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SEAP alumnus Lawrence Chua shares remembrance of Ben Anderson


Khruu Ben was one of my four dissertation advisors and I believe I was his last advisee. He was one of the primary reasons that I applied to Cornell and was disappointed to find after being accepted in 2004 that he had retired. My very first semester, I had a conversation about Ben with Chie Ikeya, who was fortunate to have had Ben as a teacher and remarked on the depth of his generosity and dedication which she surmised came from Ben not having a family in a hetero-normative sense. I would later find that Ben’s generosity extended well beyond his retirement as he continued to not only push at the limits of area studies but to build new intellectual and creative communities. I was deeply moved when he agreed to come out of retirement to advise me on my dissertation and even more so when he took the time to read it with such thoroughness, grace, and thought. I am so deeply embarrassed now, looking at some of those early drafts and thinking what I put not just Ben, but all of my advisors through, in reading them.

My first exchange with Ben came across the meeting room of the Kahin Center. I gave a Brown Bag presentation from my early field research and when I saw him sitting in the back, I was very nervous. My heart leapt into my throat when he raised his hand at the end of the presentation to ask a question. I was relieved, and mildly surprised, that he asked a fairly technical question about concrete production. Any reader of Ben’s knows that his intellect sits on a very broad and solid foundation of knowledge, but his opinions and thoughts about architecture and design were not just the remote, amateur interests of a political scientist. They were finely attuned to the discipline. I think many of Ben’s students who came from disciplines outside of government will agree that Ben had an uncanny ability to grasp not only larger inter-disciplinary issues but the finer points of intra-disciplinary conversations. This is one of the reasons his work has always had such far-reaching implications and I think of this when I teach his material to architecture students today.

When Ben paid attention to you, it was life changing and when Ben ignored you, it could be chilling. I remember experiencing a bit of both at Acaan Thak’s retirement event at the Kahin Center when I arrived and was told by Deborah Homsher that Ben was looking for me. I found him talking to a new Master’s student and stood around waiting for him to acknowledge me, but he was so enrapt in conversation with her and didn’t even give me a sideways glance. I thought, perhaps there was some miscommunication and took a seat, humbled, at a table in the driveway. As everyone took their seats, Ben came out of the Kahin Center, stood on the porte cochere and, almost as if it were a performance, loudly demanded to know where I was. It felt as if the sun had broken through a cover of clouds. Fingers pointed to the table where I sat with Tamara Loos and Samson Lim and Ben came to join us. I was in shirtsleeves this time and I think he must have noticed my tattoos because he said, that I looked less innocent than the last time I had seen him. I laughed and assured him that I had never been innocent.

Ben had a way of making you feel at once at ease and on your toes. I think of him as someone who lived his political sensibilities and remember there was always something populist and yet dignified about how he engaged with people in Bangkok as well as Ithaca. I remember passing him in Olin once, accompanied by Carl Trocki. They were in a hurry to get something and I was leaving and as we passed, he looked at me, extended his clenched hand and we touched knuckles. I remember being very excited and, as I was leaving the library, texting Samson Lim, “I just fist bumped Ben Anderson!”

Ben was such a careful and generous reader. One of his great gifts to me was a four-page single spaced letter with comments on an early draft of the dissertation. He was so kind and yet so rigorous. Ben always knew just how far to push his students. I received the letter just as I was heading out of my apartment in Bangkok to go back to Penang. I downloaded it and read it on the plane, very excited, but by the end of the letter found myself in tears. Re-reading it recently, I found the line that made me cry. Somewhere towards the end, Ben wrote, “Please don’t feel angry or despondent, and please fire back if you feel so inclined.” I thought, how could I feel angry or despondent after you’ve taken me seriously enough to invest all this time in reading such a clumsy draft?

I think Ben’s greatest gift, though, was his ability to get us to project into the future. He showed us how to take that tiny memorandum or image or brick that we had uncovered in the archives or in the field and use it to project our argument into the future, to think of how it might be useful in a time when the political situation would alter dramatically. Acaan Charnvit has very poignantly pointed out that now that Ben’s ashes have been scattered in the Java Sea, Suharto and his cronies will never again be able to ban him from Indonesia. Ben taught us to store things away for the right time and most importantly, to prepare for change.