Obama’s Indonesia PR Push?

Barack Obama has done the country’s travel industry a big favor with his recent speech at the University of Indonesia.

Killian Murphy must be pretty confident in his Irish stew. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have dared to schedule a media day at his new pub in the trendy Jakarta district of Kemang on Tuesday—the very same day that US President Barack Obama was arriving in town on his highly-anticipated ‘homecoming’state visit.

But the stew passed muster among the journalists who tried it, as did the other pub grub and cold pints. While Murphy’s Irish Pub may just be the newest star on Jakarta’s international cuisine menu, its grand opening this week also serves as a reminder of what Indonesia is really about, even with Obama returning to the city where he spent four years as a child.

The country is very much misunderstood, and as such, feared. Largely propagated through the foreign media, Indonesia is often perceived as a dangerous place with natural disasters and radical Islamism. It doesn’t help that the foreign press frequently—and erroneously—call Indonesia ‘the world’s largest Muslim nation.’

Indonesia is not a Muslim nation. It’s a secular nation with approximately 190 million Muslims. That helps explain why Jakarta is one of the most exotic cities in Asia and businessmen like Murphy can open an ale house smack in the middle of it, and women are free to walk its streets in mini-skirts. The country is a G-20 member, has a booming economy and is the flavor of the month for foreign investors.

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Still, Indonesia gets less than 7 million tourists a year, compared to 26 million in neighboring Malaysia. There were great fears, therefore, that Obama was going to further advance the myth of Indonesia as a Southeast Asian version of Saudi Arabia in terms of radical Islam, religious intolerance and hard-line policies toward alcohol and women.

As he did in Cairo last year, Obama on Wednesday delivered a major speech at the University of Indonesia that was broadcast live globally. It was anticipated that this speech would be a repeat of Cairo, with Obama reaching out to the Muslim world. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

That’s because Indonesia is not part of the Muslim world, and it’s far more advanced in democracy, economy and women’s rights than it. Obama ran the risk of labeling Indonesia as something it’s not before a live global audience.

Instead, he did the best possible thing: he promoted Indonesia as a great place to visit, in which to invest and to learn more about. He noted the country’s secular tradition and religious tolerance, rightly comparing it to the United States.

‘Because Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, hundreds of languages and people from scores of regions and ethnic groups, my times here helped me appreciate the humanity of all people,’ Obama said.

The US president did more for Indonesia’s global image than the country’s hapless Ministry of Tourism or any Indonesian diplomat could ever do. Indonesia was in desperate need of some good publicity, and the former Jakarta schoolboy known here as ‘Barry’ delivered.

While he did speak of the frayed relations between the US and Muslim nations, and gave a rallying cry against Al Qaeda and violent extremism, the majority of Obama’s address was about Indonesia’s growing role in the world.

Now, if that can only translate into more tourists clad in flowery shirts, Obama will have truly repaid Indonesia the favor for his childhood adventures.