Sunday, February 09, 2014

RIP: Thee Kian Wie, True Scholar

Pak Thee Kian Wie was my role model for a good economist.

First of all, he published articles in international journals. A lot of articles. His primary expertise is in economic history and his PhD dissertation is on plantation in East Sumatra in the 1863-1942. He also wrote books on the making of Indonesian economy - from the colonial period to independence. A rare breed of economic historian in the economic profession, even rarer in Indonesia.

I read a lot of his works on industrialization and industrial policy in Indonesia. Pak Thee's personal access to the technocrats and at the same time his distance to power circle and bureaucracy makes his works not only instructive but also credible. Pak Thee, from his writings, was very aware of all political economy constraints and contestation at the time. He witnessed and reported the making of Indonesia miracle between 1970-1998 -- in increasing alarm in later years.

I actually wish that Pak Thee wrote more on how then up-to-date "(economic) ideas" were introduced and translated into Indonesian economic policymaking. Nevertheless, anyone wants to know how industrialization was planned and worked/did not work as intended in Indonesia shall read his papers and books.

Yet, one of his important work after the 1998 crisis is his essays on development, freedom, and New Order miracle (Pembangunan, Kebebasan, dan Mukjizat Orde Baru).

Apparently influenced by Amartya Sen, Pak Thee re-evaluated Indonesian economic "miracle" and reflected that, if I don't misread his writing, while the economic progress was real, there should have been more attention and work (read: government policies) to deal with freedom, inequality, and injustice. Probably not a strong statement for those who want a clear-cut verdict on the regime, but Pak Thee clearly went through a deep thinking and contemplation, with a tingle of regrets, before coming to this conclusion.

But above all, Pak Thee was a wonderful person. Anyone who ever came across him can attest how humble he was, considering his high scholarly credential.

Pak Thee once told me that while he was visiting Sussex University, he often commuted to London to see art performances. "I bought kelas kambing (cheapest) ticket for the shows", he added. It turns out that living in a "relative poverty" -- late Professor Sadli's term to describe his choice for living as a researcher under government payroll -- did not prevent him to become a true cosmopolitan.

He also once let me know, without a slightest hint of irony, that his son (I did not know Marcel Thee and Sajama Cut at that time) is a musician and makes a lot more money than him.

We will sorely miss you, Pak Thee.

7 comments:

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