Molding global citizens

Tom Pepinsky looks to the world to find lessons for home

By Linda Copman, Global Cornell

Pepinsky teaching
Associate professor of government Thomas Pepinsky talks with students about the war in Vietnam.

Thomas Pepinsky’s teaching highlights the often-surprising connections between international affairs and domestic affairs within the United States. His students learn about the many ways in which the United States and Southeast Asia are connected – in obvious ways as a result of the Vietnam War, and in less obvious ways through issues like economic integration, counterterrorism, military-to-military cooperation, and U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

“Students who enroll in my Southeast Asian Politics course come with the presumption that they are going to be learning about an exotic, faraway place,” says Pepinsky, an associate professor of government and a member of the Einaudi Center's Southeast Asia Program. “And in a sense, they are right: they learn about a place that is very far away from them. But in learning about Southeast Asian politics, Cornell students learn about America’s place in the world, a lesson that travels far beyond this one particular region.”

Pepinsky makes it clear to his students that they are global citizens – even if they don’t know it.

“The role of international studies at Cornell is to help students to become engaged global citizens,” he explains. “This is someone who is curious about commonalities and differences across nations and cultures, who seeks out opportunities to learn languages other than English, and who can think critically and with compassion about poverty, war, migration, disease, and environmental change the world over.”

Pepinsky was recently named an International Faculty Fellow (IFF) by the Einaudi Center. The IFF program supports basic research in the social sciences that focuses on a non-U.S. context; is not motivated by national security concerns, nor by an acute threat of violence or conflict; and does not seek to contribute to a general theoretical model of democratic politics. This kind of research is not well supported by other funding sources, such as the National Science Foundation, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, or Russell Sage Foundation. 

Pepinsky’s current research looks at the Japanese occupation of the British colony of Malaya. He is investigating the presumption that the Japanese occupation had a major influence on the development of the Malay identity and, in turn, on the course of Malaysian politics since independence.

“This is where the IFF comes in,” Pepinsky says. “The International Faculty Fellowship is enabling me to conduct a survey of Malaysian and Indonesian citizens to better understand the nuances of ‘Malay-ness’ among Malays and non-Malays in both countries.”

South Cina Sea
A fishing boat on the South China Sea off the coast of Malaysia. The sea has long been a highly contested area. Photo by Tom Pepinsky

For his first book, Economic Crises and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes, Pepinsky studied the experiences of Indonesia and Malaysia during the Asian Financial Crisis to understand how global economic integration affected the durability of their authoritarian regimes. He then became interested in identity in Southeast Asia – how different groups understand their ethnicity, how group identities form and change, and how this matters for politics.

“As it turns out,” Pepinsky reports, “the colonial era played an absolutely fundamental role in shaping post-colonial identities, and this is what has led to my new project on late colonial Malaya.”

Pepinsky’s research uses the late colonial era as a lens for understanding the political development of Southeast Asia. For example, one of his recent articles explores the long-term consequences of Chinese settlement on the Indonesian island of Java.

“I find that those localities that were densely settled by Chinese during the late colonial era now tend to have local governments that are more accommodating of business interests,” Pepinsky says. “Such localities are not better governed, per se, but firms in those localities report that their governments are less likely to impede their ability to do business.”

Pepinsky explains that it can be difficult to find colleagues who share his regional interests and disciplinary background. Very few universities have more than one specialist in Southeast Asian politics, and most of those that do are located in the Asia-Pacific region.

To address this issue, Pepinsky co-founded the Southeast Asia Research Group (SEAREG), which highlights the best new research on Southeast Asia by emerging scholars in the social sciences.

“SEAREG has helped me and colleagues at other universities create a vibrant new community in Southeast Asian politics – one that brings together faculty and grad students from multiple universities through annual meetings and fellowships,” he says.

Another problem that U.S. universities face is a very limited understanding of Indonesia. That led Pepinsky and several of his Cornell colleagues to found the American Institute for Indonesian Studies, which works to establish greater ties between Indonesian and U.S.-based scholars and researchers. AIFIS awards grants and fellowships, and organizes events in Indonesia to showcase American research on Indonesia as well as Indonesian studies research from the region.

“Through this work, we try to help Americans to become more aware of Indonesia,” Pepinsky says, “and also ensure the continued vitality of Indonesian studies research here in the United States.”