SEA Games

A tribute: Ben Anderson’s brain

Patricio N. Abinales
A tribute: Ben Anderson’s brain
His gentle presence notwithstanding, Ben Anderson always kept us on our toes because we had no idea how to answer his questions, which usually start with the query, 'What’s odd about it?'

My fondest memories as a student were of attending William Henry Scott’s History of East Asia class, Dodong Nemenzo’s course on Political Dynamics and the seminars and directed readings on Southeast Asia of Ben Anderson. These three mentors  basically shaped my intellectual curiousity and set me on the path that I continued to pursue. 

Scotty captivated us with stories of the collapse of the Manchu dynasty under the relentless assaults of the world’s largest drug cartel, the British Empire, and wondered about the size of warlord Chang Tso-lin’s penis. Dodong made us read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao, leaving my English professor-classmates to wonder how such great political figures (save Marx and Trotsky) could get away with such dreadful writing. He walked us through the different ways a revolutionary group could overthrow the state: the coup, the insurrection, the protracted people’s war. As wide-eyed national democrats then, we took the latter survey with a grain of salt. For was not Nemenzo a member of the Lavaite “black bourgeois revisionist gang”? Fortunately, it was also Dodong’s critical re-examination, even of his own politics, that prodded some of us towards radical heresies and led me to do away with my Maoist dogma.

And there was Ben. Let me confess now – and I do this without belittling the formidable intellects of Scotty and Dodong – that of these three mentors – I dreaded Ben the most. For his gentle presence notwithstanding, he always kept us on our toes because we had no idea how to answer his questions, which usually start with the query “What’s odd about it?” While he once comforted us with the reminder that “we can fill this room with our ignorance,” it was also clear that he expected us to know the canons of Southeast Asian studies, the histories of the countries in the region, and our own national histories.

For to answer “what’s odd about it?” we had to think comparatively and be willing to go against the grain of the orthodox explanations. I never felt so provincial and narrow-minded as I did then. For in my time at Cornell we were already dealing with the Benedict Anderson, the author of Imagined Communities, not the Ben Anderson of Joel Rocamora’s time, whose focus was still on Indonesia.

But fear would soon be replaced by admiration of Ben’s obvious brilliance and the care and attention he gives his students. Ben is probably the only teacher I had who returned research papers full of comments scribbled in the margins like “Interesting…,” “Good point, but…,” “He! He! He,” even a series of “No! No! No!” if he thought an analysis was off-base. And if a particular footnote drew his attention, he would head to the library to check out the source himself. For a time, some of us played a cat-and-mouse game with him, often littering our footnotes with Bisayan or Burmese sources, two languages that we knew he had little knowledge of.

But he worked us hard, and so the challenge was to look for dissertation topics original enough to arouse Ben’s curiousity, or sufficiently ambitious to show how much we had learned from his idiosyncratic comparative method . I remember writing a dissertation proposal littered with comparisons from southern Thailand, northern Brazil, western Russia, South Africa and the American West – all because Ben thought that they had features that could help me understand southern Mindanao. At my thesis proposal defense, Ben suddenly turned to me and asked me about the “Hopi Indians” and I could only raise my hands in amazement: for God’s sake, what do I know about the Hopis?!!? 

All three of these mentors, are not only exceptional academics; they have been comrades whose exemplary politics helped many of us define and anchor our own positions. Scotty never wavered from his progressive commitment to the truth even as many of his colleagues (including the famous Rey Ileto) at the UP History Department sold their souls to Marcos in exchange for cash and a chance to write his projected 19-volume epic Tadhana: The History of the Filipino People. Dodong was imprisoned for admitting his membership in the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, and never compromised his radicalism when he returned to UP to once more teach but also become a bureaucrat. Ben was banned from Indonesia for 27 years for refusing to recant the conclusions of the historic “Cornell White paper” – a fate that rarely befalls scholars studying this region. In this age of “racket” they clearly stand out for their principles.

Ben as a friend

Finally, a note on Ben as a friend. He was particularly fond of my late wife Donna who was instrumental in remodeling his kitchen to make it looking less like an extension of his study room, into a real kitchen were the best of Indonesian dishes were prepared. When Donna had a hard time getting comments from her main adviser, Ben and Takashi Shiraishi stepped in and became her de facto mentors. She completed her dissertation closely supervised by these two wonderful folks. It is now a book; Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Malaya was published last year in Malaysia.  

I will always relish those Halloween parties at Ben’s house where students, faculty, friends – including Ateneo’s Fr. Joey Cruz who was my wife’s favorite dancing partner, so that we called him Joey, the Dancing Jesuit – danced to Prince and the Revolution and drank Singapore slings, the pork barbecue foodfests. We would spend the whole night talking about politics with the Dayak Democrat Ben Abel and the irascible Eritrean radical Fuad Maki, and, of course Ben, sharing with us this terrible American bourbon Grand Old Dad. And the Filipinos in those parties – Caroline Hau, especially – would hope these intellectual exchanges and social banter would continue in the future – in Davao, Dipolog, Cebu, Bangkok, Ithaca, and, even here in provincial Manila. 

So to Ben Anderson, wherever you are, thanks for those fascinating nine years at Cornell. Thank you for John Furnivall, O.W. Wolters, George Kahin, Audrey Kahin, and Vivienne Shue; for Java in the Time of Revolution, Imagined Communities, Language and Power and the Spectre of Comparison. We will miss you. A lot. –


Patricio N. Abinales is an OFW.


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