Discover more from Bundle of Contradictions
...and moving back to London after 14 years
I recently left the Lowy Institute after three great years in Sydney building the Southeast Asia Program. I will miss many things about Australia, including my smart, fun and insightful colleagues. But, probably, not for long, as I am staying in the same world of foreign policy. Having lived in many different places, I know that goodbyes are usually not for long.
This week, I’m starting an exciting new job at Chatham House in London as Director of the Asia-Pacific Programme (and switching back from Australian to British spelling). I’m chuffed to be hosting Anies Baswedan, the governor of Jakarta and a leading 2024 presidential contender, for an in-person event in my first week. More on Chatham House to follow in future, no doubt.
For now, I wanted to share a few highlights of my time at the Lowy Institute (in no particular order). When I joined Lowy in 2019, I thought it would be cool to work for a think-tank but had no clear of idea of what think-tanks actually did. Three years later, I’m convinced that it’s great to work for a think-tank. But I’m still not sure exactly what they do. Whatever it is though, Lowy is very good at it, that’s for sure!
(Incidentally, the best explanation I’ve heard of what think-tank researchers do came from a Malaysian counterpart who said we were: part academic, part diplomat, part journalist and part entrepreneur.)
1. Polling Indonesia
My last major research project at Lowy was based on an opinion poll we conducted on Indonesian attitudes to foreign policy. As I wrote in the New York Times, many outside powers are courting Indonesia, but few take the time to think about how Indonesians see their place in their world. I enjoyed working on the poll with two friends and sparring partners, Natasha Kassam and Evan Laksmana, aided by many top minds from the worlds of academia and polling.
I owe thanks to another good friend at the Indonesian foreign ministry who suggested to me a couple of years ago that Lowy conduct a new opinion poll in Indonesia - the previous polls were in 2011 and 2006.
2. Talking to Teddyboy
I was fortunate to chair two private roundtables with Southeast Asian foreign ministers (Saifuddin Abdullah of Malaysia and Erywan Yusof of Brunei) and doubtless would have hosted more if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. I also conducted a virtual dialogue with Philippines foreign minister Teddyboy Locsin. I went into the event with some trepidation, given his fiery Twitter persona. But we had a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation about the Philippines, US-China competition, Myanmar, ASEAN and much more.
3. Women and War Reporting in Vietnam
I’ve had a long interest in the American war in Vietnam and how it was reported in the media. So I was delighted when Elizabeth Becker, a veteran conflict correspondent, agreed to record a podcast with me about her new book on three pioneering female reporters who broke old boundaries and new stories in Vietnam. The three incredible women profiled in Elizabeth’s book - Frances FitzGerald, Catherine Leroy and Kate Webb – changed the way the Vietnam War was seen and understood.
4. Publishing Man of Contradictions
I’d planned to write a book about Indonesia for some time but had many difficulties convincing publishers to take an interest in the “world’s biggest invisible object”. Thankfully, Lowy and Penguin Random House backed my short political biography of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
I was taken aback by how much interest and debate it generated. Hopefully that encourages more international publishers to think more seriously about Indonesia.
5. Hong Kong exiles
When I left Hong Kong in 2019, I believed the city was heading for more conflict because of the fundamental clash of values and visions between the Chinese government and a large bloc of Hong Kongers. I was saddened to see how quickly the situation deteriorated.
As I tried to make sense of what was happening in Hong Kong, I was moved by these discussions with two high-profile exiles from Hong Kong: Nathan Law and Ted Hui.
Both men fled certain imprisonment in Hong Kong and both are trying to continue their struggle for democracy, decency and freedom from afar, like a growing number of Hong Kongers. Many other Hong Kongers with no public profile have found themselves in similar situations and I think Ted and Nathan enunciated some of the many conflicted feelings that gnaw away at exiles.
6. Explaining Indonesia’s Incredible Elections
I love elections. The Indonesian presidential and legislative elections of 2019 came early in my time at the Lowy Institute. In addition to analysing the troubled state of democracy in Indonesia, I spent much time collating data and insights on how Indonesia conducts the world’s biggest direct presidential election. Building on work that I’d done at the Financial Times during the 2014 election, we produced an interactive explainer that was used as an educational tool in Indonesia and has been widely cited elsewhere too: https://interactives.lowyinstitute.org/features/indonesia-votes-2019/. Bring on the 2024 elections!
Thanks for reading and let me know if you’re in London. I’m looking forward to looking at my own country through outsider’s eyes, in addition to continuing my work on Southeast Asia and the broader region.
Cheers for now,