President Obama and The First Lady came and went. As it turned out this extremely short but much awaited for visit left many memorable moments though some for reasons that are less than edifying. For the latter we can thank our infamous Minister of Communication and Information to steal the limelight when his little antic drew the attention of the Twitter world and spiralled out of control into the international media, capturing the imagination of satirists, comedians and porn stars alike and turning the guileless man into object of ridicule and derision.
Let’s be honest. He’s asking for it. Known for his aversion to skin-to-skin contact with women other than his many wives, his shaking of the First Lady’s hand aired on live TV drew many scathing comments from this side of the Twitter continent, with most pointing out his blatant hypocrisy. He doesn’t want to shake hands with Indonesian women but quite happy to shake hands with Michelle Obama?
You would think that the many past experiences of being crucified on Twitter would have taught the Minister to be more circumspect in employing his thumbs. But no. Anxious not to be seen as anything other than morally upright, Minister Tifatul detailed a helpful explanation on his Twitter that more or less lay the blame on the hapless Mrs Obama for extending her hand too far out so that it touched his, perhaps with the naïve hope that this would silence his critics.
Needless to say his response resonated beyond national borders and crossed the shores to the US, where it entered the mainstream media and became easy fodder for stand up comedians. Henceforth Indonesia became a country known not only for her Tsunamis, earthquakes, bombs, smiling terrorists and where people communicate by banging coconuts against a log, but also for having an a***** for a Minister.
To add insult to injury, one Vicky Vette, who described herself on Twitter as ‘Just a big boobed Norwegian hacking away a living on the internet’ complete with an equally evocative avatar, took a fancy to our man and offered him generous services should he come to visit the US. ‘Come to the USA & shake anything you want J ‘ goes one of her more fit to print Tweets to the Minister (and no doubt to the envy of many male Twitterers.)
Her latest Tweet to @tifsembiring, after hours of silence from our normally voracious Twitterer, has a somewhat wistful tone to it: ‘I don’t think there is gonna be a Tiffie handshake with a happy ending L.’ Still, Vicky could comfort herself with the thought that she has gathered quite a following in Indonesia.
Anyway, enough of the ridiculous, let’s go to the sublime: Which is President Obama’s speech at the University of Indonesia. After getting the coveted invitation to attend his lecture on the university’s campus I looked at the lengthy instructions handed out to those planning to attend. You couldn’t go to Depok with your private vehicles but must go by designated buses from Senayan that would leave at the crack of dawn. No bags were allowed although cameras and mobile phones were.
The thought of having to get up at four in the morning for a lecture that would take place around mid-morning gave me second thoughts. I checked with my sister to see if she was going. She replied she couldn’t go anywhere without her bag, so that was that.
As it was, I managed to drag myself to Senayan at five in the morning, got my name cross checked on the guest list, put on the Power Balance wrist band I had to wear to get on the bus and then we were off, witnessing the sun rise on the way.
The University of Indonesia campus in Depok was eerily quiet. It was closed to students, the general public and businesses. Entering the main hall there were security checks and body checks. Men and women in black with earpieces peeking out of one ear discretely roamed the area. We had to show our invitations and wristbands before entering the hall. More men in black strategically positioned, their eyes trained like hawks. It was like being in a Hollywood film.
The few hour wait for the arrival of President Obama went by quicker than I imagined. The University hall that could fit over five thousand people filled up in an orderly manner. No wonder those of us coming by buses from Senayan had to come extra early. We were privileged to occupy the front seats near the podium. I suddenly felt like an Obama groupie.
Ministers, the University Rector and other high officials sat behind us. Including former president Habibie who got a warm applause of appreciation by the audience and students in the room as he smiled, waved and took videos. Obama’s elementary school classmates came dressed in uniform batik shirts for the men and ethnic clothes for the women. The sense of anticipation was taking on the atmosphere of a rock concert waiting for the star to arrive.
By the time the man himself got on stage the audience rose to their feet to cheer and take pictures. President Obama had us at ‘Assalamualaikum dan salam sejahtera.’ When he said ‘Pulang kampung nih’ the love arrows were well in our hearts. By the time he got to ‘Indonesia bagian dari diri saya’ the audience went into a paroxysm of cheers. We lapped up every word, every smile, every look, every tone of voice and every wave of the hand like adoring fans.
It was a rare treat for Indonesians to be made to feel special, appreciated, honoured and cared for by a leader in a manner that roused our romantic and sentimental side.
President Obama left the room to the cries of ‘We love you Barry!’