With the death of Herb Feith in an accident on 15 November 2001 Australia lost one of its great humanitarians and its most distinguished student of modern Indonesia.
Born in Vienna in 1930, Herb came to Australia as a refugee in 1939 with his Austrian Jewish parents who were escaping from the spread of Nazism. After a state primary and secondary school education he went on to the University of Melbourne where he studied political science under Professor W. Macmahon Ball who excited in him an interest in east and southeast Asia. This led him, on graduation, to make his first visit to Indonesia. With the aid of a friend he managed to get a job in the Indonesian Department of Information and for two years he worked there as an Indonesian civil servant on an Indonesian salary. He made many Indonesian friends and became completely fluent in the language.
During this period he developed the idea of enabling other young Australian graduates to enjoy the same experience. With the aid of embassy contacts and the support of friends back home he managed to bring about an inter-governmental agreement whereby new Australian graduates could volunteer for service as Indonesian public servants, working on Indonesian salaries and on a basis of complete equality with their Indonesian colleagues and making a deep engagement with the society about them. This was a quite remarkable achievement for a young graduate without official standing. The Volunteer Graduate Scheme anticipated by some ten years the American Peace Corps. It has expanded over the years to include other countries and it still exists as Australian Volunteers International.
After a short break in Australia, Herb and his new wife, Betty, returned to Indonesia as volunteers under the scheme. As a student of politics it was natural that he should observe closely the Indonesian political scene, and his detailed knowledge brought him to the notice of American students of Indonesia and led to the offer of a graduate scholarship at Cornell University. At Cornell, between 1957 and 1960, he wrote what was to be recognised as the definitive study of Indonesia in the 1950s, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, as well as other monographs published by the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project.
After a short spell as a post-doctoral fellow at the Australian National University he was appointed to a lectureship in Politics at Monash University where he developed a study of modern Indonesia and was one of the founders of the Monash Centre of Southeast Asian Studies. He was promoted to the Chair of Politics in 1968 and then, after six years in that position, he stepped down to a Readership to escape the administrative duties of the chair and devote himself to scholarship. Herb retired from Monash University at the end of 1990. In 1992 his work was honoured at the conference Democracy in Indonesia: 1950s and 1990s.
Herb’s life however was more than that of a professional academic. He was also known, in Australia and overseas, as a compassionate and intensely moral person who felt himself compelled to speak and act against abuses and injustice. Throughout his life he was always ready to devote himself to important causes involving ideas of democracy and human rights e.g. with Amnesty International in the matter of political prisoners, with campaigns for human rights and with international peace movements.
Herb was also a great teacher. His egalitarianism and enthusiasm underpinned his knowledge and wisdom. No matter how inexperienced his students were, he treated them as equals and intimates, listening carefully to their arguments and behaving as though he had as much to learn from them as they did from him.
Because of his personal qualities he attracted followers and maintained friendships across the world. Indifferent to material rewards and status, he gave in his own life an inspiring example of selfless and modest living. As a great humanitarian he led generations of students to share his passionate concern for Indonesia, human rights, peace studies and conflict resolution.
Jemma Purdey’s biography of Herb Feith, From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith, was published by UNSW Press, Sydney, June 2011.