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Michael Aquino

No-Drama Obama: Do the President's Politics Have Roots in Indonesia?

By February 6, 2013

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A statue of Obama sits on a becak, a rickshaw commonly in use in Yogykakarta. The sculpture - by Indonesian artist Wilman Syahnur - can be found at Plaza Indonesia, a mall in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

One of my Facebook friends brought this to my attention: an essay suggesting that President Barack Obama's steadiness in the face of political turmoil may have foreign roots. No, not Kenya: Indonesia.

It was in Java where Obama learnt and adopted the cool, calm, unflappable personal and presidential style that has earned him the nickname 'No Drama Obama'. It's a genuinely Javan ideal.

Author Edward L. Fox suggests that Obama's critics are looking at the wrong corner of the globe. Distracted, perhaps, by the heavy emphasis on Africa within Obama's first book Dreams from my Father (compare rates), critics like Dinesh D'Souza latched onto Kenya as a touchstone of all the things they fear about the President, with accusations of "Marxism" and "anti-colonialism" flying thick and fast.

Fox suggests that in practice, Obama follows a precedent set in Indonesia, not in Kenya: citing the "great value the Javanese people place on maintaining a serene demeanour, harmonious social relations, and not appearing visibly angry", Fox notes that these are the social norms that Obama's mother - by then remarried to an Indonesian - inculcated in her son when they moved to Jakarta when he was a child.

This unflappable ideal - allegedly absorbed by Obama in his developing years - reaches its apogee in what Fox calls halus: a royal bearing which is "not just finely mannered, but implies a complete code of noble behaviour and conduct":

Halus is also the key characteristic of Javanese kingship, a tradition still followed by rulers of the modern state of Indonesia. During my period of study in Indonesia, I discovered that halus is the fundamental outward sign or proof of a ruler's legitimacy. The tradition is described in ancient Javanese literature and in studies by modern anthropologists. The spirit of the halus ruler must burn with a constant flame, that is without (any outward) turbulence.

You may find all this surprising, but the one surprise I appreciated the most in this essay was the information that Ann Dunham (Obama's mother, an economist who spent much of her working life in Indonesia) managed to pull some strings to spend a few years living in the Kraton of Yogyakarta. It's like finding out that the Indonesian President's mother had finished her M.A. thesis while living in Buckingham Palace.

Read the essay; whatever side of the political fence you're on, you'll find something to react strongly to. Personally I found the Obama-Ann Dunham-Kraton connection the most interesting one, inasmuch as I've visited the Kraton in Yogyakarta and understood its role as a preserver of high Javanese culture: the same culture that Mr. Fox believes shaped the President into the leader he is today.

February 7, 2013 at 8:53 pm
(1) steeve says:

Having worked in Jakarta for nearly two years now, and having had an Indonesian girlfriend->fiancee->wife (5 yrs together this april) who happens to be a business leader, I could certainly see some traits of the Javanese in the President. The more I think about the possibility of the President having an Indonesian disposition, the more it seems true based on my contact with Indonesians in their social context.
When mixed with the Asian need to save face, it makes for a very interesting place for a Western business leader to work. I would really like to know more about how the President relates to his Indonesian family and how Indonesian culture may influence his (daily) life.

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