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Does Obama really speak Bahasa?

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18 February 2008 12:40

Uberblogger Andrew Sullivan has been soliciting global reactions to the US presidential primaries, and on the weekend he published a letter from an Australian reader, who said this:

Keep in mind that Australia is also very much a part of Asia. The woman who sits next to me is Indonesian. Everyday with excitement and great anticipation, she asks me how Obama is doing. She says Indonesia loves him - this, the world's largest Muslim nation, and Australia's closest neighbor. Not only does she think that Obama would be good for America, but she's convinced that Obama will be very good for her country. She very much hopes that Obama will one day visit Indonesia and address them in their tongue.  What better way to win favour with the Muslim world than elect as our leader someone who can so easily bridge such a troublesome cultural and political divide.

Obama lived in Indonesia from ages 6 to 10, when it is said he learned the language. But his teacher says he struggled with the language. And I can speak from personal experience when I say that, although it is easy to pick up a language at that age, it is also easy to forget it unless it gets regular use. So I'm wary when Time magazine says Obama's Bahasa is 'passable', because that could mean almost anything.

But let's assume its true. Does it matter? My colleague Hugh White has emphasised Prime Minister's Rudd's command of Mandarin as not only an important historical marker but a potential strategic factor in our relationship with China. I wonder what he would make of an American president who speaks Bahasa?

There wouldn't be a sea change in American policy as a result, but you'd think it would be good news for us if it brought the two countries closer. Then again, the Australian foreign policy community was very excited when it was announced President Bush's foreign policy team would contain  former US ambassador to Jakarta Paul Wolfowitz. But did that help our relationship with Indonesia in a material way?

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