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Remembering Thee Kian Wie, Indonesian economist and sharp critic of government

Remembering Thee Kian Wie, Indonesian economist and sharp critic of government
Published 3 Mar 2014 

Thee Kian Wie died on 8 February. He leaves behind his wife Tjoe Thee and son Marcel Thee.

In 1966, a 31 year-old Indonesian-Chinese PhD student in Wisconsin, America, opened a letter from his government telling him to forget his history and abandon his name.

He refused, even as dangerous anti-Chinese sentiment seethed at home. 'I got really angry, tore the letter to pieces and threw it in the rubbish bin', said Thee Kian Wie in a later interview, thinking 'I cannot and will not disavow my ethnic background and will remain Thee Kian Wie, a name given to me by my parents. I am an Indonesian of Chinese origin, neither better nor worse than any other average Indonesian.'

Kian Wie never forgot. In his 79 years, he went on to become one of Indonesia's leading public intellectuals and scholars, using history and economics to shed light on the most urgent problems facing his country.

He was a friend of the 'technocrats', a US-trained group of economists that oversaw Indonesia's boom from 1967 to 1997, but also an outsider. From the academy, Kian Wie, happily insulated from the compromises and temptations of power, was free to criticise, just as he was to tinker and rummage for old papers in the library.

'Indonesia has a lot of problems,' he often said, 'but the biggest is mass poverty.' The solution, he argued, was a lot of foreign investment, new factories and then the tweaking of policy to ensure just outcomes. [fold]

Colleagues praise his writings in 17 books and hundreds of articles over 51 years on technology transfer, competition policy, and the neglected discipline of economic history. 'We'd be toiling away with complex mathematical models', finance minister Chatib Basri fondly recalls of his old teacher. 'Mr Thee would just anticipate our results.'

In his childhood and youth, Kian Wie lived through the turmoil of Indonesia's growing pains. He was born in 1935 in Jakarta, then Dutch colonial Batavia, to descendents of poor immigrants from Fujian province, China. Then came the Japanese occupation, Indonesia's independence in 1945, and five years of war with the former colonial power, the Netherlands. Early memories include hiding from anti-Chinese mobs on a family farm.

Kian Wie was swept up in Cold War intellectual currents. As Indonesia drifted towards the Soviet bloc in the early 1960s, a young Kian Wie browsed Marxist bookshops and toyed with the idea of studying in East Germany. As President Sukarno's rule began to unravel, hyperinflation and geopolitics threatened to destroy the country. Kie was later poached by the West as a nervous US-funded Ford Foundation gave out scholarships to promising scholars.

Kian Wie and those of his generation remember just how fragile the Republic once was. Unlike in May 1998, when wealthy Indonesian Chinese fled rioting and persecution, for many in those early decades, there was just nowhere to go.

Even as a young nationalist, the Calvinist discipline and enlightenment values of his early Dutch teachers were a profound influence on Kian Wie. 'They instilled in me', he said, 'a thirst for knowledge and love for books, especially history.' The first lessons in economics at the University of Indonesia in the 1950s came from Dutch scholars recruited by a future mentor Sumitro. He collaborated with scholars in the Netherlands throughout his life. With his wife Tjoe, Kian Wie spoke an old-fashioned dialect of Dutch. 'Culturally,' he said, 'I was Dutch oriented as I grew up in a Dutch-speaking family.'

At university and later at a government think tank, Kian Wie's interests in national identity and economic development began to take shape. An undergraduate thesis written in 1954 concluded that long-term security for the Indonesian Chinese lay in lessening, if not eliminating, the economic gap between Sino-Indonesians and the indigenous population. Later, his PhD examined the how endowments in a primary commodity could shape future growth patterns, looking at Sumatra's east coast. Indonesia's 'resource curse' became a constant Kian Wie warning.

'We cannot just rely on cheap labor, dwindling natural resources, and fiddling with the currency', he said to Kompas newspaper, comparing Indonesia unfavorably with resource-poor Japan and South Korea. Tracing the long-term growth path of new Asian countries was to became a recurrent theme.

In a brief stint in the 1970s, his old lecturer and leading minister-technocrat Sumitro recruited him for a policy study. They traveled to Eastern Europe, studying five-year plans, and wrote a blueprint for future growth, using natural resource revenue to fund an improvement in human resources and technology. In the end, Kian Wie rejected Sumitro's offer to be a deputy minister, declaring his true calling was to be a scholar. 'He never sought to translate his training into power and wealth', notes ANU Indonesia scholar Don Greenlees, who worked for five years in Jakarta with Ms Tjoe. 'In that sense, he was a true servant of the country.'

'Going abroad is not a right, it is a duty', he told his students and worked tireless to build links with Australia and institutions overseas. Australia, he said, especially the ANU, was to become like a second home. A year's stay in Canberra as a guest scholar on the Indonesia project in 1982-83 changed his life. He also taught at Deakin, Monash, Griffith and Flinders.

Shelter from the political fray allowed him to speak out, often as a sharp government critic. Unlike many intellectuals in developing countries, he actually spoke out in defence of the International Monetary Fund and against then President Suharto. He passionately defended his old friend and now Vice President Boediono when under media attack from Islamists who claimed he was a foreign stooge. In endless articles in national media such as Kompas or Tempo magazine, Kian Wie railed against complacency in economic reform.

It’s hard to know if his friends will remember more his humility, devotion, or almost comical optimism. 'What a strange Chinese you are', said one professor in the 1950s when he agreed to work for the state for a pittance. He was eternally on-call for visiting foreign guests to gossip over politics, usually at a noisy and cheap restaurant. Despite an official 'retirement' in 2000, he constantly visited the office and joked he still liked to write 'Mickey Mouse' articles, as they 'do not contain the sophisticated econometric models which are now common at the economic journals.

'Pessimism, let alone frustration, never touched him', wrote Kompas in an obituary, 'despite decades as a meagerly-paid civil servant.' Kian Wie himself explained it best, saying, 'Some idealism is absolutely necessary, lest the advanced skills my young colleagues acquire is not just used to gain power and wealth.'

Photo by Ross McLeod. Thanks to ANU's Indonesia Project for permission.

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