Indonesia: What do they think of the "Menteng Kid" now?


JAKARTA, Indonesia — Elated when the United States inaugurated Barack Obama as its 44th president, Indonesians across the country threw lavish parties, complete with triumphant speeches — some of them broadcast live on American news stations.

(Watch as Indonesians muse on their former resident on year ago.)

But one year later, like in many other parts of the world, that initial excitement has faded while the Obama administration struggles to make good on several major campaign pledges.

To Indonesians, Obama was one of their own. He is called the “Menteng Kid,” after the neighborhood where he lived in Jakarta for four years as a child with his American mother and Indonesian stepfather and where he attended public school. When cameras caught Obama speaking basic Indonesian to a reporter on the campaign trail, this country erupted in glory.

It wasn’t just his Indonesian. Obama said all the right things. He talked about ending the war in Iraq and repairing the fractured relationship between Islam and the West. Indonesians, who represent the largest population of Muslims in the world, saw a potential ally, an American president who not only knew their language but knew their religion, their culture and their ideals.

“There was the emotion felt that an American president would have a significant personal attachment to our country because he grew up here. Also, his pledges, his promises and his speeches offered a new perspective from that of the Bush administration,” said Evan Laksmana, an expert in politics and international relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “This created an Obama euphoria.”

They couldn’t wait for him to visit.

Shortly after his inauguration, rumors fluttered that Obama would come to Jakarta on his first overseas trip. He went to London instead. Then they thought he’d come during his first hundred days. Or his first year. But he never came.

Obama canceled a scheduled visit last November during a trip to Asia, which included Singapore — only a short flight from Jakarta. He is now due in June.

“There is a closing window of opportunity for the Obama administration,” says Laksmana. “His popularity here is winding down.”

That waning popularity is perhaps best exemplified by the recent erection of a small, unassuming statue of the young Obama in one of the city’s few public parks, three blocks from where Obama attended elementary school between the ages of six and 10. Commissioned by a loose network of Indonesians and Americans with connections to Obama, who call themselves the Friends of Obama Foundation, the statue was meant to inspire Indonesian children to achieve their goals.

The statue portrays a 10-year-old Obama in shorts and a T-shirt with the Nobel Peace Prize hanging around his neck and a butterfly on his hand. A plaque reads: “The future belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams.”

But many Indonesians have reacted to the statue in the same way much of the world reacted to the new president receiving a Nobel Peace Prize.

“Obama has done nothing for Indonesia,” said Heru Nugroho, a Jakarta resident who organized a Facebook page demanding the removal of the statue. “We were so quick to worship him. But he hasn’t done anything yet. And what if he makes a decision that is harmful to Indonesia? It would be an embarrassment.”

Nugroho’s page has swelled to more than 60,000 members since the government unveiled the statue at the beginning of December. Conservatives in the United States took notice as well and set up their own Facebook page, which now numbers about 2,000.

Ron Mullers, a member of the Friends of Obama Foundation and a 35-year resident of Indonesia originally from Hawaii, where Obama was born, said he thought the negative reaction to the statue was only from a small group of agitators and didn’t reflect the general mood of the Indonesian public.

“You know, Obama hasn’t visited yet and I think people have started to forget about him. But when he does come here, I think he will be well-received. In fact, I think he will get a hero’s welcome,” he said.

The Indonesian public is easily swayed, says Laksmana, but they will expect something concrete from Obama, something more than just a visit and a trip down memory lane when he visits this summer. Indonesians, Laksmana said, will want to see results.

“They will expect an increase in economic or military assistance or an improvement in the overall relationship,” he said. “For Indonesians to rally around Obama like they did a year ago, they are going to want to see something significant from him.”

(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)