Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Obama Election Prompts Question: Can It Happen Here?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Obama Election Prompts Question: Can It Happen Here?

Article excerpt

BARACK OBAMA'S election was greeted with excitement in much of Southeast and East Asia. In every country, there has been speculation about what an Obama presidency will mean. Above all, there are hopes that the new president will come up with policies that can stem the tide of bad economic news-but in addition, each country looks to its own particular interests.

Indonesians followed the election campaign very closely. That Obama lived for four years in the country with his mother and Indonesian stepfather is known by everyone. People were impressed to hear that he could still manage conversation in their national language. Anyone with a recollection of encountering Obama as a boy in Indonesia has been interviewed at length. The current owner of the house where he lived held off redeveloping it until the election result came out: would it be a bar or a museum?

Certainly, no previous U.S. president has had such personal connections with Indonesia, and there are hopes that this could promote closer relations between the countries. Perhaps it will make a difference in how much interest the new administration takes in Indonesia. More important for relations with Washington, however, has been the political evolution of Indonesia. The withdrawal from Timor Leste, a peace settlement in Aceh, the development of democratic life, including free elections and an outspoken and varied press, have made Indonesia a much more congenial partner for a Democrat administration than it was during the Clinton years, when the country either lived under dictatorship or was still at an early stage of struggling to emerge from under the shadow it cast.

How well goodwill would survive an unwavering continuation of past U.S. administrations' strong support for Israel is open to question. If Binyamin Netanyahu emerges as the victor in Israel's upcoming general election and is indulged while he expands settlements and heaps further hardships on the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and domination, it will not be taken well. Muslims in the region who pay close attention to the news were disturbed to see that one of Obama's first appointments was of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. Emanuel volunteered to serve in the Israeli army during the 1991 Gulf war and remains a zealous supporter of Israel.

In Singapore and Malaysia, Obama's election prompted discussion about whether members of minority communities would stand any chance of being elected to their countries' most powerful positions. In predominantly Chinese Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented that it was possible that a non-Chinese would become prime minister one day, but that he did not think it would happen soon. Online polls were less hopeful. When Stomp, the Straits Times' online Web site, asked whether Singapore was ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, 477 respondents said "No" and only 40 answered "Yes."

In Malaysia, the U.S. election result coincided with a debate about government policies that openly favor one community over others. Malays make up just over 50 percent of the population, Chinese 25 percent, Indians seven percent, and other nationalities the remainder. Most of these others are members of communities such as the Dyaks of Borneo and the Orang Asli of the interior of the Malay peninsula.

Malaysia officially regards Malays and the ethnic groups that have been established in its territory for thousands of years as "bumiputras" ("sons of the soil"), who should be given preferential treatment over those who migrated to the country later-i. …

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