Vale Dr James Scambary

James Scambary (Rinha Leite)
James Scambary (Rinha Leite)

Every few days, as part of a WhatsApp group of friends I would receive a message like this from James Scambary:

I love this sentence from the latest early warning report: “PNTL (East Timorese police) arrived swiftly at the location, pursued the perpetrators, tried unsuccessfully at shooting them.” All those police reform programs are really working!

Our back and forth would reflect shared affection for our once island home, an interest in the world in all its fullness, as well as drollery about the ironies and incongruities of parts of international development. The last conversation we shared revolved around an idea for a coffee table book about 101 great MoU signing ceremonies. We were fascinated by such jamborees, always curious about what happened after the ink dried and lunch catering was cleared away.

I’m not going to get more such messages. I’m never again going to get the two blue WhatsApp ticks to show he’s read what we said or see on top of my phone screen that James is typing out a reply that would be wry, erudite, considered, sometimes provocative, pointing me to literature of which I wasn’t aware, poets to read that would explain the human condition.

James passed away in Melbourne earlier this week after a short illness. He was 59 and, at time of his death, working as a lecturer at RMIT.

I will miss James terribly. From the outpouring of grief on social media and messaging platforms, it is clear many others will too. To borrow from something by WB Yeats, the world these days feels more full of weeping than I can understand.

James’ early working life saw him earn a living as a first-class welder in oil refineries and other industrial projects, while pursuing justice through an active role in the Australian Metal Workers Union. This was not something that he left behind when he later pursued an academic and development practitioner path. Until very recently, when times were lean, James would ‘go back on the tools’.

After completing two BAs majoring in anthropology, broadcast journalism, and political economy, and running a radio show in Melbourne on international politics, Africa and development, he came to Timor-Leste in 2003 as a volunteer helping set up a network of community radio stations.

Typical of James, he started on the margins. His first job was as trainer for Radio Communidade Lospalos, in the far east of country. He then moved into various roles, working as a researcher for a range of organisations including Catholic Relief Services and the Social Science Research Council in New York. In all his assignments, he brought his unique bottom-up view of Timor-Leste to many around the world stuck in their cubicles. We’d work together on a number of the projects over the years for The Asia Foundation and the World Bank. I was privileged to help supervise his doctoral research that emerged in part from these consultancies.

James will be best remembered for his extensive body of top-notch scholarship that excavated the micro-dynamics of conflict, order and state formation in Timor-Leste.

His research emerged from early immersion within the lived realities of the country. In those early days, he was a penurious volunteer, unable to afford the highlife in expatriate housing, and for a couple of years he resided in one of the squatter communities that make up the mosaic of the city of Dili. Communicating primarily in Tetun, he would spend days and nights drinking strong coffee and lukewarm beer, quietly conversing and listening. His proficiency as a soccer player was an undoubted plus in this soccer-mad country. He respected the faith placed in him, and his preferred method of inquiry was to gather up the stories that illustrated the highly localised cultural, historical, social and political factors that generated flare-ups of conflict. In these narratives, the anthropologist in him would find patterns and understandings that eluded most malae (foreigners). His ground-level vantage meant he was one of the few outsiders to predict the social-political crisis that engulfed the capital in 2006, when the dominant talking point was that of a state-building project successfully completed.

His work was critical in a number of senses. He did not stint in laying out how fly-in fly-out academics and consultants focused too much on meniscus issues like UN-led statebuilding and too little on what sat underneath. He faulted academic writing for building up a version of reality that made it appear Timor-Leste’s challenges were receptive to technical solutions. He despaired at the hubris and naiveté of the “let’s sign an MoU/launch a survey/carry out a GESI training and tweet about it” school of aid. This was not cynicism. It was passion and principle that development be done smart and benefit the people to whom all this activity was ostensibly for.

His work was also critical in the much more important sense that it involved the objective analysis and evaluation of issues in order to form nuanced and informed judgement. His research eschews simple explanations. It describes clearly the complex of social obligations and the relational and patronage networks that drive politics in the country. His analysis sometimes brought him castigation on social media but that bothered him less than it would me. He told me on one of the last times we spoke about how proud he was to have the Dili launch of his book Conflict, Identity and State Formation in East Timor 2000-2017 not in a hotel but a neighbourhood backyard. His Timorese friends presented him with a beautiful ‘lancamento livru’ (book launch) cake to mark the occasion. As his friend and fellow scholar Sara Niner has written, he supported many East Timorese students in quiet ways.

Lancamentu Livru (Gordon Peake)
James Scambary cutting the ‘lancamento livru’ cake

The last time I saw James in person was a sunny afternoon in Canberra last November. It was a day to cherish. We were launching this wonderful book of his, which emerged from his doctoral research.

My two boys joined me at the event, one wearing a T-shirt in the colours of East Timorese flag: red, yellow, black with a white star, symbolising the obscurantism that the country’s first leaders aspired that their new State would overcome. The other was in a rugby league shirt from Papua New Guinea, another place James knew well. As James was answering a question from the audience, I looked at them and a memory was triggered. It was something that my father said to all his children when we were young: “I don’t necessarily like you kids every minute of the day but know that I love you always.” It summed up perfectly the attitude James had towards Timor-Leste as well as his tireless efforts against obscurantist thinking wherever found.

James Scambary and the author's children (Gordon Peake)
James Scambary with Mateus Ivo Goncalves and Charles and Patrick Peake at the launch of book in Canberra (Gordon Peake)

James’s intellectual horizons were broad. Recently, his gaze was turning elsewhere, not only thinking about Timor-Leste and the Pacific but interested in extending his scholarship to Myanmar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The best way we can honour James is to continue with the inquisitive thinking and fearless-hearted scholarship that he so embodied.

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Gordon Peake

Gordon Peake is a writer, podcaster and consultant. His first book was an award-winning memoir of life in Timor-Leste, his second on the would-be nation of Bougainville. He hosts the University of Adelaide podcast ‘Statecraftiness’.


  • Thanks for a beautiful tribute Gordon, it captures well the James I knew. I worked at the Australian Embassy in Timor-Leste from 2015-18 and always looked forward to my chats with James. He was humble, interested, passionate, and knew the country and it’s people better than most other Malae I met. I’m sad to hear today of his passing.

  • A lovely tribute, I only met James once but cited his work often. He was one of those persons that many of us aspired to emulate. Rest In Peace.

  • Thank you Gordon for that very eloquent and moving tribute.
    I got to know James well while working with him on a project in Samoa two years ago, assisting the Government in the development of its first national security policy. I will miss greatly James’ humanity, breath of intellectual interests and insights, and his sense of humour.
    The leader of the project team in Samoa, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Agafili Shem Leo, says James will always be remembered in Samoa for his work on the national security policy, and has asked that his deepest condolences and those of the team be conveyed to James’ family.
    We were all very saddened by James’ passing. May he rest in peace .
    Tim George

  • This is a beautiful piece Gordon Peake, that really captures the James I knew… though it was James ‘the writer’ who was my friend. Spent many a night at the Dogs Bar passionately exchanging ideas on books and writing. He was yet to convert me to W.G. Sebald ! He loved cooking for people and we once ate a curry he’d mistakenly made out of roo meat he’d bought for the cat. It was delicious. I will miss his passion for opera, his desire to make right (or at least expose) what is wrong in this world, and his enduring friendship. My thoughts go out to his family. RIP lovely man 🌸

  • James was an outstanding colleague. His wry dissection of the vagaries of the Ministry of Finance FreeBalance system was a triumph of forensic scholarship. He had a neat way of enticing you into delving into an issue and an arcane knowledge and appreciation of Indonesian and Timorese political connections and the realities of Timorese political economy. He was always up for an adventure into some area one that was problematic and in charming his way through challenging moments. In addition his appreciation of Constructivist art was unsurpassed. I still recall his ‘rocket chair’ he built while living in Bario Pite, sliding with precision in the faulty generator lit evening.

  • For me, he is a very kind person. It was a very interesting job with him when he was doing a gang survey in Dili in 2006, at that time I was also working for a gang group in Dili for the Justice and Peace Commission, Diocese of Dili. Last time we did a great survey on the national election in Timor Leste in April 2017 and we found many interesting findings. He has high journalism instincts, he made topics interesting and in-depth analysis. Adeus comphaneiro, GBU.

  • Thank you for this touching tribute to James, a dear friend and colleague. I first met James 10 years ago when we worked at Swinburne together, and learned so much from him over the years. His kindness, wry humour, and unwavering sense of justice will stay with me always. As well as being a talented anthropologist of Timor and the Pacific, James also had many other passions including cinema, experimental music, welding, and — of course — soccer. His interests and experiences were enormously varied. I really admired how James could engage with people from all walks of life, and treated everyone with kindness and respect. My shelves are full of DVDs that he lent me over the years, and which I’ll treasure now. He was an incredibly funny and interesting person who touched many lives. We’ll miss him greatly.

  • Dear Gordon,
    Thankyou for such a lovely, generous tribute to James. I’m his older sister Anne, it means a great deal to our family that he was respected and appreciated by his colleagues. We mostly knew the family James, but were very proud of his achievements and the things he was trying to do.

    We will miss his humour, generosity, kindness and great capacity to encourage. We will miss his presence in our lives always.

    Anne Scambary

  • I didn’t know James well, but my office was two doors down from his at Deakin Waurn Ponds, and we had chats in the kitchen. He was a kind and friendly man. I’m shocked and saddened that this lovely man is gone. My condolences to his loved ones.

  • I had the privilege of working with James at Swinburne, on a project on policing and the Vietnamese community. He was so thoughtful and funny: slow to judgement and quick in analysis. A gentle, strong man with such integrity. My deep sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues.

  • He was always willing to share knowledge and advice and had a great dry sense of humour. A big inspiration during my time in Timor-Leste.

  • A very beautifully written piece Gordon! I’ve never met James though I’ve heard of his name around town. From reading this and his views on development and state-building practices in TL (of which I often wonder how much has improved today), I am certain that I would have greatly enjoyed knowing James and learn from his wealth of knowledge. May he rest in peace.

  • I played ⚽️ With James for many years at Caulfield Park. I’m Very sad to hear that he recently feel ill and passed away. He was a lovely interesting person who l would enjoy talking to about any subject from Liverpool FC to workers rights to world politics.

    Condolences to all his family and friends.

  • My favourite teacher i had the honour to be taught & guided by. Such a humble & decorated man, always looking out for us students. He would always go above & beyond. The passion that came along with his work was just inspiring, what an experience it was to learn many lessons & skills from James. This was a great read, definitely correct in saying the best way to honour him is to continue thinking like him, to continue his teachings. He was so very calm also, it was honestly inspiring. He gave actually gave a lot of over-time & effort to invest in us students, really loved going to his class every single time. So sad to hear this.

    Deeply saddened by the shocking & sudden news. I wish his family all the best during this hard time. Respect.

  • It is nice to know that James never forgot the Jumma People of Chittagong Hill Tracts. His humanity, courage, passion and tireless work helped Timor-Leste a lot. I hope one day his scholarship will be extended to CHT and political support will bring freedom for Jumma People.

  • So interesting to read as an older relative by marriage to his brother. I always enjoyed the moments we shared especially his quirky sense of humour. I am so sad for his close colleagues and of course his family.

  • Gordon
    I’m greatly saddened to hear about James. I knew him since we both worked together at GMH in 1981…and only a few weeks ago he rang me to say how he was looking forward to Leeds United being back in the Premier League after a 16 year absence. I am the Leeds supporter and James was for Liverpool. When Liverpool beat Leeds 4-3 at the weekend I thought of James and wanted to ring him to moan about a dodgy penalty. I wish I had.
    Soon after we met I pushed James toward doing an apprenticeship; I told him he would then be a part of the ‘aristocracy of Labour’ (Marx, I believe), otherwise he should get back to university because he had been given a chance to get well educated and he shouldn’t abuse that privilege by being on the production line at Holden. Eventually he did both.

    I miss him so much.

  • This was a lovely tribute to James, thank you Gordon. James only joined RMIT less than 2 years ago, and that’s when I got to know him as a fellow lecturer in the School of Management. Even in this short span of time, I’ve known him to be an erudite and passionate scholar, and always so well-spoken and kind. There is so much that I have yet to learn from and about him, and your post has let me learn a little bit more about James. Thank you.

  • Vale James Scambary.

    A friend that I did not know half as well as I would have liked.

    And did not share with him half of the friendship as I should have.

    Arguably the best mind on community conflict dynamics in post independence Timor.
    A real gentlemen. He passed away two days ago in Melbourne.

    His writings:

    Thank you to Gordon for the wonderful write up on James and much of his contribution to all of our lives.

  • Gordon many thanks – A great tribute to a most impressive scholar and highly approachable person. I first became aware of James’ forensic and analytical skills when I read his analysis of the role of gangs in the 2006 conflict, which stood apart for its depth and understanding of the issues. In late 2017, his paper ‘The road to nowhere: the rise of a neo-patrimonialist state in East Timor’, which he gave me as a gallery proof, was a great help to me in trying to understand why a multi-faceted aid program I was reviewing was having limited impact, despite elements operating for many years.

    I hope we can organise a free online version of his recent political economy publications through ANU Press as a tribute and to give his work wider circulation in Timor-Leste and elsewhere.

  • That was lovely Gordon. Another thing I remember him saying was about International NGO Reports about Timor and being able to smell the air-conditioning coming off the pages because they were all written in offices and cafes in Dili rather than from visiting the districts.

    • James had his pulse on East – West sucos, asking probing questions about 1989-1994 underground resistance in Ambeno- Oekussi in between late night/ early morning euro 2004 matches. We shared a disappointment with actions, a slow motion car wreck, that Xanana and other parties took in their dealings with the (unfair) dismissal of disgruntled members of the army, Eastern – western resentments boosted by many sides of local politicos and subsequent political rivalry that arose between police units. Most of air con, cafe espresso, big $$$ consultants could only see the aftermath from their pampered perches in Dili, if they hadn’t just fled Timor. RIP

  • Nice piece Gordon. James was the only person I knew that could discuss the political economy of Timor-Leste as well as the technical intricacies of welding a 45′ 10″ pipe join in an oil refinery. I will miss him dearly.

  • Erudite as always, Gordon, you matched him parry for parry. Thanks for reminding us of James’ humanity in action. Shocked and unbelievably sad this week.

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