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Faculty Spotlight: Tom Pepinsky, Associate Professor of Government

Tom Pepinsky

"I've always been of the opinion that all economics is political and all politics is economic in some way, so having a general focus on political economy that is not narrowly focused on finance or financial crises helps me to understand everything from why Indonesia is as corrupt as it is to why the Malay identity is what it is. These things are supported in large part by economic policy. This more holistic view helps us see Southeast Asia better. And of course Southeast Asia is important to the world, because it is a laboratory for all sots of different types of politics. If you are interested in communists, democrats, sultans, dictators, and revolutionaries, Southeast Asia has it all."

Interviewed and Edited by Aye Min Thant, Masters Student, Asian Studies 

AMT: What has your academic journey been like? 

TP: I went to college at Brown University, and while I was there I took an anthropology course taught by Pat Simmons. She got me interested in Southeast Asia more generally, particularly with refugee communities from Southeast Asia and Indochina who are settled here in the U.S. So I became more interested in general Southeast Asian issues, but the highlight was the issue of the Vietnam War, which I found very fascinating. I actually decided to go to graduate school to study the Vietnam War, specifically the US mistakes such as strategic bombing. When I got to graduate school, I realized that I didn't know enough game theory to study that properly. So my interests shifted to issues of political economy, and I decided to write my dissertation on the Asian financial crisis looking particularly at Indonesia and Malaysia. I learned Indonesian, spent a year doing field research in Southeast Asia, and wrote my dissertation comparing Indonesia and Malaysia. After that, I went on the job market, and took my first job at the University of Colorado. However, there was a job opening at Cornell, and I thought to myself that if there was any place I would leave Colorado for it would be Cornell. So I applied, got the job, and am here today. 

AMT: How have you worked with SEAP during your time at Cornell? 

TP: Everything I do seems like it is affiliated with SEAP. I advise masters students. I am a member of the SEAP faculty, so I go to all the faculty meetings. I work on helping to make decisions about funding awards, Fullbrights, and make recommendations. I try to help the Southeast Asia Program protect its position in the university through faculty committees and things like this. I am also always utilizing SEAP's resources. The resources here are unmatched anywhere in the world, and I am always using books from the library. My shelf in my office is full of books coming out of the library. I've got old Malaysian consensus. I've used data from the Dutch Indies from 1930. The library resources are just fantastic. I rely on them every day for the research that I do. SEAP also has funding I can use to support my research, through travel, and to help sponsor grants and workshops. The resources this program offers are irreplaceable for my work. 

AMT: Have your research interests changed over your time here? 

TP: Yes, when I got here I was very interested in financial crises and financial politics. I still am very interested in this, but my interests have spread out a little bit more generally into political economy and the interactions between political and economic systems. I've also become more interested in old and historical phenomena and their long-term legacy on what's happening in Southeast Asia today. I've become more interested in Southeast Asia as a unit, not just Indonesia and Malaysia. Though I've never been to some of these countries I am very much interested in the regional politics. I am interested in nationalism in Thailand, the election in the Philippines, and all sorts of issues related to democratization in Burma. I've also become more interested in the histories of the times before what I've studied. My current research, which is about to be published in an article soon, is about Chinese and Arabic settlement from the colonial era on contemporary Java and governance today. My new project is looking at the emergence of the Malay identity in Malaysia and Indonesia. I’m looking at how the British colonial period helped to construct one version of Malayness, but also how that has changed in recent times. I've become broader, more interested in history and the region as a whole. 

 AMT: Why is your work important? 

TP: Honestly, I have no good reason. It's important because that's what I am interested in, and that's what I want to do. I'm sort of kidding. I do think these things are important, but I don't choose to study them because they are important. I choose these issues because they are interesting. I can think of good reasons they are important. I don't think you can understand anything about contemporary politics in Southeast Asia without first understanding the historical roots that got us to where we are. So I'm very sensitive to the fact that when Indonesia democratized, it didn't just turn into a new country that was a democracy. All the legacies of the New Order, which are themselves built by the legacies of the Old Order, which are built on the legacies of the Japanese occupation and Dutch occupation filter up to the present. This sort of historical perspective that I am interested in helps us describe what Southwest Asia is today and where it came from. I've also always been of the opinion that all economics is political and all politics is economic in some way, so having a general focus on political economy that is not narrowly focused on finance or financial crises helps me to understand everything from why Indonesia is as corrupt as it is to why the Malay identity is what it is. These things are supported in large part by economic policy. This more holistic view helps us see Southeast Asia better. And of course Southeast Asia is important to the world because it is a laboratory for all sorts of different types of politics. If you are interested in communists, democrats, sultans, dictators, and revolutionaries, Southeast Asia has it all. 

AMT: I’ve noticed that you write and publish quite a lot. Is there a sense of urgency behind that?

TP: There is a sense of urgency, but I am actually eager to slow down a bit for my upcoming project. But it is true that in my discipline the way to get ahead is to write. I fortunately have the space and resources here to do that.

AMT: How does your work translate online in your blog and other forms of social media?

I don’t want to have a Twitter personality. I use Twitter primarily to promote the stuff I write on my blog. There are a lot of scholars who are very active on Twitter, but I use Twitter either to promote things or because something important is happening. So for example, my most dense amount of tweets ever was during the terrorist attacks in Jakarta in January 2016 to document what was happening. Then I didn’t tweet for another week, because my goal isn’t to tweet regularly. But the blog is something I update regularly. I’ve been blogging since 2004. I started blogging because my girlfriend and I were traveling to Southeast Asia, and my parents were terrified. They wanted some way to keep track of us, and a blog let them feel like they knew what happened to us that day. In the last five years, I’ve blogged as a way to engage with ideas without having to write an entire paper on something. I learn a lot from doing that. It’s also sort of fun. If something important happens, I can put an idea out and put a time stamp on it. It also lets me write about and share experiences I wouldn’t write about in any other places. I do worry that the blog makes me seem superficial since my writing there is unfiltered and not subject to peer review. If people only know me for my blog then I’m in trouble. Hopefully the blog gets people interested in my published writing, which is what I am most proud of.

AMT: What classes do you teach at Cornell? Which are your favorites to teach?

TP: I love teaching the Southeast Asian Politics course, which is the introductory undergraduate course for Southeast Asia. I like this class because I never took a class like it. It is a great way to continue to teach myself about the region. In regards to all these countries I’ve never been to, the best way to learn about them is to do the work necessary to teach about them. I also love the fact that I get to introduce people to Southeast Asia and turn people on to a region they might not otherwise have known. Lately, I’ve taught a graduate section of the course where the students read a lot more, meet for a separate discussion, and write response papers. We really get into the key texts in Southeast Asia as a discipline, rather than just factual information about the region. I am amazed by the type of interactions I get to have with my students through this class. 

CONGRATULATIONS to Professor Pepinsky for being named an international faculty fellow -- see Cornell Chronicle for full details.