More on Obama in Indonesia

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An American with experience in Southeast Asia writes about the president's handling of the Indonesian language and an Indonesian crowd, as mentioned previously here. Worth reading as a complement to the recent narrative of the trip as another disappointment. The positive receptions for Obama in India or Indonesia do not change the significance of the failure to reach an expected trade agreement with Korea. But they're worth keeping in the balance as part of the record of the trip -- and judging whether, as described in many stories, Obama has completely dimmed as an international figure. The reader says:

>>What a performance this was. I can't remember a President making a personal connection with a foreign audience so naturally and with so much grace. The substance of the speech was remarkably on point and subtly conscious of the Indonesian political context (see, for example, the section beginning around minute 16). The personal touches could have come from no other American politician; they were all Obama. I was much more impressed by this speech than I have been by many Obama has made to domestic audiences that received high praise when they were made.

Obama had an ally in the Indonesian language, which rewards short periods of intense study. I well remember starting from scratch with Bahasa Indonesia in Bali during my backpacking period years ago, and emerging six weeks later in Medan able to handle myself in common situations in restaurants, bus stations and the like. As in most countries, of course, the effort made drew appreciative notice, but after leaving Indonesia for Bangkok I made the same effort with Thai and got absolutely nowhere.

I was thinking while listening to the Jakarta speech about the FSOs [Foreign Service Officers] we have working for us in Indonesia, for whom a Presidential visit must be a source of some apprehension. In their position, one would hope a visiting President would at least not make their jobs any harder, and might through words and gestures generate the kind of goodwill that opens the odd door here and there. Those folks must be just flying today.<<

The part starting at around minute 16 was a subtle but firm comment on Indonesia's great historic problem -- corruption and cronyism, at its height in the Suharto era -- but also on the current apparent success of the Chinese developmental model, which makes a controlled society seem economically efficient. The latter point will be argued and tested for many years, but Obama did make the "democracy is ultimately more powerful" case.

Update: another note just in on the same topic, making an interesting language point. A reader with experience outside the US writes:

>>If I can just make one brief point about Obama's pronunciation skills. This is something that I've found extraordinarily impressive about the man. I'm fairly certain that he's the only American-born politician who insists on pronouncing Pakistan and Taliban properly (Taleeb-awn) and he manages to do it in a way that doesn't sound affected.

He also pronounces Sonia Sotomayor's name properly, but in the same way as he did "Indonesia" in the speech. He says it properly the first time, and then, knowing that English doesn't flow properly with some foreign languages, he reverts back to the anglicized version for the remainder of the speech.

It's almost a microcosm of him (respectful, thoughtful and then quickly pragmatic).<<

You can hear the "local" pronunciation of Indonesia, with an obviously different "e" sound and a subtly different "s" sound, ten seconds into Obama's Jakarta speech, and then the anglicized versions thereafter.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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