Enormous contribution to the understanding of Indonesian politics and society – Sydney Morning Herald

Departing for Jakarta, 1963.

Departing for Jakarta, 1963.

While at Yale, he wrote the monograph, Religion, Politics and Economic Behaviour in Java: The Kudus Cigarette Industry, which received a glowing accolade from Clifford Geertz, then the most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States:

“Seeing heaven, or some less attractive cosmos, in a grain of sand is not a trick everyone can accomplish. But in less than a hundred pages Lance Castles has managed to bring an extraordinary number of basic dimensions of contemporary Indonesian culture, society, and economy into concrete relationship with one another…If the phrase tour de force had not by now come to have the connotations of inscribing the Lord’s Prayer on a pin, it would be the appropriate term of apply to Mr Castles’s closely argued and marvellously compressed book.”

Castles’ career included teaching and research positions in the Social Science Research Training Centre in Aceh, the Ar-Raniri Institute of Muslim Religion (later the State Islamic University), the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, and Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta. He also served as a researcher for the Save the Children office in Aceh.

Lance Castles: touched people’s lives wherever he went, in Indonesia, Australia and around the world.

Lance Castles: touched people’s lives wherever he went, in Indonesia, Australia and around the world.Credit:Tempo/Nihil Pakuril

Castles was not just known for his academic brilliance, but for his moral convictions to making his knowledge useful to the improvement of the societies he studied – to human rights, democratisation, and empowerment of the oppressed.

He was widely known as a listener and mentor who mixed and engaged with students and locals at a personable level, usually in their own language – it would be difficult to enumerate how many he spoke. His familiarity with Islamic texts in Arabic was greatly appreciated in Aceh, where he was informally and affectionately known as “Teungku Lance” (an Acehnese honorific for cleric).

The houses where Lance lived were known as hives of political engagement, discourse, and guidance, as well as food, laughter and music, including traditional seudati song-dances. Lance often cooked large batches of Middle Eastern or Indonesian cuisine for whoever dropped in.

Students found in Lance a mentor who would discuss politics in ordinary language. They were for him an important source of information and to whom he was a patient listener and cautious adviser, willing to discuss matters they could not discuss with other lecturers. Although not actively partisan, on one return trip to Australia he stopped by the offices of Amnesty International to hand over a list of Indonesian political prisoners, at no doubt some risk to himself.

On another occasion, colleague Halina Nowicka recalls accompanying Lance to Cepu via Bandung, where he helped an ex-student who had been ‘caught’ when somebody had posted him some ganja (cannabis) used in Acehnese cooking: “Lance had a story about every single town we passed through and I always felt that every conversation we had enriched me greatly”. It is a common sentiment among those who knew him.

Castles returned to Melbourne in 2000 in ill health. He withdrew from official academic life, returning to Indonesia briefly in 2004 to observe the national election, from which came his last published article: “Why and how did SBY win?”, published in The Year of Voting Frequently: Politics and Artists in Indonesia’s 2004 Elections, edited by Professor Margaret Kartomi, of Monash University.

Lance’s passion and interests nonetheless never subsided. Though struggling with the physical challenges of old age, his brain continued to be something of a phenomenon of nature. Whatever went in there, stayed in there. Not only did he have a profound knowledge of Indonesian politics and Eastern culture, but Western history, literature, classical music and current affairs on a global scale, which he continued to follow, mainly by watching the SBS news service in the relevant languages.

He also continued to learn new languages, applying them particularly to the dissection of scripture and religious texts in different languages. He owned bibles in German, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Javanese, Urdu and Tagalog, to name just a few, as well as Qur’ans in Arabic, Persian, Javanese, and Indonesian.

While his interest in religion related heavily to its linguistic, cultural and historic implications, he undoubtedly had a rich spiritual vein running through him, probably traced back to his Methodist Christian upbringing. Lance was always gentle and generous with his gifts, sharing freely with academics and housekeepers alike. He spent the last two years of his life happily at Highgrove, where knew the names of each of the multicultural staff that supported him. He would delight them as he discussed the politics or events of their homelands, whether it was South Sudan, Cambodia or the Philippines. He would often have clippings cut out of the newspapers to give to them.

Lance clearly touched people’s lives wherever he went, in Indonesia, Australia and around the world, and will be missed and remembered. He is survived by his brother, Brian, and 10 nephews and nieces.

Written by Professor Margaret Kartomi, Brian Castles and Richard Castles.

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