John D. Legge (1921−2016)

john-leggeEducation: BA (Melbourne, 1940−1942); MA (Melbourne, 1945); PhD (Oxford, 1948−1950). Legge enlisted for war service in October 1944, working first with the Directorate of Research LHQ, but then embarked for New Guinea with HQ AMF School of Civil Affairs on detachment to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU). He achieved the rank of lieutenant before being discharged on 13 December 1945. At Monash he was Foundation Professor of History, 1960−1977; Foundation Chairman, Monash Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, 1964−1986; Dean of the Faculty of Arts, 1977−1986; he retired Emeritus Professor in 1986. He was Director of the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies for a one-year term, 1969−1970. From 1987 to 1993 he was an Executive Member of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board (VCAB). He was awarded Membership of the Order of Australia in 1988 for ‘Service to Education, particularly in the field of Asian Studies, and to International Relations’. He was elected FASSA (1964) and FAHA (Honorary) in 2004. A collection of his papers is held at the Monash University Archives; additional papers, biographical cuttings and interviews are held in the National Library of Australia.

Research interests:

Legge is a specialist on the political history of modern Indonesia and has written widely on Southeast Asian and Indonesian history. He was the first historian in Australia to devote himself primarily to the study of Indonesia, but he made this study ‘an exercise in explanation and interpretation, rather than a transmission of information about a new and baffling subject’ (Mackie and Milner 1986, 172). His work was influenced by the particular concerns and preoccupations of the immediate post-war period, which saw independence struggles take place across south and southeast Asia, but also saw a dawning awareness in Australia of the country’s position in Asia and of the political and strategic importance of Indonesia.

According to Mackie and Milner (1986, 165−6), Legge was very much a historian of the 1960s; his three books on Indonesia ‘embody the cast of mind and intellectual style of a generation of Australian scholars who were in the prime of life in the 1960s and who had passed through the Arts Faculty of the University of Melbourne in the early 1940s, particularly of those history graduates who studied under R. M. Crawford…’. ‘Legge’s foremost concern as a historian has always been to understand and explain what has happened in the past rather than to reconstruct a segment of it or to tell a particular story’ (Mackie and Milner 1986, 164), an analytical approach he learned from Crawford and brought to his teaching at Monash. He was described, at the time of his appointment to Monash, as being ‘somewhat pioneering in temperament’ (Davison and Murphy 2012, 41), an attribute which suited the aspirations of the University and which, in turn, the more liberal Monash environment allowed to flourish.

Legge was also profoundly influenced by the five months he spent in 1956, while on study leave from the University of Western Australia (where he taught Asian history from 1946), working with Professor George Kahin at Cornell University’s Modern Indonesia Project. It was at this point in his career that Legge broadened his research interests from the South Pacific and New Guinea (the topics of his post-graduate researches) to Indonesia. ‘[Legge] shared Kahin’s sense that priority needed to be given to modern social and political studies and the fashioning of new traditions in these, rather than to the continuation or reinvigoration of Orientalist traditions’ (Feith 1986, 85). ‘Legge’s approach to Indonesian history brought together both a lively interest in the explanation of contemporary developments in Indonesia and a deeper awareness of the analytical and historiographical problems that underlie our approaches to the problems of Indonesia’s historical and social development’ (Mackie and Milner 1986, 173). According to Feith (p. 91), Monash’s Indonesia work under Legge grew rapidly in ways that paralleled Cornell’s in various respects: ‘The Monash Indonesia work was mainly on 20th century political history studied at the national or capital-city level’ (Feith 1986, 93). Cornell was, for example, a model for Monash’s Southeast Asian Studies Centre.

Legge maintained a close association with Cornell up to and past his retirement from Monash. In July-August 1964 he returned to Cornell to teach a summer course; having published the first of his books on Indonesia Central Authority and Local Autonomy in Indonesia (1961), the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project published his book Intellectuals and Nationalism in Indonesia in 1988.

Though Feith notes a change of direction in Monash Indonesia studies since 1986, Legge’s teaching, particularly at a post-graduate level (with six published doctorates to 1986), was of sufficient influence to allow the claim that he ‘has contributed to the development of an Australian school of historians of Indonesia (or Southeast Asia more generally) over the last twenty-five years [to 1986]’, a distinctive feature of which is ‘that they share a good deal of Legge’s interest in the problems of analysis, explanation and causation applicable to the study both of Indonesia’s past history and present-day Indonesian society’ (Mackie and Milner 1986, 163, 173).


David P Chandler and M.C. Ricklefs (eds), Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Indonesia: Essays in honour of Professor J. D. Legge (Clayton, Vic.: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986), and in particular chapters by Herb Feith, ‘John Legge and Cornell’ (pp. 83−96); J.A.C. Mackie and A.C. Milner, ‘John Legge as Historian’ (pp. 163−76) and Elaine McKay, ‘John Legge and Asian Studies in Australia; “All that has now been quite transformed”’ (pp. 177−200).

Further details of Legge’s Monash career and his interactions with other key foundation figures may be found in Graeme Davison and Kate Murphy, University Unlimited: The Monash Story (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2012) and Jemma Purdey, From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2011).

Selected Monographs:

Legge’s first three books on Indonesia were written in a 12-year period when he was also establishing the history department at Monash, setting up the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, teaching a popular and successful course in Southeast Asian history and contributing more generally to the development of a new and innovative university.

Central Authority and Local Autonomy in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961), xiii, 291 pp. Map, Appendices, Glossary, Bibliography.

The precursor to this book was published under the title Problems of Regional Autonomy in Contemporary Indonesia as an Interim Report of the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project in 1957. The present book was similarly published under the auspices of the Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program.

The completed final report is essentially an analysis of the administrative, legal and political institutions of local government in Indonesia in the 1950s, ‘an extension of his earlier interest in the mechanisms of district-level administration which he had studied in his previous books on Papua and Fiji’ (Mackie and Milner 1986, 164). It deals with the workings of the local government system during the years of ‘parliamentary democracy’ (1959−1960) and the then sudden swing away from a trend towards real decentralisation and effective autonomy towards a policy of extreme centralisation and denial of significant local autonomy, as under both Sukarno and Suharto. The period chosen saw a distinct approach to the problem of reconciling central authority and local autonomy within the framework of a unitary state.

Legge’s method is thematic and analytical. The problem examined was, ‘Can the firm control from the center be reconciled … with a measure of local self-determination?’ (Legge, p. v). ‘While this is an almost universal problem facing new nations, it is one of the most important for Indonesia. There, regional grievances have led to civil war, only recently terminated after three and a half years of widespread and bitter fighting. Geography guarantees that the problem will be an eternal one for Indonesia’ (Gould 1962, 411). Legge’s study approaches the problem from an analysis of three major laws, those of 1948, 1950, and 1957, which were designed to give local autonomy. The survey of the three laws is followed by a detailed examination of the Law I of 1957, the ‘high-water mark in developing local responsibility.’ In the last of his ten chapters, Legge ‘inquires into some of the characteristics of regional separatism—perhaps the most intractable of the manifold problems which beset Indonesia today’ (Tinker 1963a, 140). Perhaps for this latter reason, Mackie and Milner (1986, 169) viewed the book as possibly Legge’s ‘most enduring work on Indonesia, for its interpretations and conclusions are less likely to be modified significantly by the writings of future historians or political scientists than the others are. It is an essential starting point for anyone seeking to investigate the working of local government in Indonesia since independence’.

One reviewer saw the book as ‘a harbinger of the growing volume of scholarly Australian studies of modern Indonesia’ (Tinker 1963b, 467). That the author was Australian was viewed as significant, signalling a national shift of interest in Indonesia: ‘In prewar years Australians had practically no interest in their neighbor to the north. Events during and after the war changed their attitude. They now exhibit a lively interest in Indonesia and are, of course, deeply concerned about developments there’ (Vandenbosch 1963, 224).

Reviews: Journal of Asian Studies 21.3 (May 1962), 411−2 (James Warren Gould); International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs) 39.1 (January 1963), 139−140 (Hugh Tinker [1963a]); Journal of Modern History 35.2 (June 1963), 224−5 (Amry Vandenbosch); Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies [University of London] 26.2 (1963), 467 (Hugh Tinker [1963b]); Journal of Southeast Asian History 5.2 (September 1964), 219−20 (Vishal Singh).

Indonesia (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964), viii, 184 pp. (The book went through three editions: a second [1977]; second revised [1978] and third [1980]. It was translated into Indonesian in 1972).

Legge explains the purpose of the book in his short preface: ‘This book is not just a short history of Indonesia but a commentary on that history.’ He adds that his aim was ‘to call attention to unresolved issues in Indonesian life and to discuss conflicting interpretations of her past developments and her present position’ (p. v). While the book’s eight chapters are ordered according to chronological sequence, from the early Hindu-influenced kingdoms to post-Independence, the book gives few historical details on the grounds that ‘this story is told elsewhere’ (p. 29); ‘within each chapter [chronology] is subordinated to the requirements of a thematic presentation’ (Mackie and Milner 1986, 172). The analytical framework is paramount: the primary search is for explanation and therefore assumes a reasonably advanced level of knowledge on the part of the reader. ‘While not recommended as introductory reading, this little work does offer much for the more advanced reader who wishes to examine the forces that have contributed to Indonesia’s development but lacks the time to explore the growing body of scholarly literature on the subject’ (Bain 1965, 515).

Other reviewers found particular value in the book as ‘the first English essay on Indonesian history, or rather historiography’ (Benda 1965: 286), challenging the early Dutch-language hegemony over this topic. In addition to his own theories, Legge surveys the (English-language) writings of scholars in other disciplines—political science, anthropology and economy and well as history—providing ‘a useful, almost clinical analysis of the various scholarly disputations and schools of thought about the main trends in Indonesian history’ (Bain 1965, 515). ‘Indonesia can serve as an admirable introduction to the long and fascinating sweep of Indonesian history’ wrote Harry J. Benda (1965, 287); ‘the academic neophyte will find it exciting and stimulating, and the casual reader, having accidentally bought the book in a cold war mood, will very likely emerge chastened and sobered.’

Reviews: Pacific Affairs38.3 (Fall 1965): 424 (John R W. Smail); International Journal 20.4 (Autumn 1965), 572−4 (Justus M. Van Der Kroef); The American Historical Review 71.1 (October 1965), 286−7 (Harry J. Benda); The Journal of Modern History 37.4 (December 1965), 514−5 (C.A. Bain).

Sukarno: A Political Biography(London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1972), ix, 431 pp. (The book went through several subsequent editions: a second [1985]; ‘new’ [1986]; third [2003]; ‘new’ [2004]; re-published in paperback in 2007 and as an e-book in 2012. It was translated into Indonesian in 1985.)

Legge begins the first edition of his biography of Sukarno with a disclaimer (p. vii): ‘It is too early for a definitive biography of Sukarno. His overwhelming dominance of the Indonesian scene during the years of Guided Democracy, and the subsequent reaction against him, makes it difficult for any observer to give a detached assessment of his place in the history of Indonesian nationalism.’ Nonetheless, the book has sustained its interest and appeal. Commenting on the second edition, one reviewer observed, ‘The book …, has indeed so far survived the test of time, and is likely to go on doing so. That is because of the soundness, not only of its research, but of its judgments. … Legge raises the important issues, makes his own answers clear, but leaves them open enough for further appraisal. It seems an ideal way to treat a figure controversial in his time and likely to remain controversial in the future’ (Tarling 1987, 149).

The book’s fifteen chapters follow a chronological format from Sukarno’s boyhood to his death (1901−1970), but include at many points Legge’s commentary on the broader political issues raised by Sukarno’s controversial career. The narrative combines Legge’s own research into various aspects of Sukarno’s life with an appraisal of the interpretations put forward by others. In addition to monographic material, he uses the Indonesian press, Sukarno’s writings and speeches (including Sukarno’s own account of his life as it is given in An Autobiography as told to Cindy Adams [Indianapolis, 1965]), and interviews with many people who knew the Indonesian leader.

‘Wisely, Professor Legge devotes nearly half the book to the years before, in 1945, Sukarno became President of the newly-proclaimed Republic of Indonesia, so bringing to the reader’s attention the factors which influenced him in his formative years’ (Pearn 1973, 204). Legge analyses the peculiar talents and philosophy of Sukarno as a rebel against Dutch colonialism and a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers of World War II. The picture that emerges from the biography as a whole is that of a charismatic nationalist who always favoured subordinating Islam, Marxism, and other ideologies to the goal of Indonesian nationalism. Sukarno balanced all factions, whether party or military, against each other but insisted that all had a legitimate role to play-except the non-Communist parties after 1958. Finally, however, the army and the PKI (Indonesian Communist party) plotted against each other and the army refused to tolerate Sukarno’s superior, above-the battle role by removing him from power in 1965. Legge’s final chapter details the events of October 1965 and the conflicting theories, concluding that the PKI played only a minor role in aiding an army faction in the bloody coup that killed six generals (Mendel 1973, 205). ‘The story has something of the character of a classical tragedy: the rise from humble beginnings to great power, the errors of judgment which led to disaster, the final fall from power, and death in humiliating conditions’ (Pearn 1973, 204).

Critical reception was positive: ‘John Legge’s temperate and tentative assessment of Sukarno is an accomplishment of the first order in modern Indonesian history, and in Southeast Asian and postcolonial Afro-Asian history as well. … Legge has not intended to write an exhaustive biography, but he has asked significant questions and answered them with care and dispassion’. … ‘[Here] we have a first-class political biography of a major leader of the mid-twentieth century’ (Friend 1976, 947−8). Reviewing the third edition nearly thirty years after the book was first published Mark T. Berger notes (p. 231) that the biography still occupies a pre-eminent position in its field. ‘The main changes to the third edition are the author’s use of new material in his discussion of the revolts in the outer islands in 1958 and his revision and updating of a detailed and particularly thorough chapter on the “Fall of Sukarno”. Despite the passage of time, and his updating, Legge makes clear that he has not altered his “general view of Sukarno as a central nationalist figure, projecting a vision of a united Indonesia and as an important symbol of that nation during the struggle for independence and during the early years of the republic” (p. 8)’ (Berger 2005, 229). Part of the book’s enduring appeal was undoubtedly its ‘readable prose style’ (Mackie and Milner 1986, 172). ‘One has to say that this is a very good book indeed … highly readable…’ (Leng 1974, 138).

Reviews: Journal of Asian Studies32 (November 1972), 749 (Stephen Sloan); Perspective1.12 (December 1972), 236 (Paul E. Eckel); Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 406, (March 1973), 204−5 (Douglas H. Mendel Jr.); Australian Outlook 27.1 (1973), 99−101 (Angus McIntyre); Asian Affairs 4.2 (1973), 203−4 (B.R. Pearn); Journal of Asian History 8.1 (January 1974), 92−3 (Justus M.Van Der Kroef); Australian Journal of Politics and History 20.1 (1974), 137−8 (H.S. Leng); The American Historical Review 81.4 (October 1976), 947−8 (Theodore Friend); Asian Studies Association of Australia. Review 11.1 (1987), 148−51 (Nicholas Tarling; 2nd edition); Historia 40.1 (August 1995), 127−8 (C. De Jong; in Afrikaans; 2nd edition republished); Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs37.2 (2003), 144−7 (John Ingleson; 3rd edition); Australian Journal of International Affairs59.2 (June 2005), 228−31 (Mark T. Berger; 3rd edition).


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