JAKARTA - Academic Leo Suryadinata has become the first Singaporean to receive an award from the Indonesian government that honours cultural contributions and efforts to deepen understanding of the archipelago.
The Ministry of Education and Culture lauded his work on Indonesia's Chinese community, declaring Dr Leo, who was born in Jakarta, instrumental in introducing the history and development of the country's ethnic Chinese.
"In this field, no other scholar has as strong an interest as Leo Suryadinata," it said of the veteran Indonesia expert, who is now a visiting senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute as well as an adjunct professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The award was for Dr Leo's "dedication and service as an expert on the ethnic Chinese in the dynamics of Indonesian social, economic, political and cultural life", said the ministry.
Dr Leo, who has contributed pieces to The Straits Times' opinion section on a wide range of issues, including US-Indonesia relations and China's rail ambitions in Indonesia, received the Award for Culture and Recognition of Traditional Arts Maestro at a ceremony in Jakarta on Sept 26.
"I felt honoured as this is not only a recognition of my work, it is also a recognition of the importance of the Chinese Indonesians, as well as the study of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia," he told The Straits Times on Friday (Oct 5).
"I hope people in Indonesia and beyond would be able to better understand the roles and contributions of the Chinese Indonesians to Indonesia," he said.
And he also hoped to see more Indonesians - regardless of ethnicity - conducting more studies on this minority group, he added.
"I would encourage younger Indonesian academics to do it as there are not many fine scholars yet in this field," he said. "I hope they will follow the steps of the older generation of scholars and surpass them."
Dr Leo graduated in 1962 with a bachelor's degree from the then-Nanyang University, where he majored in Chinese and South-east Asian literature. He has worked in several Singapore institutions over the past few decades and written and edited more than 50 books on issues such as the Chinese Indonesian community as well as Indonesian politics.
From 2015, the award began to recognise three foreign individuals per year for significant contributions in Indonesian-related studies.
Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute deputy director Terence Chong said Dr Leo's contributions to the study of the Chinese community in Indonesia is invaluable to the think-tank's work.
Dr Siwage Dharma Negara, co-coordinator of the institute's Indonesia programme, said the award was a well-deserved recognition of his colleague's exceptional academic contributions to the understanding of ethnic Chinese in South-east Asia, particularly in Indonesia.
"Prof Leo is an eminent scholar on Chinese Indonesians. Any student or scholar studying the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia will certainly come across his works," he said.
The veteran academic, added Dr Siwage, has through his writing, teaching and mentoring, helped many young scholars understand the issues such as nation-building and the implications of China's rise.
And Dr Leo is not stopping yet.
At 77, he still plans to keep up his research.
"At my age, I am eager to pass my knowledge to the younger generation, I will be very happy if young scholars would like to learn with me," he said.