Back in July, Bill Poser noted that "Barack Obama is reported to speak Indonesian as result of the four years, from age six to age ten, that he spent in Indonesia." Bill asked for any evidence about Obama's competence in Indonesian. Since then, we've gotten some anecdotal reports about Obama's Indonesian (including from the President of Indonesia!), but we still don't know if his language skills rise above the basic conversational level.
On November 24, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known in Indonesia simply as SBY) had a telephone conversation with Obama. The conversation occurred when SBY was on his way back to Indonesia from Lima, Peru (site of the 2008 APEC summit) and his plane stopped in Seattle to refuel. As SBY later explained to reporters, during the six-minute conversation he congratulated Obama on his electoral victory and suggested that he visit Indonesia after the '09 APEC summit in Singapore.
SBY also told reporters about talking to Obama in Indonesian. Here's how the English-language Jakarta Post reported the news:
"He addressed me with, 'Apa Kabar Bapak President?' (How are you Mr. President?), in fluent Indonesian," Yudhoyono said.
Obama said he missed several local delicacies such as nasi goreng (fried rice), rambutan and bakso (meatball soup), he added.
Kompas, Indonesia's paper of record, supplied a more direct quote about Obama's yearning for Indonesian food: "Saya kangen nasi goreng, bakso, dan rambutan." Saya is the first-person singular pronoun and kangen is a verb for missing someone or something in a heartfelt, nostalgic way. Kangen is a rather colloquial word derived from Javanese (rindu would be a more formal synonym), and it's certainly the type of word that Obama could have picked up growing up in Jakarta with a Javanese stepfather. (His younger half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, has some proficiency in Indonesian, as I discussed here and here.) And having lived in Indonesia for a few years myself, I can speak from personal experience that nasi goreng, bakso, and rambutan are extremely credible food cravings.
We don't know anything else about the exchange between Obama and SBY, as the Indonesian president informed reporters about it via his plane's intercom (after touching down at Nagoya Airport in Japan) and there were presumably no follow-up questions. But if Obama takes SBY up on his offer, then we'll surely be hearing more stories about their Indonesian conversations. During the campaign, Obama had promised to "travel to a major Islamic forum" during his first 100 days in office, and some observers feel that Indonesia would be the logical destination. We'll have to wait and see.
We were tipped off about the Obama-SBY conversation by a helpful commenter on Bill's post (belying his handle, bloon, which is colloquial Indonesian for "stupid, crazy"). Another commenter, Peter Phwan, just left a note about his own personal interaction with Obama in Indonesian:
I met him during his early rally in San Francisco in September 7, 2007. Kemala Harris and women coalition were there to endorse him. This was the time where not all Americans knew who Obama was.
After delivering his speech, I came to the podium where many others flocked. I was very curious from early on after reading his books to try his Bahasa Indonesia. I speak Indonesian myself.
I just simply called "Mas Barry, apakabar?". Mas is a Indonesian word to use to call older brother. "Apakabar" is How are you?.
Sure enough, Mas Barry immediately looked at me with surprise (everybody spoke English and managed to shake hand with the superstar).
Then, almost no accent, Obama said, "Baik". (Baik means good, you say it like "bike").
I said, "Mas, saya dari Indonesia" (Mas, I am from Indonesia)
To my surprise, he asked me, "Dari mana?" (Where from).
And I said, "Saya dari Jakarta" (I am from Jakarta).
As you know, Obama could not stay too long around the podium. He had to go for another campaign.
It was indeed short conversatin. But I was happy and impressed after this conversation. Yes, the 44th President of United States speaks Bahasa Indonesia.
So now we know from two secondary sources that Obama has no problem giving and receiving the standard Indonesian greeting apa kabar? (lit., "what's the news?"). Obama's followup to Peter, dari mana? ("where are you from?") is also a routine pleasantry. I would characterize both of these conversations as "bus-stop Indonesian," and about what I would expect Obama to remember after all these years in the US.
I still share Bill Poser's doubt, however, that Obama would be able "to carry out political negotiations with Indonesian leaders in Indonesian, or even to understand discussions of topics like politics and technology in an Indonesian newspaper." But as far as I know he's never made any claims to that level of proficiency. When Obama does eventually make a trip to Indonesia, I'm sure that simply throwing out his conversational pleasantries will go a long way in the eyes of many Indonesians.
[Update, Jan. 23: We now have video evidence of Obama's proficiency in Indonesian small talk. See this post for details.]