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Harvard receives $20.5m gift for new Asia studies center

Will fund program on Indonesia

Benefactor Peter Sondakh and David T. Ellwood, Harvard Kennedy School dean, at the center’s signing ceremony. Benefactor Peter Sondakh and David T. Ellwood, Harvard Kennedy School dean, at the center’s signing ceremony. (Tony Rinaldo for The Boston Globe)
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and the largest Muslim-majority democracy. Yet even at Harvard University, Indonesia has remained among the less studied major Asian nations, overshadowed by China, Japan, and Vietnam.

That is about to change, thanks to a fortuitous connection between an Indonesian business magnate and the Asia expert who heads the Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A $20.5 million gift - described as one of the five largest in the school of government’s 74-year history - is funding a new Institute for Asia and a new Indonesia program.

The Kennedy School yesterday announced the gift from the Rajawali Foundation, the charitable arm of PT Rajawali Corp., one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates. The company, founded in the early 1980s by owner and director Peter Sondakh, is a major player in cement, retailing, palm oil, hotels, and other industries.

Professor Anthony Saich, director of the renamed Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School, said in an interview that the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia and the new Indonesia Program within it would allow an array of education and research initiatives.

“This will give us an opportunity to both bring in a new tranche of master’s degree students, and also to bring in current Indonesian officials into some of our executive programs,’’ Saich said. “We will also be running a fellows program that will bring in some of their good young academics to study with us.’’

Saich said the idea for a new institute flowed from Sondakh’s request for a competitive analysis for Indonesia similar to one that Kennedy School researchers had produced for Vietnam. Saich said he told Sondakh that he was not comfortable producing an in-depth study of Indonesia because the Kennedy School lacked the expertise on Indonesia that it had built up on Vietnam and China, for example.

So Sondakh offered to help strengthen the school’s capacity to produce high-level research on Indonesia and to strengthen its academic ties through collaboration with institutions there. The gift includes $10.5 million as an endowment for the new Asia institute, being paid over five years, and another $10 million, also spread over five years, to fund Indonesia-related activities.

“I think that one of the big advantages of this gift is that Southeast Asia generally has been poorly studied and understood across Harvard, and we have barely one or two students here a year from Indonesia,’’ Saich said. “As a result we have few contacts compared to other important countries, and little ongoing research.’’

With a population of 230 million people and 17,000 islands, Indonesia is a vibrant multiparty democracy and also a bulwark of moderate Muslim governance in Asia, combating extremists who have carried out deadly terror bombings. So the country is important strategically, not only in the region but also for its potential to influence other Muslim nations.

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties. His blog is at boston.com/worldlyboston. His e-mail is jsmith@globe.com.