Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Obama in Indonesia

Barack Obama visited Indonesia this week, returning for the first time to the country where he spent several years of his early childhood. He spent only 23 hours on the ground, but clearly made a positive impression in a nation in which he is very popular.

He gave an address at the University of Indonesia, in which he talked of his childhood in Jakarta, praised Indonesia's burgeoning democracy and affirmed the commonalities between the two countries. You can watch some of it below; the full 30 minute speech is easy enough to find if you want it.

He got a reception worthy of a rockstar, with rapturous applause particularly with his reminiscences of a young life in the Jakarta suburb of Menteng, buying satay and bakso (meatball soup) from street vendors. And his few phrases in Bahasa Indonesia went down a treat as well. His pronunciation is not perfect but it's pretty good. Check out the 2:35 mark - while speaking of his stepfather Lolo Soetoro, he actually rolls the R perfectly as an Indonesian would (a lot of non-Indonesians struggle with this).

It is this ability to connect with non-Western cultures that makes him extremely popular around the world, yet conversely it inspires only suspicion for a significant portion of American voters back home. That an American President can pronounce foreign names properly and attempt reach out to Muslim countries which could potentially be US enemies should be a great asset; yet it only provides further ammunition for those who insist on believing Obama to be a Muslim socialist Manchurian candidate.

Of course the President's trip was not all smiles and pats on the back.

Approximately 20,000 people, primarily from fundamentalist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir, gathered to protest Obama's presence in Indonesia, decrying the USA's unquestioning support of Israel and accusing him of oppressing Muslims.
For those Americans who think that Obama is hell-bent on introducing sharia law into the US, take note. Indonesia's Islamists obviously didn't get the "he's a Muslim" memo.

There was some other controversy as well, this time related to a handshake. Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring is known for his stringent Muslim beliefs, and has previously expressed his belief that men and women should not have any physical contact unless they are married or related. Tifatul was seen enthusiastically shaking the hand of Michelle Obama, but then later tweeted that he didn't want to; her hand was extended towards him and he reluctantly shook it to be polite. What a sacrifice for him to make!

You'd think Tifatul would have learned to stay off Twitter after the controversy that followed his extremely poor joke about gays and AIDS. But no. His tweet was picked up by international media and caused a minor stir. This is a little embarassing for Indonesia; most Indonesians have no problem at all with handshaking between the sexes, and thus would not wish to see themselves associated with narrow minds such as the Information Minister. But it also was no doubt met with glee from the anti-Obama brigade in the US who are keen to point out a diplomatic faux pas from a member of the first family. Of course, no blame can objectively be levelled at either of the Obamas. Sembiring was one of a number of people standing in line, and all the others happily shook hands with Michelle Obama. How was she to know that one among that group is an ultra-conservative who thinks a handshake is somehow sinful?

Sembiring, I think, does actually know that whatever one's beliefs, sometimes you have to compromise on them for the sake of politeness. This is something that most people understand instinctively, whatever their religion. But rather than admit this, he attempted to portray himself as remaining spiritually pure and thus implied that Michelle Obama virtually forced her sinful handshake upon him.

Malaysian-Indonesian blogger Unspun, who has a pretty good handle on these things, puts it rather nicely.

Well, what do you expect? As that sage of the human condition, Forrest Gump, would have put it: “Stupid is as stupid does.” When you put a Fool in the greeting lineup for a state guest the Fool will always act the Fool. The question that needs to be asked is what tomfoolery has prevented the President from firing Tif the Fool long ago, so that he would not grow up to be a national embarrassment as he has today.

In one fell stroke, he’s stolen the thunder from Obama and SBY, at least for the Twitterati of Indonesia.

The Colbert Report had an amusing take on it as well.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michelle Obama's Embarrassing Handshake
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

The US public pays almost no attention to Indonesia as it is, and when they do it's for this? Some people like Tifatul Sembiring need to realise that they represent more than just their own petty little agendas.


  1. Somehow, I see FoxNews taking this and using it as ammunition against him, or proof that he's not American.

  2. ^ Absolutely, Mel. The bit where he says "Pulang kampung ini", which basically means "I've come home to my village" will make great fodder for conspiracy theorists. Because no "Real American" would ever say something like that, surely.

  3. did you see this about an indonesian obama look alike?

  4. @ mirror:
    hadn't seen that particular article, but I posted on the guy last year: http://eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com/2009/04/obamas-indonesian-clone.html

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