AAS Member Spotlight: Linda Y.C. Lim

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Linda Y.C. Lim, Professor of Strategy, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

Economics & Business; Singapore, Southeast Asia, China

How long have you been a member of AAS?

Since 1977

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

I joined AAS for professional development and contribution i.e. to learn about the latest research and thinking in my countries and discipline of interest and in countries and disciplines not in my areas of expertise. I was a PhD student at the University of Michigan where the AAS national office then shared a building (Lane Hall) with our area studies centers; all our Asia specialist professors were active in it, and we were encouraged to attend the annual meeting.

I would recommend AAS for the same reasons i.e. a place you can learn about other countries and research subjects not of your own primary interest, as well as a place where you can share your own specialized research and engage with colleagues with similar interests.

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?

I am a Singapore national and the economic development of Singapore and Southeast Asia was the pressing regional issue during my youth in the 1960s and 1970s. After a BA in economics at Cambridge and an MA in economic development at Yale, I chose the University of Michigan for my PhD studies because of its national prominence in development economics and Southeast Asian Studies. Here, in addition to economics I took a cognate class in Southeast Asian history, studied Indonesian language, and participated in valuable informal learning activities of the Union for Radical Political Economics, then also headquartered in Ann Arbor (now in New York).

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

Learning new things on and in Asia through research, fieldwork, and engagement with colleagues and students. Sharing my knowledge, expertise and experience with colleagues, students and the wider public (including business, government and media).
Helping to maintain and build Asian Studies though institutional involvement.

In addition to serving on the AAS Southeast Asia Council and on the Executive Committee of the Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei Studies Group in the 1980s, I served as Director of the University of Michigan Center for Southeast Asian Studies from 2005-09, in particular ratcheting up its development (fund-raising) activities.

Tell us about your current or past research.

My research has focused on trade, investment, industrialization and labor in Southeast Asia’s economic development, including the roles of multinational and Overseas Chinese business, government macroeconomic and industrial policy, and women workers, examined through the theoretical lenses of both economic analysis and political economy.  

In particular I have studied: Singapore’s globally-admired state-driven, multinational-led, export-oriented, foreign-labor-dependent economic development, and its limitations, as it transitioned rapidly from less-developed to advanced-economy status over the past 50 years; labor markets and labor policy in East and Southeast Asia, including the “liberating” as well as “exploitative” impacts of labor-intensive export manufacturing for women factory workers; and the role of ethnicity, minority status and the “rise of China” in the business strategies and relative success of Southeast Asian Chinese business.  

My overarching goal is to unpack the intertwined roles of capital, labor and the state in the evolution of globalized industrial capitalism in specific Southeast Asian country contexts, drawing lessons (or not) for other late-developing countries.  A current interest is the role of and impact of Asian companies of various nationalities (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian) in less-developed Southeast Asian economies (e.g. Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar). 

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

For academic social scientists in particular, despite the growing rhetoric of multi-disciplinarity, a strong theoretical foundation in and professional identification with a particular discipline is essential, for employment, publication, promotion and tenure.  Asia-focused positions are rare and you most likely will have to teach broad disciplinary courses outside of your area of Asian research specialization.  I began my career at a small private liberal arts college (Swarthmore) before moving to a professional school in a large public research university (Michigan), and in both it was teaching large-enrollment disciplinary and global (i.e. not Asia) courses that formed nearly all of my instructional responsibilities.

It is increasingly essential to develop some geographical competency outside of your particular country of interest, not only (a) for teaching reasons (e.g. ”Asian History” rather than “The Qing Dynasty”), but also because of (b) increased interlinkages between different Asian countries and world regions in contemporary societal experience and (c) the increased relevance of comparative analysis in academic research and publication.

Your expertise has been acquired at great cost to yourself and society.  It is increasingly politically and economically necessary to justify this cost by making your work “relevant” to wider audiences and the general public. This will increase the employability, job security and earnings of yourself and your students, by growing the “market” for your specialized expertise, including by making it intelligible and accessible to non-experts and the general public (what in other fields is often referred to as “translational” work). It will also ensure that Asia-expert voices have a say in national and international affairs which affect all of us.

Support Asian Studies by being active in service at your own institution and at organizations like the AAS.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.

There is nothing interesting about myself that is not related in some way to Asian Studies.

When I was finishing my PhD, I had to give up a job I had secured at a Malaysian university that would have focused on development economics, and stay in the U.S., when many of my friends and associates were arrested in a wave of mass political detentions in Singapore in 1977 that have never been explained. Professionally this turned out to be the best thing that happened to me, because of the opportunities it provided for global learning and academic freedom.

Personally the best thing that happened to me was my marriage that same year (1977) to Prof. L.A. Peter Gosling, then AAS Secretary-Treasurer, after a whirlwind 4-month romance kindled at a U-M Center for Southeast Asian Studies outreach conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan in January, and at the AAS annual meeting in New York that March.

I am a 75th generation direct descendant (one of 4 million) of Confucius. Following the unexpected 2013 discovery of my Kung great-grandfather’s live (empty) double-tomb in Singapore’s Bukit Brown cemetery (designated a World Monument at Risk in 2014), I researched and self-published a family history book Four Chinese Families in British Colonial Malaya: Confucius, Christianity and Revelation (2013, not listed in my c.v.) that has interested several younger members of my extended family in Singapore (76th and 77th generations) in the study of their collective family histories. Perhaps some future Asian Studies scholar might emerge from this.

"For academic social scientists in particular, despite the growing rhetoric of multi-disciplinarity, a strong theoretical foundation in and professional identification with a particular discipline is essential, for employment, publication, promotion and tenure."

— Linda Lim