February 03, 2007


The Menteng kid in U.S. presidential race

Opinion News - Saturday, February 03, 2007

Soeryo Winoto, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

This is surely a first -- the U.S. presidential campaign relates on a personal level to Indonesians.

That is because one of the candidates, Barrack Obama, a Democrat, attended a state elementary school in Menteng, Central Jakarta.

The school, SDN Menteng 01, or SDN Besuki as it was called when Obama was a student, is located on Jl. Besuki in Menteng, a prestigious residential area.

Media reports in the U.S. that it was a radical Islamic school or madrassa led the international and local media to check on the school, much to the bemusement of locals -- for the mere acronym SDN points to a secular state-owned institution. Such state elementary schools accept students of all religions, as the principal told the media.

But Obama's old school is a little bit different from other state elementary schools in Jakarta because of its location. Menteng was well-known for being posh back when other current prestigious residential areas like Kebayoran Baru had not yet been established. Menteng is still to this day an exclusive area, home to many diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, high-ranking government officials and military generals.

SDN Menteng 01 counts among its graduates the grandchildren of former president Soeharto and vice presidents Try Sutrisno and Hamzah Haz.

Jakartans in the 1960s were not worried about radicalism in their midst, which makes the reports from the U.S. even more ridiculous.

People here do understand, however, the sensitivities in the U.S. today regarding "radical Islam".

Still, many people here are likely to believe the reports originated from a group of Americans always keen to spread groundless paranoia against anything related to Islam, especially when it comes to politics. The allegation against Obama is also evidence that many Americans do not know much about Indonesia.

For locals it is no wonder that Obama's family enrolled him in such a state school if they could not afford the international schools that most expatriate children attend.

While Obama's involvement may give the U.S. elections a personal touch for Indonesians, whether or not he wins really won't make a difference in their daily lives; they are busy just dealing with bird flu, dengue and flooding.

Still, that doesn't dampen the pride many here feel that a man with an Indonesian background (although he was "one of our own" for just two years) has announced he is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Pos Kota, a well circulated Jakarta-based daily, expressed exactly this sentiment. It ran a story, titled Bocah Menteng Calon Presiden AS (A Menteng kid a U.S. presidential hopeful) in its Jan. 22 edition.

Thanks to the allegations against Obama, SDN Menteng 01 itself is now much more well known. Principal Kuswadijanto says he has been busy with visitors from the international media and the U.S. Embassy looking to interview school staff.

Obama's former schoolmates and teachers are undoubtedly proud of the achievements of little Barry Soetoro, as the boy called "curly eyelashes" was known in those days.

In the event that he wins, his former schoolmates and teachers at SDN Menteng might look forward to shaking hands with the new president of the United States -- who just like many of them, used to take food from vendors outside the school without paying until his parents came to settle the bill.