Launching Jemma Purdey's biography of Herb Feith

I was proud tonight to launch Jemma Purdey's fine biography of the late Herb Feith. We had around 120 people in the Main Committee Room at Parliament House, which was testament to the number of people Herb's life touched.

Book Launch of Jemma Purdey, From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith
Andrew Leigh MP
Parliament House
6 July 2011

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today, and thanking those who have worked hard to organise today, particularly Louise Crossman and Nik Feith Tan.

Jemmy Purdey, family and friends of Herb, internationalists all – thank you for coming today to celebrate Herb’s life and Jemma’s fine book.

Let me begin with a story.

When I was in grade six, the teacher asked our class to do a history project. The aim of the project was for each student to do their own primary research. Some students interviewed their grandparents. Others wrote about how their suburb had developed. One student wrote a history of the Holden Commodore.

I interviewed Indonesian-Australians about the mass killings of communist sympathisers in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. My assignment wrote about the terror of neighbours using the purge as an excuse to settle scores, about bodies floating down rivers, and about how Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt noted with satisfaction that 500,000 communist sympathisers had been ‘knocked off’.

To this day, I still wonder what my teacher made of it.

Looking back, I don’t remember precisely how this topic came about – but I have a feeling that my parents Barbara and Michael (who are here tonight) might have had something to do with it. It wasn’t just that we lived for a year in Malaysia and another three years in Indonesia – it was also that ours was a household where batik shirts were normal, where Far Eastern Economic Review and Inside Indonesia sat on the coffee table, and where we talked non-stop about ideas. I thought of my childhood when I read in Jemma’s book an account of a Feith family holiday:

'Dad’s in a gay mood and we’re all having a merry time. There have been plenty of discussions too. Mum and Dad have been reading an extremely interesting work by Martin Buber on Jewish Mysticism and that’s been one of our many topics of conversation … then we’ve had a few more battles on the old subject of whether morality is prudential and relative or absolute … By and large I think we’ve managed to keep off politics.'

Reading Jemma’s splendid biography of the great Herb Feith, I feel like a movie extra watching a blockbuster. (Look, there I am – behind the potplant!)

Herb’s friend Lance Castles – who crops up so often – was our next door neighbour in Banda Aceh. I remember Herb staying with us in Jakarta in the early-1980s. And it was Herb who encouraged my father to do his PhD at Cornell rather than ANU – opening my eyes to the chance that I might also study in the US, where I ended up meeting my wife Gweneth.

Incidentally, I can’t help noting that Herb and Betty met on the tennis court, the same place that my grandparents met. This struck me as coincidental until I realised that both Betty and my grandparents were Methodist – and when you don’t drink or dance, it rather cuts down the possible venues at which you might meet someone of the opposite sex.

Herb Feith was larger than life in so many ways. As a child, he would bend down – looking at you with his penetrating brown eyes – and ask serious questions. When someone made a joke, he would always be the last one still laughing. There’s something appealingly vulnerable about this – I noticed the other day that the Dalai Lama does it too.

And Herb was fabulously eccentric. Jemma notes that he became a vegetarian in the 1970s, but her book doesn’t mention a crucial fact: because he was making the choice for political reasons, he still ate chicken bones. As a child, I distinctly recall watching with wide eyes as Herb said ‘well, if you’re not going to eat those bones, I’ll have them’, and then devouring the bones.

Herb’s most famous achievement was to pioneer a volunteering scheme that has now become Australian Volunteers for International Development, sending more than 10,000 volunteers to developing countries in the past 60 years.

From a young age, Herb helped others. In high school, he went door-to-door collecting for war-ravaged Germans and other Europeans. With his friends from the Student Christian Movement, he collected for the Christmas Bowl appeal – perhaps causing his Jewish mother to raise an eyebrow.

While still at Melbourne University, Herb wrote to both the Indonesian and Australian governments suggesting that a voluntary technical assistance scheme, building on the goodwill of the Colombo Plan, might be a good idea. His own secondment in Jakarta to the Indonesian Ministry of Information showed that it was possible for an Australian to work in such a position. Back home, the Student Christian Movement – and subsequently the National Union of Australian University Students – were strong supporters.

In the end, the momentum for the scheme was overwhelming. Jemma recounts the story of Don Anderson – newly returned from seeing Herb at work in Indonesia – giving a speech in Canberra to an audience that included Robert Garran and Robert Menzies. Menzies is reputed to have muttered to Solicitor General Kenneth Bailey ‘How much will it cost?’. A figure was made up on the spot, and turned out later to be roughly accurate. In 1952, the Australian and Indonesian governments signed the agreement that formally created the scheme. Herb was then aged 22.

Yet there were still challenges.

  • Some officials at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta were patronising, while others even tried to talk Herb out of the idea (though some, such as Alf Parsons, were strong supporters)

  • The salary was modest – volunteers were given a bicycle to get around, and paid the same rate as a local working in the same position.

  • Finding new positions was a constant challenge – in the early days, volunteers had to find the posts that would be occupied by the next wave of scheme volunteers

There were also the challenges that Australians today still feel when going to a developing nation – whether to give to beggars, how to develop genuine friendships with local people, the feeling of being overwhelmed at the scale of the challenge, and the sense of what Herb once called ‘whitelessness’.

And yet, there really is an ‘Australian model’ of volunteering. Jemma tells the tale of Herb and some early volunteers joining a group of American volunteers on a day-trip to Bogor. While the Americans drove, the Australians and Indonesians piled together into a local bus. When they arrived, the Americans had brought an elaborate picnic, including tablecloths. The Australians had a simple meal of rice and vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves. It brought amusement from the Indonesians who joined them, but it was symbolic too. As Herb wrote in 1954, ‘these young people assert by the way they live, that racial equality is real. By having natural and friendly relations with Indonesians on the basis of mutual respect’. Indeed, Herb’s subsequent PhD thesis was dedicated to his friend Djaelani, a Jakarta servant who lived in one of the city’s many slums. Jemma’s account of Herb’s early days in Indonesia should be compulsory reading for every young Australian setting off to volunteer in a developing nation.

The other big theme in the book is the value of individual liberties. Jemma recounts Herb’s early years growing up in a Jewish family in Vienna. At the age of seven, his mother held him up to the apartment window to watch the city’s synagogues burn – the infamous Kristallnacht. During his life, Herb spoke out against anti-Chinese and anti-Communist attacks in Indonesia, against the hanging of Ronald Ryan, against apartheid in South Africa, and against the Vietnam War. Protesting against uranium exports, he was kicked in the stomach by a Victoria police horse. As pro-Indonesian militias began to wreak havoc the day after the East Timor referendum, Herb held the hand of an elderly village woman and berated the Indonesian militia men who were threatening her. The same Herb who had looked out upon the fires of Kristallnacht six decades earlier now stood up to protect a woman who might otherwise have fallen victim to another ethnically motivated atrocity.

Herb was fundamentally right on issues of human rights. And he was probably correct to criticise some economists for devoting too little attention to Suharto’s repression of democracy (indeed, the same could be said of some China scholars today). Yet, I think that he perhaps underplayed the importance of economic integration in reducing poverty and infant mortality. Contrary to what ‘dependency theory’ suggests, rising incomes in developed nations are a boon, not a hindrance, to reducing world poverty.

Indeed, I would have loved to engage Herb on the issue of economic globalisation precisely because he was so strongly in favour of immigration – an issue close to my own heart. Among the maiden speeches of new members of the House of Representatives, one thing that stood out for me was that nearly every Labor member spoke warmly of the migrant experience, and the benefits immigration has brought to Australia. Perhaps it’s that we instinctively regard the Australian project as an international one. Maybe it’s that we tend to identify a little more with the misfit and the outsider. Whatever the reason, it’s one of the things that makes me most proud to represent the Labor Party.

And yet – as you might expect of a party formed to protect the rights of Australian workers – our history is far from unblemished. Jemma reminds us that one reason Australia only took 5000 Jewish refugees before the outbreak of war was statements like that of Labor Senator John Armstrong, who said in 1938 ‘I urge the Government to take steps to prevent the unrestricted immigration of Jews to this country’. Jemma also reminds us of the way that the White Australia Policy was used to rip families apart. Indeed, Labor Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell was shocked when the High Court ruled that he could not deport an Indonesian woman who had six children with her Australian husband.

It was injustices such as these that Herb sought to right. As he once said ‘it is the changeability of every situation, the fact that at every turn there is the opportunity to help in a way which however small appears in some way fundamental’.

The wonderfully energetic and eccentric Herb Feith died too soon. And yet with this splendid biography, his ideas, his energy and his passion for making a difference are there for many to see.

As Tony Reid wrote, ‘He seemed to know everybody worth knowing in Indonesia and what’s more to be loved by them in a way that opened every door… whenever I was in the field I had the model of Herb in my brain as the way it morally could and should be done’.

May this be so for many generations of Australian volunteers to come.

Here's Jemma's speech:

  • Good evening everyone. It is wonderful to see so familiar faces here tonight including many of Herb’s friends, colleagues and family.

  • An occupational hazard of the biographer is that we can’t stop ourselves imagining our subject’s views on situations and events. So not surprisingly, I can’t help but try to imagine what Herb would have thought of this event this evening.  His biography - written by a woman he fleetingly knew as the postgraduate student of one of his early students and colleagues – being launched by a member for parliament he knew as a boy; in Canberra at Parliament House. As his biographer, I can only draw from the substance of my investigations of Herb through his letters, scholarly work and conversations with his friends, families and colleagues, to find the answer – as indeed I did so many times in the course of writing his life! I think he would have approved. Herb was not hostile to the idea of his biography being written – although autobiography was not something he was comfortable with so much. As I write in the introduction to the book, he threw little of his written records away (many boxes of which, reside just a short walk from here at the National Library) Indeed, Herb assisted his friend Bob Hadiwinata to begin such a project. I don’t think he would have considered it unimportant or insignificant either, that the author of this particular version of his life follows a generational line of Indonesia scholars that began with him and his peers in the 1950s in Australia. I would not be here, would never have taken the route to Indonesian Studies scholarship if not for the pathbreaking work of Herb Feith, Jamie Mackie, John Legge and others in the Australian academy in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. My teacher and mentor at Melbourne University, Charles Coppel (Herb’s own student and colleague at Monash in the 60s), not only encouraged me in my pursuit of deeper exploration and understanding of an Indonesia I became fascinated with as an undergraduate, but also encouraged me to undertake this special task – to write Herb’s life story. I’m so pleased his confidence paid off and he felt he could write the words that the publishers have featured on the book’s cover!

  • I think too, that Herb would have approved very much and indeed been extremely proud of Andrew Leigh’s involvement tonight (for which I personally thank him deeply). As he mentioned, Andrew also represents this generational progression of Australians who are Asia literate and dedicated to understanding our neighbours, following his father and mother, Michael and Barbara.

  • Andrew recently spoke in the parliament about Jamie Mackie, another foundational figure in Asian studies, and great mentor of mine. Jamie loved that he and I were both from small towns in northern Victoria who ended up studying Indonesia and was always a great encouragement to me during the process. As Andrew highlighted in telling Jamie’s story, and I hope my biography of Herb has also shown,  these two exceptional intellectuals and academics were not content to reside within the comfortable milieu of the academy, but like many others of their peers in post-war Australia they saw their roles as much as visionaries and activists walking in protest marches, writing petitions, supporting refugees and encouraging a new generation of Australians to experience and strive to better understand the world, its problems and our place within it.

  • So what of the chosen location, Parliament House in Canberra? Herb was a social activist and a political scientist and so a great deal of his time was preoccupied with what was going on in this place especially in terms of Australia’s foreign policy. In the course of my research, I must say I was somewhat surprised by how seldom he communicated directly with members of parliament, or with bureaucrats at DFAT. Indeed, for some periods of his life, it was not a place with which he wanted any contact at all – his assistance to East Timorese in support of their clandestine activities for example, required this sort of distance. As Andrew mentioned, as a young Australian in Jakarta in the 1950s he and his fellow volunteers preferred not to identify with the embassy and its activities. But as a political scientist, Herb was also aware more than most, of the power of the influence that could be brought by this place and never took lightly his approaches to senate committees, parliamentarians and ministers on various issues over the years, including on East Timor, West Papua and United Nations reforms on self-determination claims.

  • Moreover, key aspects of his life, as is the case for many of us, were directly impacted by decisions made here; including the founding agreement between the Indonesian and Australian governments here in Canberra, to support the Graduate Employment Scheme in 1952.

  • But going back even further than that, it was the debates that took place and decisions made here in Parliament House in 1938 concerning the granting of visas to Jewish refugees, that decided Herb’s fate as a young boy escaping the pending horrors in Nazi Europe with his parents, Arthur and Lily. On 22 November 1938 not long after Kristallnacht, the Minister for the Interior, John McEwen, confessed to the parliament that he was overwhelmed by the desperate stories he was hearing each day from those pleading for visas for their friends and relatives.  The government’s earlier decision to lower the monetary guarantee that must be put forward by applicants or their sponsors opened the gates a little wider for some and the refugee quota was increased to 15,000 Jews over three years.  A week after McEwen’s speech in parliament, the Feith’s visa application was sponsored and approved and Herb became one of only 5,000 Jews granted entrance visas to Australia before the war commenced in September 1939. The Feiths were remarkably lucky, but it was too little too late for Australia’s effort. The public debate and bureaucratic dragging that went on then and which prevented many more Jews from finding refuge in Australia in 1938-39 sadly reflects debates of today. Right up until the last day of his life Herb cared deeply about protection of asylum seekers and refugees and oppressed minorities, and was critical of the inaction of governments to take leadership in humanitarian ways to alleviate such suffering.

  • Can I conclude by expressing my deep thanks again to Andrew for launching the biography tonight and acting as our host here in this special place; and to his staff, particularly Louise, for making it happen. My most sincere thanks to Nik, who voluntarily took over a great deal of the coordination for the event and for his kind words earlier as family representative. I have taken the opportunity in the acknowledgements section in the book to thank the many who made this work possible and such an honour to complete over the years, but I must again thank Betty, David, Annie and Rob Feith for so generously sharing Herb and their lives with me. And the Australian community of world-leading Indonesianists for their ongoing work and deep knowledge of Indonesia. We have a wonderful resource in these scholars and their students in the Australian academy, which should not be underestimated. For making the research and this book possible my thanks also to the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies and Arts Faculty at Monash University, the Australian Research Council, National Library, and Australia Indonesia Institute. Finally, thanks to my family for their great support, some of whom, like all of you, have braved the Canberra winter to be here tonight.

  • Thankyou all for coming and I hope you enjoy reading the story of this remarkable life as much as I have enjoyed the privilege of writing it.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.