Indonesia: Obama emphasises tolerance in first speech in Asia since leaving White House
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Indonesia: Obama emphasises tolerance in first speech in Asia since leaving White House

“MY TIME here made me cherish respect for people’s differences,” said the 44th President of the United States Barack Hussein Obama as he addressed a Indonesian crowd in his first speech in Asia since leaving the Oval Office.

Reflecting upon his childhood spent in Jakarta, Obama praised the megacity’s transformation since he spent several years there as a child in the 1960s, and emphasised the importance of fighting for democracy, tolerance and equality of economic opportunity.

“Rich religious diversity that is such an important piece of the fabric that holds Indonesia together,” he told an audience at the fourth Indonesian Diaspora Convention in Jakarta on Saturday.

“I don’t believe the future favours strongmen. I believe the future favours those who promote tolerance … who are open to differences and learn from everyone.”


Former US President Barack Obama addresses the Konvensi Diaspora Indonesia 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia, 1 July 2017. Source: Max Walden

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The world’s third largest democracy and largest Muslim-majority state, Indonesia has been grappling with rising religious intolerance and fears over crumbling pluralism culminating in the jailing of its Christian ex-governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy in May.

Prior to his imprisonment, Ahok was defeated by Muslim candidate Anies Baswedan in April’s runoff gubneratorial election. Anies has been criticised for garnering support from hardline Islamic groups and is perceived to have leveraged sectarian tensions during the campaign.

“If democracies tolerate leaders that organise around religion or ethnicity rather than universal principles, that can be dangerous,” said Obama.

The kid from Menteng

Obama, who as president had presided over a ‘pivot to Asia’ said in Jakarta he could see “enormous progress” which had “happened in part because of the stability that the US brought to the Asia Pacific.”

He met with Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the presidential palace in Bogor, West Java on Friday. In his address on Satuday, Obama said “I always found Jokowi to be a man of quiet but firm integrity, someone that sincerely wants to do what’s right for all Indonesians.”

The crowd responded gleefully when Obama rattled off some American-tinged Indonesian language, opening his address with terima kasih, selamat pagi meaning “thank you, good morning.”

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Local press have excitedly reported on the Obama family’s trip to the archipelago – from the fact he ate fried rice and satay chicken, to the brand and price of his sneakers.

When he left the White House in January, Indonesian media continued to refer to him as anak Menteng – the kid from Menteng.

“I have been eating a lot,” Obama said of his holiday in Indonesia. “Everywhere I go people shout at me ‘sate Obama! bakso, tempeh, nasi goreng Pak!’ Es cendol though … I have not had one. I still have a day.”


Former U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he visits Prambanan Temple in Sleman, Yogyakarta, Indonesia June 29, 2017. Source: Reuters/Pius Erlangga

Still work to do

Obama’s address on Saturday covered a wide range of topics, from social media and populism to terrorism and climate change. He said he had told Jokowi he decided to come to Indonesia on his first trip as a private citizen “because I really believe in the future of this country.”

Asia’s rapid growth, greater world peace and young people were all reasons for optimism said the former president, yet populist politics and extremist worldviews “turbocharged” by technology and social media threatened further progress worldwide.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: National mosque imam calls for interfaith dialogue, tolerance

“The spirit of this country has to be one of tolerance,” said Obama, praising Indonesia as “a Muslim country that gives women opportunities and does not suppress women.”

He urged Indonesians “to fight against the politics of us and them. I think we have to choose a better way to overcome our fears.” Obama noted that the Muslim nation presides over its ancient Buddhist and Hindu heritage in the form of cherishing and protecting the Borobudur and Prambanan temples near Yogyakarta that he visited earlier this week.

If it can avoid sectarian politics and continue to embrace pluralistic democracy, “then not only will Indonesia thrive, but it can serve as a model for [other Muslim] nations that I think will be finding their way for some time,” he said.

“Not everybody is going to agree on how to pray … if we can’t respect each other’s differences then humanity will not go far.”