Anthony Hearle Johns

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Anthony Hearle Johns
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Born (1928-08-28) August 28, 1928 (age 95)

Anthony Hearle Johns (born London, 1928) was the first Professor of Indonesian Language and Literature in Australia, who with his wife Yohanni helped established Bahasa Indonesia as a subject of academic enquiry in the Anglosphere.


Tony Johns was born on 28 August 1928 of a Polish-descended father, whose own father had discarded the surname Nasinzky on moving to England as a tailor, and an English mother from Plymouth. He attributed his restless intellectual curiosity to wartime exile in Plymouth, where Irish Christian Brothers at school, and his English grandfather's library at home, stimulated a love for English literature. He was fortunate to be sent to Malaya for his compulsory military service, teaching young Malay recruits English in Johor for the Army Education Service (1947-9). This 'intoxicating' experience launched him into a highly unusual academic career on return, as virtually the only student of Malay and Islam at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he did both BA and PhD in 5 years (1950-54). Johns was then recruited by the Ford Foundation to teach English in Teacher Training institutions first in Bukittinggi (where he taught and later married Yohanni) and a second contract in Yogyakarta (1954-58).[1]

ANU Appointment

The teaching of Indonesian (or its predecessor Malay) was a late development in Australia, stimulated by Government pressure in the context of first the Pacific War and then the Cold War. Federal Government intervention had established a School of Oriental Languages at the Canberra University College (CUC) in 1952. When this failed to initiate Indonesian, Government intervened again to fund specific Departments of 'Indonesian and Malayan Studies' in three centres in 1955. Sydney opted for a Dutch orientalist, Melbourne for an Australian social scientist, while Canberra's CUC concluded that Johns was the ideal appointment if he could be persuaded to come to the still small and remote 'bush capital'. He insisted on staying in Indonesia as long as his Ford contract allowed, but arrived in Canberra as Senior Lecturer and head of the new department in August 1958. In 1964 he became Professor of Indonesian Language and Literature in what had become the Faculty of Oriental (later Asian) Studies at the Australian National University (ANU). He turned the Orientalist teaching approach on its head by beginning with the modern languages and their literatures, and only introducing classical Malay and Javanese in the later years.

By 1970 these methods had made Indonesian the most popular foreign language at ANU, with over 100 students enrolled. Johns was able to appoint four other young Indonesian graduates to do the language teaching while studying for their ANU PhDs. His wife Yohanni also designed much of the syllabus for modern Indonesian, published as Bahasa Indonesia: Langkah Baru.[2]


Johns' earliest publications (see below) were classical Malay Islamic texts, beginning with his SOAS dissertation and including a first academic treatment of a Minangkabau text (Rantjak di Labueh, 1958). In Canberra, however, he devoted his early energy to establishing Modern Indonesian and Malay literatures as subjects for academic enquiry. A number of articles in 1959-61 argued this explicitly[3], making him the natural person to write the literature chapter in the standard HRAF volume on Indonesia in 1963, and the 'Indonesia and Malaysia' chapter in a 1973 Encyclopaedia of World Literature in 1973.[4] He was one of the first to publish an English translation of a modern Indonesian novel, Mochtar Lubis' Djalan Tak Ada Udjung[5]. The 1960s also produced translations of short stories by Achdiat K. Mihardja (1960) and Pramudya Ananta Toer (1963) as well as various critical studies of other authors.

A sabbatical in Cairo in 1964-5 was, in his words, "an experience that utterly changed my world", giving him the confidence in Arabic to discover "authors in the main stream of the Islamic tradition that were to inspire a new emphasis... Qur'anic story telling."[6] This inspired a change of direction in the 1970s, and a steady stream of studies over the next 40 years on mainstream Islamic literature. His students in this period were those who had moved on from Indonesian/Malay to Arabic sufficient to explain the interaction between them.

Major books, A.H. Johns

  • Malay Sufism as illustrated in a Collection of Anonymous Malay Tracts JMBRAS 178, part 2 (1957).
  • Rantjak di Labueh, a specimen of the traditional literature of Central Sumatra, comprising introduction, text and translation, Data Paper 32, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University,1958.
  • The Gift Addressed to the Spirit of the Prophet, Oriental Monographs no.1, Australian National University, 1965.
  • Mochtar Lubis, trans. A.H. Johns, A Road with No End, London: Hutchinson, 1968.
  • with Y. Johns and Richard Woldendorp, Indonesia, Thomas Nelson (Australia), 1972.
  • Cultural Options and the Role of Tradition: A Collection of Essays on Modern Indonesian and malaysian Literature Canberra: ANU Press for Faculty of Asian Studies, 1981.
  • ed., with R. Israeli, Islam in Asia, Vol. II: Islam in Southeast and East Asia, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984.


  1. Anthony Reid, ‘Anthony Hearle Johns: A Vocation,’ in Islam: Essays on Scripture, Thought and Society, ed. Peter Riddell and Tony Street (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp.xix-xxiv
  2. Yohanni Johns, Bahasa Indonesia: Langkah Baru, a new approach, Faculty of Asian Studies, ANU, 1975
  3. 'The novel as a Guide to Indonesian Social History', BKI 115:3 (1959); 'Indonesian Literature and Social Upheaval', Australian Outlook 13 (1959); 'Towards a Modern Indonesian Literature,' Meanjin 4 (1960)
  4. Johns, 'The Genesis of a Modern Literature', in Indonesia, ed. Ruth McVey (Southeast Asia Studies Program, Yale University, 1963; Johns, 'Indonesia and Malaysia', Encyclopedia of World Literature, Cassels New Edition, 1973.
  5. Mochtar Lubis, A Road with No End, trans. A.H. Johns, London: Hutchinson, 1968
  6. Johns 1991 cited in Reid,‘Anthony Hearle Johns: A Vocation,’ p.xxxi

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