Interview with Dr. John N. Miksic
Interview conducted by Felicia Chia
F: A brief introduction of yourself and your role in this department? When did you first enter this department?
J: Since 1987, I was already in the History Department in National University of Singapore (NUS) and proposed to start the Southeast Asian Studies Department. In 1991, I belonged to both the History Department and the Southeast Asian Studies Department, teaching SE101 (courses only had three numbers then), which revolved a lot around archaeology at that time. The head of the department was Dr Tong Chee Kiong, who was the dean and originally from the Sociology Department.
From 1991 to 1995, I taught classes in both the History and Southeast Asian Studies Department. The Southeast Asian Studies Department expanded in 1995, so I left the History Department to teach full time, where I have taught 10 to 15 classes since then, from classes on archaeology to arts and to resource management. I started taking post graduate students as well in 1999, and I headed the Archaeology Unit at ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies) as well, where I am funded by them to carry out fieldwork, to excavate and work on lab analysis when I get my semester off. Currently, I am still part of ISEAS, and I also spend one day a week at the Archaeology Lab, which is under the department, where I work with volunteers on artefacts from Singapore. I am also on the Acquisitions Committee in NUS Museums, as well as the Asian Civilisation Museum. I co-founded the department in 1991, but I first came to Singapore in 1984 for the archaeological excavation in 1984 at Fort Canning.
My area of research has always been archaeology, which is usually taught as part of anthropology. At the Southeast Asian Studies Department, I am able to separate archaeology, as I am also with the National Museum of Singapore, ICOMAS which advices UNESCO, as well as international organisations such as the Centre for Khmer Studies and Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMOE).
F: What is special about the Southeast Asian Department?
J: In NUS, the Department is independent and can plan a specific syllabus, whereas at the undergraduate level, many universities have a Southeast Asian Studies Department but they only collaborate or coordinate with other existing departments, or the independent departments are only for Masters or PhD students, so Singapore is quite unusual. In NUS, our department complements the other departments very well as we have a different approach, bringing in content to complement the theories taught in the other courses.
We also supervise students from outside the department, though they have another supervisor from outside as well. I supervise post graduate students in History and Geography, and some of our students also get support from other students.
F: What is area studies? How does one impart knowledge on Southeast Asia to others?
J: The way our department works is that we teach more on the people on Southeast Asia rather than the academic discipline. A lot of disciplines are focused on academia; they don’t really come up with solutions to real world problems. We encourage our students to do fieldwork, unlike other departments; we want them to experience life in Singapore’s neighbours, and see how we can best find tools, be it intellectual questions that are asked or coming up with solutions to real world problems facing the region such as urbanisation, pollution, cultural wars on heritage. We’re interdisciplinary; we make all our students learn a Southeast Asian language, which we think is really important to know a language, rather than studying through the lens of English. It’s also really important for our students to get a grasp of other disciplines.
F: How has the department change since you have last entered?
J: It has gotten a lot bigger, definitely, and we have a stronger post graduate program as compared to the past. We also started the summer school in 2006, where we collaborate with international students on an undergraduate level, allowing us to raise our profile as well. In out department, I think that having field trips are important, and NUS adapted our summer school model to apply to the whole faculty. The department has also become more associated with art and anthropology; with a stronger orientation towards culture as opposed to Economics or political science.
One thing that I am sad about is that language has become detached from the department. The languages that Southeast Asian Studies majors have to take (Indonesia, Thai, Vietnamese or Malay) used to be part of our department as well before they started the Centre of Language and Studies, which was a faculty-wide decision. I think that this is a pity as students used to have a stronger language component, hurting our integration with the language during classes as students in the past had more opportunities to practice in class and apply what they used during language classes to other modules.
F: Working in this department, educating other individuals as interested as you in Southeast Asia – how has it shaped your academic work and endeavours?
J: One thing that I haven’t been able to do is to co-author something with my fellow staff here, such as research collaboration. But in terms of teaching, we teach a lot in each other’s classes, which has gone really well as we have guest lecturers that are all from the department. Before that, we used to have to invite people from outside to come in to give guest lectures. But now we don’t have to do it anymore – if I want a particular topic to be covered more I can just invite one of the staff than someone from outside.
I’ve never lacked the motivation to teach; I’ve always thought that this was the best place to be. I’ve been offered jobs outside, like back in the US. I chose not to take up the job because I want to be in the region, I like the students here, and it’s much easier to get practical results from what you’re doing. I can be anywhere in the region on a direct flight within hours, so I can head for field trips or conferences, whereas in the US it isn’t practical. You become divorced from reality, being in US or Europe. They have pretty good libraries as well but it’s not like being in Southeast Asia – all the Southeast Asian scholars pass through here, even if they are just stopping over. The future of Southeast Asian Studies is in Southeast Asia. One thing that we’re still working on is strengthening our links with other Southeast Asian and institutions. That will take a while, partly because other institutions still need time to become stronger, while I’m hoping for example to get more Southeast Asian scholars to join our summer school program, but that will require financial aid, and they can’t really afford it. But I keep on working with other Southeast Asian universities such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and of course still building up relations with Philippines and Vietnam as well.
The department is gradually strengthening; there aren’t much visible results yet. But it’s getting there. What I’m hoping in the future is that there will be more of a Southeast Asian Studies consortium, where you bring all the Southeast Asian Studies programs in the region together. What I hope to see is stronger links with other Southeast Asian universities, on a research level. My field is kind of specialised, so I already do that, and I think we’ll see more of that developing. The staff here is pretty young, and still getting their tenure and so on, so I hope that NUS, with this new Asian Studies PhD, it may lead to more resources being available, with a joint developing program with other universities.
F: How does archaeology contribute to learning about Southeast Asia?
J: Ah, well archaeology is very political, everywhere in Southeast Asia it’s seen as very important to the foundation of national identity and tourism. So it’s both got a political dimension and an economic dimension. And so, for archaeology, I get many invitations to go around as a consultant to various places, and so I can’t take all of them as there are too many. I have to be selective. That’s why I have been trying to build up a regional level kind of archaeological organisation, especially with the SEAMEO. It’s been in existence since the 1970s, but during the 80s and the 90s it was pretty quiet, but now an old friend of mine has become the head. He’s a retired Thai historian, so we’re trying to make it more active. I have no problem justifying what I do in Southeast Asia, it’s just that in Singapore some people are surprised to find that there is such a thing as archaeology. On a regional level, ISEAS is heavily involved in this, and in the other parts of the region, people believe that archaeology is important, that their past is important, such as what is written in textbooks and how governments perceive their own pasts. Being situated in Southeast Asia, there are also many archaeological sites, which make huge quantities of money from attracting tourists. It is part of the Southeast Asian culture to make money from heritage tourism. Of course it’s important for them to learn how to manage it, how to prevent it from being overvisited, rundown, deteriorating because of overexploitation.
F: Any last words to add?
J: I hope that in the future, archaeology will still be part of the department when even when I’m no longer here. I’m still trying to create the kind of institutionalization of archaeology in NUS with the (archaeology) lab and the NUS museum, so that in the long term, it will be seen as something that NUS should keep on supporting. Hopefully one of my old students here will come back and succeed me someday. Right now, 2 of them are working for me now in ISEAS, and another one is working at the history department in NTU as they do not have an archaeology department as well. What I’m hoping is that maybe with the Asian Studies specialisation here, archaeology has to appeal to everyone that is working on the connections with India and China, looking at the long term historical relationship in Southeast Asia with the rest of Asia. With a bigger graduate student program, hopefully they will allow us to get an ancient historian and an art historian and an archaeologist, three people like that will be enough for us to have a specialisation in Southeast Asian art and culture. Perhaps it could be a joint department between History and Southeast Asian Studies, or NTU’s History Department. This program is about to start, so I don’t know how it will develop in the future. And it might have a spinoff benefit on the undergraduate program too, I hope.
Dr. John N. Miksic is Associate Professor in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and the Head of the Archaeology unit, Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His new book “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800” has been shortlisted for the ICAS Book Prize 2015 for the Best Study in the Humanities.