RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Both U.S. presidential candidates have formative experiences in Southeast Asia four decades ago. John McCain's plane was shot down in Vietnam during the war, and he spent more than five years as a prisoner. Last month, Morning Edition reported on how the U.S. campaign is playing in Vietnam. Turns out, McCain has many admirers there. This morning we visit Indonesia where Barack Obama went to elementary school. Among many Indonesians, America's image has been tarnished by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Jakarta, Indonesians have a soft spot for Obama.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Adang, just one name, is a little tired of reporters coming to his school in Menteng expecting an Islamic boarding school and evidence of Barack Obama's secret Muslim identity, an image encouraged by some of Obama's political opponents in the U.S. Not true, the security guard says as he leads me through the halls to the courtyard of the school.
ADANG (Security Guard, Public School No. 1, Menteng, Jakarta, Indonesia): (Indonesian spoken)
SULLIVAN: He points to Obama's third and fourth-grade classrooms and says patiently that this is not an Islamic school. Yes, we have a mosque, he says, but at prayer time there are rooms for Christians and Buddhists to pray in too. Public School No. 1, Menteng, is actually among the city's finest, in one of Jakarta's most exclusive neighborhoods, home to many of Indonesia's business and political elite.
ADANG: (Indonesian spoken)
SULLIVAN: Adang says he wants Obama to win next month simply because he's an alum. It would be good for the school's image, he says, if we can say that the president of the United States studied here too.
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SULLIVAN: About a mile away, a more nuanced perspective from an unlikely source: a shopkeeper who lives literally on the wrong side of the tracks in the shadows of the gleaming new malls and high-rise condominiums sprouting here like mushrooms. In his memoir, Barak Obama writes about his mother's despair at the level of poverty here nearly 40 years ago. Shopkeeper Probowo says the gap between rich and poor still exists. If anything, he says, it's getting worse. Probowo says he's been following the U.S. presidential race closely on TV and in the newspaper.
PROBOWO (Indonesian Shopkeeper): (Indonesian spoken)
SULLIVAN: The U.S. is a great superpower, and U.S. policy is felt throughout the world, Probowo says. I like Barack Obama not because he lived in Jakarta, but because I believe he can help change America's image, especially in the Muslim world. If John McCain becomes president, Probowo says, I don't see things improving in Iraq or elsewhere. But Obama says he'll stop the war. And that, the shopkeeper says, will be a good thing for everyone. Probowo is Muslim, but says he doesn't care that Obama is Christian. Religion isn't relevant, he says. What matters is how Obama looks at the world and his ability to shape America's foreign policy for the better.
But for others, religion does matter. Habib Muchsin chairs the advisory board of the Islamic Defenders Front, the self-appointed morality police whose attacks on bars, restaurants, and minority groups smacks of Afghanistan's Taliban and their Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Habib Muchsin doesn't care much for George Bush, has no opinion about John McCain, but believes Barack Obama may do better by Muslims worldwide for having had a Muslim father and living for a time in a Muslim culture.
Mr. HABIB MUCHSIN (Chairman of the Advisory Board, Islamic Defenders Front, Indonesia): (Indonesian spoken)
SULLIVAN: He may be a Christian, but he's not a fundamentalist Christian like George Bush, Muchsin says. And hopefully, Obama can make U.S. foreign policy a bit softer. He's a nonbeliever, yes, but that doesn't mean we should be suspicious of him. And I believe his time spent here, Muchsin says, will help him understand Muslims better than his opponent.
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SULLIVAN: Back in affluent Menteng, not far from Obama's former school, Rizal Mallaranggeng is hoping for an Obama win, too. Rizal is 43 and is also running for president in Indonesia next April. He says he's got nothing against John McCain, but in Obama he sees a kindred spirit.
Mr. RIZAL MALLARANGGENG (Indonesian Presidential Candidate): It will be positive for me and for the younger generation in Indonesia. It will not make us win the election, but it will create some kind of opening momentum. Small momentum perhaps, but it will be useful. We can say, hey, guys, we also need change here. We also need new blood here. We also need new spirits here. So it's useful for us.
SULLIVAN: New blood is good, he says, both in well-established democracies like America's and in newly established democracies like Indonesia's too. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Jakarta.
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MONTAGNE: And if you'd like to hear Michael's other report on John McCain in Vietnam, go to npr.org.