Indonesia responds to Obama's win: He's still our 'Menteng Kid'

Obama, who grew up in Indonesia, is seen as taking a softer approach to bilateral relations than his predecessor. The US 'pivot' to Asia also ensures continued attention, some say.

AP
Students hold a poster of President Obama as they watch the US election vote counting at SDN 01 Menteng elementary school where he once attended in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Nov. 7. Obama attended the school when he was a child while living in Indonesia.

Indonesians from all walks of life cheered President Obama’s US election victory on Wednesday, calling it another win for the "Menteng Kid," a reference to the neighborhood where he spent four years of his childhood.

Indonesians pleased with their country's consistent economic growth of more than 6 percent, rising wages, and rapidly expanding middle class said they hoped Obama would boost the global economy and further improve relations between the two countries with another term in office.

“I believe there will be a greater attention toward Asia, including Indonesia, for the benefit of the American economy,” says Aleksius Jemadu, the dean of International Relations at Pelita Harapan University. 

Indeed, analysts say Obama has helped put Indonesia on the global radar and has taken a softer approach to bilateral relations than he predecessor.

“[President] Bush only saw us as a frontline in the war on terror,” says Philips Vermonte, a lead analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. With concerns about how the US president will influence peace negotiations in the Middle East, he added, “Indonesians are more comfortable with an Obama presidency.”

Nardi, a sales and marketing manager at an American-style rib restaurant in Jakarta who only goes by one name, agrees. “We need someone to lead the world, to maintain peace. Since Obama has been president we have seen a good impact for the whole country.”

Out on Jakarta’s streets, drivers shouted "Obama" from their motorcycles and men perched on street corners explained how Barry, as he is known here, has a heart for their homeland.

“He was here before, he knows what it’s like,” says Hamli, a motorcycle taxi driver.

Most Indonesians have been strong supporters of Obama, who gained brownie points when he visited in 2010 and shared his love for Indonesian fried rice and meatball soup.

But in recent years, enthusiasm has waned. In Jakarta the US election has in many ways been overshadowed by the recent election of the country's own Obama-like governor, Joko Widodo.

“There was a much higher degree of enthusiasm the last time around, partially because it was an untried concept,” says Arian Ardie, chairman of Democrats Abroad, referring to the fact that a boy who grew up in Indonesia could be running for the US presidency. “Now that it’s been done, some of the uniqueness has rubbed off.”

Still, many Indonesians say the emotional connection hangs on. 

“With Obama, there’s a sentiment,” says Fadli Zon, the vice chairman of Gerindra, a local political party. He had gathered at a US embassy event that included a mock voting booth and informational sessions for university students about swing states. “I can see the shift in opinion between the Bush and Obama administrations,” Mr. Zon continues.

Ultimately, though, just how much of an impact Obama will have on Indonesia in the next four years remains to be seen.  Ilham Habibe, the son of former President B.J. Habibie, says,  "With Obama as head of government, it opens more doors. But the US also has interests that won't change no matter who is president."

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