Professor John Legge

Professor John Legge

22 February 2016

John Legge passed away on 4 February 2016, aged 94. In the words of the former president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Elaine McKay, 'John Legge, more than any other, was the founder of modern Asian studies in Australia.' He spent time in the 1960s at Cornell University, then the pre-eminent centre of South-east Asian studies in the United States. He was inspired by the work of George Kahin and, in John's words:

At the end of my Cornell semester came the next part of the plan—fieldwork in Indonesia focusing on local government. Across the United States by car, over the Pacific by Dutch cargo ship, to Singapore via the Philippines and then by KPM ship to Java. That six months was to be the first of what became more or less annual visits to Indonesia.

As Tony Milner noted in his obituary of John Legge, he worked in that era in which there was a broad recognition that 'the age of European empires had ended'. John Legge was central in developing the Monash Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, working with the other South-east Asia specialists in Monash and throughout Australia: Herb Feith, Cyril Skinner, Ian Mabbett, Michael Swift, Jamie Mackie, Milton Osborne and, of course, my father, Michael Leigh.

It is testament to John Legge's work at Monash that the John Legge Study Space at Monash opened last year. He contributed a number of important works, including a biography of Sukarno published in 1972 and a general history of Indonesia published in 1964. He was engaged in the teaching of Indonesian at a school level, serving on the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board. He was a member of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia from 1964 and became a Jubilee Fellow, and he was an Officer of the Order of Australia. As Ian Hancock noted:

He had the gift of being 'one of us' while never letting 'us' think he was other than the boss.

Elaine McKay noted of the Monash Centre that:

The Centre rested on the conviction that it should be built on the disciplines and should carry forward the values and perspectives that the disciplines could bring to interdisciplinary discourse.

and said of John that he was:

… instrumental in the establishment of the Asian Studies Association of Australia …

He served as its founding president.

In a eulogy for John Legge, Bob Elson noted:

My new professor was small and wiry of stature, wearing a tweedy kind of jacket and a bow tie. But his punchy walk to the lectern was without affectation and betrayed a high level of energy and purpose. … His gaze married penetrating steeliness and a playful, chuckling humour bursting to emerge.

Bob Elson said of John Legge that he was 'the best teacher I have known,' and said:

John taught me that history is not about the past so much as it is about the analysis of historians' debates and disputes about the significance of the past …

Yes, he loved Indonesia, but, as Bob noted:

I never formed the impression that John romanticised Indonesia or its people.

John will be greatly missed by his children Colin, Kate and David; their partners Gai and Greg; and his grandchildren Max, Jack, Tom and Harry.

John Legge was a friend of our family. He stayed in our home in Jakarta for a couple of weeks in 1980 and was ever the perfect gentleman. He had a back problem and was off for a swim to ease the pain every morning. As my father Michael Leigh summed it up: 'The triumvirate of John, Herb and Jamie really anchored the study of South-East Asia at Monash University. I recall graduate students listening intently to comments on their papers, first from Herb, then Jamie, and waiting somewhat fearfully for John's finale. Even his most devastating demolitions were phrased in such a way as to embody some words of encouragement and suggest a pathway toward academic redemption.'

To conclude: Saya mau mengucapkan terima kasih banyak-banyak atas kesempatan di Parliamen ini untuk menjelaskan kontribusi yang luas dan kaya oleh Professor Dr John Legge almahum.

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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.