Associate Professor Michele Ford

The stern-faced girl appears square-jawed and defiant, one arm raised in salute to a crowd of
comrades standing in solidarity behind her. Her name is Marsinah, and with her death in 1993 she became the inspiration for a generation of labour activists fighting for Java’s ‘little people’.

This stony-faced figure stares out from a poster on the door to Associate Professor Michele Ford’s office in the Department of Indonesian Studies; a constant reminder to those passing by of the precarious state of Indonesian workers’ rights.

The complex flow of power dynamics, so beautifully epitomised by Marsinah, is what fascinates Ford, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Indonesian labour movement.

“There was this discourse in Indonesia about how the ‘little people’, the ordinary people, had no power – that they didn’t know anything and couldn’t do anything, and they just had to accept the benevolent dictatorship from above,” Ford explains. “Marsinah showed that that wasn’t true. She’s part of that great tradition of individuals really standing up when it matters.”

Ford is leading the charge for such stories to gain greater visibility in Australia and beyond as inaugural Director of the new Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC), a multidisciplinary initiative bringing together more than 200 academics and honoraries from across the University of Sydney. The Centre is unique in its multifaceted approach, combining a broad spectrum of academic disciplines, deep area studies expertise, and regional engagement.

Ford believes SSEAC opens up a wealth of new possibilities by breaking down the academic silos that have traditionally constrained scholars and scholarpractitioners.

“SSEAC is about building bridges internally within Sydney, but also in the region. It’s not just about academic research, but about bringing academic research to bear on real problems in the region. That’s where it’s very different from traditional area studies centres.”

Despite only commencing operations in July 2012, SSEAC has already enjoyed remarkable success. In addition to showcasing Sydney’s Southeast Asia expertise, the Centre has been instrumental in initiating meaningful dialogue between the University and key players in the region. In November last year, a SSEAC delegation was invited to present their research at an international conference in Bangkok to mark 60 years of Australia-Thailand relations. They
also had an opportunity to discuss development policy with members of the Laos National Assembly. Not long after, the Centre hosted a visit by the Laos Education Minister to Sydney. The Centre’s formula certainly appears to be working.

“Asia, especially Southeast Asia, offers an opportunity for Australian graduates to really give something back,” Ford says. “They can really put in practice all the values we try to impart to students. The Centre is built on the premise that the same is true for our academics. It’s a way of getting out of the ivory tower and really turning our academic insights into something very real.”

As one of Australia’s leading experts on Indonesia, Ford has also taken an active role in debates surrounding the federal government’s renewed commitment to Asia through its ‘Asian Century’ White Paper. She says a more nuanced appreciation of Southeast Asia is needed if the White Paper’s good intentions are to be turned into practice.

“As more Australians have structured opportunities as young people to not just think about Asia but to live, study and work in the region, they’ll see that things are different, and yet the same. There’s nothing revolutionary in that idea, but it will help Australians to move beyond the idea of Asia as the ‘Other’ and start to really embrace it. This is another area where SSEAC plans to do its bit.”