nation’s most successful politicians under Soeharto and his successors.
“Throughout his career, Natsir and his family lived in a small unpretentious house in Central Jakarta, which was always open to anyone who wished to talk with him. Many friends recalled the lines of people from all walks of life waiting outside the house or sitting on the veranda, none of whom was ever turned away.”
When asked about the absence of high-caliber people such as Hatta, Natsir, Agus Salim and Sjahrir these days, Kahin attributed the Minang people’s inability to develop their full capacity to the tragic period of the PRRI and continued pressure against West Sumatrans after the failed rebellion.
“Long after the PRRI, there was a degree of suppression in West Sumatra for many years. That affected the possibility of Minang people developing politically. Quite apart from the fact that so many intelligent people left West Sumatra” she said.
Despite her works on Indonesian studies in general and Minang studies in particular, she deplores the current lack of interest among American people in Indonesia.
“My books usually get quite good reviews but they do not sell particularly well. My books and most of the books on Indonesia are accepted in scholarly circles, but not among the more general audience,” she said.
“Interest in Indonesia in the United States is not great. That’s what we’re trying to do with the AIFIS, getting more people interested in and encouraging more scholars to do research on Indonesia.”
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