Studying Faraway Places from Faraway
ALERT: VENTING TO FOLLOW. In the past day, two colleagues have said in public forums that my understanding of Malaysian politics is superficial (and therefore misleading) because I live far away. One accused me of “parading.” By public forums I mean “in situations where there are lots of my colleagues listening.” I’m not embarrassed to say that such accusations sting. They sting even if no one else is listening, but they sting even more when I know that my friends and colleagues are.
What to do about this? Well, I could stay up at night worrying about it, or I could try to fire something back, but instead what I’d like to do is to accept the critique with a caveat. Yes, I am just not able to have an on-the-ground understanding of Malaysian politics that others can. Being employed in a U.S. university with teaching and research and service requirements and a young family and so on makes it nearly impossible to travel to the other side of the planet very often. When I do, it’s quick, and I rely on old networks to get information—these contacts may no longer be relevant or informed. Consequently, lots of deep contextual information is hidden from me. It’s a problem. And I know that it’s a problem. I know it without having to be lectured about it.
The caveat, though, is that I don’t think that this is precisely the challenge that these critics think that it is. I view my task as bringing the area into conversation with the rest of the discipline: with non-Malaysianists who do Asian studies, or with political scientists more generally. To do that requires a rather different sort of intellectual endeavor than really describing with complete nuance all of the facts on the ground. It requires distance. It requires something other than careening from crisis to crisis or scandal to scandal. (Importantly, nothing substantive that my critics said after noting that I study Malaysia from far away leads me to change any inference that I have drawn about Malaysian politics.) Sure, I can give my thoughts on current events in Malaysia (that’s what this is for), but if you want an expert, don’t ask me because I don’t know, and I’d be the first to tell you. If you want the broader picture, the one that deliberately abstracts away from the details because doing this is useful, then that’s where I can help (that’s what this is for). So I take my cue from the baby elephant: