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Obama's Visit Can Inspire Indonesians

Indonesian schoolchildren display a book entitled Obama, Child of Menteng at Menteng primary school on Mar. 15, 2010. The book is based on interviews with people who knew the young Obama growing up in Jakarta in the late '60s. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Indonesian schoolchildren display a book entitled Obama, Child of Menteng at Menteng primary school on Mar. 15, 2010. The book is based on interviews with people who knew the young Obama growing up in Jakarta in the late '60s. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

By Wimar Witoelar

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 3, 2010

After months of waiting, Indonesia is at last getting ready for a sort-of homecoming by US President Barack Obama, who is returning to Jakarta for the first time in 39 years after spending four years of his childhood here.

It is a huge story that can be savored on many levels, with at least two striking perspectives. Here is a man from a multi-ethnic background, immersed during his youth into a totally local Third-World situation, and apparently not suffering because of it. In fact, his Indonesian experience is part of the mosaic of his intellectual growth, celebrated exquisitely in his book Dreams from My Father.

From another perspective, we witness America coming out of her darkest hour of global indignity. The tired superpower found hope in a leader who would never have been given a chance just a generation ago. Barack Hussein Obama was swept into office by a landslide in 2008, changing not just the presidency but also the US international image.

Still, these narratives are slightly sullied as Obama prepares for his return to Indonesia, planned for later this month. There have been disappointments on both sides, painful reality checks. The spring of democracy in Indonesia is giving way to a long hot summer of political acrimony. Even as our electoral system gains amazing strength and draws favourable response from across the world, the results are so mediocre as to seem counterproductive. Many in Indonesia are starting to doubt the efficacy of the democratic system. Some are beginning to see that through the years as Barack Obama grew up, his boyhood country has not really grown up.

One example was the irrational outbursts by fringe fanatics who opposed Obama's visit when it was initially planned in March. Sensationalist media glamorized imagined connections between the US and injustice in the Middle East—and even economic injustice in Indonesia. Ultranationalist rhetoric combined in an unpleasant mix with present-day animosities. Fortunately, as the revised schedule draws us closer to the historic visit, there has not been a recurrence of this acerbic reaction.

Obama's reality check back in the US has been well covered in the world media. His struggle to get health care reform passed cost him a substantial amount of political capital, with added damage from his inability to deliver on security-related promises such as closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and easing tensions in Iraq and Afghanistan. For those who do not believe in him, Obama has been reduced to an ordinary mortal.

But those who believe that change is coming to America—and the world—recognize that US politics is doing better than our version. The difference is that he leads by example. The hope that swept him to power will not fade as long as he stays consistent with his self-belief. He remains a tower of strength, integrity, and purpose. Because of this, Obama will not only survive but grow stronger.

It is opportune that his visit is to come at a time when both our nations need a reinforcement of hope. We are sure that his childhood years form a part of his ethical core, and the inspiration he draws from his days in Jakarta will be reciprocated by Indonesians who are inspired by a man who is, after all, the greatest success story of his old neighborhood and the schools he passed through while in Jakarta.

Wimar Witoelar, a columnist and talk show host in Indonesia, wrote this for Asia Society. He was previously chief spokesman for president Abdurrahman Wahid, who died last year.