She was born in Jakarta and attended Jakarta International School. And she happens to be the closest living relative to the 44th President of the United States.
Maya Soetoro-Ng is the 41-year-old maternal half-sister of Barack Obama. The siblings were bound together by their mother, social scientist Ann Dunham-Soetoro, who raised them both in Indonesia and Hawaii.
Maya last visited Jakarta in 2003, well before her famous brother began his march to the White House. The educator came home earlier this month on a mission for the East-West Center in Honolulu, where she lives with her husband Konrad and two children. In this exclusive to the Jakarta Globe and Metro TV, she talks about Indonesia’s schools, her brother’s re-election chances and returning to the land of her birth.
You haven’t been home in nine years, and you haven’t been home since your brother was elected. What were your thoughts and impressions coming in from the airport this time?
Well frankly, I didn’t recognize anything. The last time I was in Jakarta there were three hotels. So it was Hotel Indonesia, Mandarin and Borobudur, I think. So now there are just so many new buildings, there are so many streets that I think were not part of Jakarta then but have [since] expanded. But the energy is the same.
Your life’s work now involves education, and you visited schools on this trip. What jumped out at you from what you saw in and out of the classroom?
You could see that Islam in these schools, it’s not what many people believe it to be.
On the outside?
Right, on the outside. It’s not sort of insular and narrowly defined. So they were bringing in classes about democracy and working hard to think about civic engagement and the lives of women and rights of women. So these were very hopeful signs. And the children were gorgeous and loving. And the public school was highly competitive and very proud, but it did take a look at the whole child.
From your perspective in the US, what is the perception of Indonesia generally in terms of security, business and perhaps political stature?
Well, I would like for more Americans to know about Indonesia, and to have meaningful information. But in many places in the United States, you know the knowledge of Indonesia would require deliberate breaking down of boundaries and reaching out.
Or watching National Geographic specials. But your brother, of course, did a lot to help the perception and knowledge of this country.
Speaking of your brother — and I have to ask you this — he is in a tough re-election fight this year. How active are you going to be in the campaign this year?
I’m going to do my best this summer. I do have a job which limits my availability in the fall, but I will certainly endeavor to do my part. I would say that it’s very important that we Americans not become apathetic or complacent and that we try to discover the same vital and vigorous energy that ignited the nation four years ago.
How confident are you in him being re-elected?
I’m very confident. I have to be; there is simply no other choice.
In his first term, could you see examples or concrete situations where your brother’s background, including his four years in Indonesia, was a factor in his accomplishments or his words?
I think that Indonesia played a large part in making him understand that difference is not something that is hopeless. That there are going to be roads and pathways that are navigable, and that we have to keep working. I think that is something that not only our mother gave him, but Indonesia. This experience of having to negotiate with people here, and having to understand other worlds and cultures, and to continue to be loving. I think that his bridge-building tendencies which started with our mother were nourished and nurtured by Indonesia. I think that he has been a very good international figure who has elevated the United States, the image of the United States and the pride in the United States, especially in the international community.
Hawaii native Dalton Tanonaka is the anchor of Metro TV’s “Indonesia Now” program on Saturday mornings at 6:30 a.m., and host of “TalkIndonesia” on Sundays at 6:30 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.