Some of the luster of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s visit to New York faded earlier this week after he apparently fumbled a press conference at United Nations headquarters.
Yudhoyono backed out of a reception hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after the awkward incident on Wednesday, even though his presence had been confirmed by Indonesian officials, according to some delegates.
Instead, the President went directly to the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel, where he has been staying while in town for the General Assembly.
The incident began at a press conference on Wednesday featuring Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and UK Prime Minister David Cameron on stage to discuss the High-level Panel on Post-2015 Development Agenda, which the trio co-chair.
As the press conference proceeded, an apparently confused President did not respond to a question asked by a European radio reporter speaking in English.
When Yudhoyono failed to respond after the reporter repeated her question, an Indonesian interpreter rushed to the podium to translate for the President, making his way past a security guard who attempted to block him.
The reporter had asked Yudhoyono to elaborate on his call for an international instrument to ban blasphemy in the aftermath of violent riots following the distribution of the US-made anti-Muslim film Innocence of Muslims on the Internet.
“When you made a statement about the instrument, were you speaking specifically about anti-blasphemy? Could you elaborate a little bit more on that?” the reporter asked.
Yudhoyono, who speaks English, was silent, raising his eyebrows and turning his head in an apparent search for a translator.
When the question was repeated after several moments of silence, a still mute Yudhoyono looked to Sirleaf and Cameron, neither of whom aided the President.
The President was saved when the interpreter, at last, joined him at the podium.
Other Indonesian officials at the press conference might not have been able to aid the President due to the crowd of journalists.
Although the Foreign Ministry’s director-general for multilateral relations, Hasan Kleib, was near the podium, it was the interpreter, apparently spontaneously, who stepped in to aid the President.
Yudhoyono eventually answered the question, albeit in a less-than-pleased tone.
“I think your question is not closely connected to the message of this panel to prepare new global collaboration to combat poverty. I have made my statement in my speech delivered before the General Assembly on that matter. But we have to learn to work together in this world by respecting other beliefs, faiths, and religions,” Yudhoyono said.
Some foreign journalists made light of the incident when leaving the press conference. “Indonesian is really confusing,” one reporter said to the laughter of his colleagues.
Yudhoyono may have been reluctant to speak in English later in the day in a discussion with billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani and moderator Donald K. Emmerson.
All spoke, except Yudhoyono, who apparently hesitated to join the discussion, laughing only when the others panelists laughed.
The moderator was eager to ask Yudhoyono one question before concluding the discussion, which was unrelated to the press conference but about a topic that the President had presumably mastered: his role as a co-chair of the Post-2015 panel.
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