AAS Member Spotlight: Peter Cohen

Return to Member Spotlight page

Dr. Peter Cohen, Consultant and Intelligence Analyst
Southeast Asia; Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand.

How long have you been a member of AAS?

20 years

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

AAS is the premier American society for those who specialize in Asia. Asia Society used to be more culturally-oriented, but I believe it has become more commercial and oriented towards financial and monetary aspects of Asia, rather than sociocultural aspects (my opinion only).

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?

When I was born and raised in Singapore, Malaya at the time. I left in early youth, for UK and then the US. where I remained as an American, but since 1960, I have spent 22 years in Southeast Asia (principally, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam). I have traveled back and forth between New York/Washington, DC and SE Asia, innumerable times between 2000-2015 (I did my university schooling from 1978-1984 and then 1988-1995; I followed with postdoctoral positions in Strasbourg, France between 1995-1997 and in New York City between 1997-1999).

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

Collaborating with colleagues in Malaysia and Indonesia on the conservation and protection of threatened and endangered plants and animals in the region. As a former Fulbright Fellow in Malaysia (2003-2004), I established several research collaborations with leading universities in Malaysia. I taught scientific courses in Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) and interacted with academicians, scientists, students, environmentalists, NGOs, government officials, and the general population. My experiences in Malaysia contributed towards my comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the country and its people and culture.

Tell us about your current or past research.

I am interested in the environmental conservation of flora (plants, fungi and lichens) in Malaysia, particularly in view of the high degree of endemism of local floral species, which are rapidly disappearing due to the massive exportation timber (East Malaysia) and the widespread establishment of oil palm plantations in Malaysia.
Limestone Karsts of Asia: Imperiled Regions of Endemic Biodiversity

The over-exploitation of the world’s natural resources for commercial benefit calls for the prioritization of biologically-important ecosystems for conservation.  Limestone karsts are refugia of biodiversity and often contain high levels of floral and faunal endemism. Humans have exploited karsts for a variety of products, yet unsustainable practices have caused population declines and extinctions among site-endemic taxa. Limestone quarrying is the primary threat to karst biodiversity in East (China) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar), where quarrying rates exceed those in other tropical regions in Africa and South America.  Several economic, political, and scientific issues undermine the proper management and utilization of these karsts. Amelioration of these problems will involve: (1) Better land-use planning to prevent karst resources from being exhausted in developing regions; (2) comprehensive assessments of karst economic and biological value prior to development; (3) improved legislation and enforcement to protect karst biodiversity; and (4) increased research and eco-friendly activities to promote public awareness of the importance of karsts and the threats facing them.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

If you love Asia, then follow your dreams, but understand that the harsh realities of global employment favor those with a commercial background. Academic and government positions, everywhere, are few-and-far between, and be prepared for short-term jobs or perhaps applying your knowledge and skills in Asian Studies to fields of endeavor that may be tangential to what you studied earlier, and to what you may want to be, professionally. In my case, I went from science to Southeast Asian studies, with no formal education in Asian Studies, because I could leverage my 22 years living and working in the region and research in SE Asian biodiversity, into a more formal social science-based career in SE Asian studies. This is atypical and I am probably the only (or one of very few) scientists in AAS. I was fortunate in that academia and the military accepted my hands-on experience and cared less about my degree subject matter. For those who want to work in Asia, there are many opportunities, in a range of areas, but competition is fierce, and a high degree of specialization is encouraged in Asia. The Western notion of a "Liberal Arts Education" probably only carries limited currency in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines (somewhat), and none, everywhere else in Asia.

"AAS is the premier American society for those who specialize in Asia."

— Peter Cohen