Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Nov. 20, 2015) — The White House Office of the Press Secretary released the remarks of President Barack Obama, who spoke at the Young South East Asians Leaders Initiative on Friday afternoon at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hello, everybody! (Applause.) Everybody have a seat. Thank you so much. Well, good afternoon. This is a very good-looking group. (Laughter.) I want to thank Carrie for the introduction and your outstanding work to empower women in Singapore. Give Carrie a big round of applause. (Applause.) It is wonderful to be back in Malaysia. I want to thank everybody at Taylor’s University for hosting us. Give them a big round of applause. (Applause.) And I want to thank the government and the people of Malaysia for their hospitality and leadership this year in hosting ASEAN. Selamat petang. (Applause.)
I was just at the APEC Summit in the Philippines. (Applause.) The Philippines are in the house. (Applause.) So I just landed a few minutes ago and this is my first stop. Summits like APEC and ASEAN are important, and I meet with all these leaders and we take pictures and we talk about all kinds of things. So I don’t mind spending time with older folks — like me. (Laughter.) But one of the things that I love doing most on these trips is the time I spend with young people like you, because your energy and your idealism and your optimism — because that reflects the future and the promise of the ASEAN region.
I’m not going to give a long speech because this is a town hall and I want to spend most of my time in a conversation with you. I did one of these when I was here in K-L last year. Once again, what I really want to do is take your questions, have a conversation about your hopes and your ideas, how you see the future. But I do want to briefly explain why I believe a partnership with America is so important.
As you know, I’ve got a strong personal connection to Southeast Asia. I spent time as a young boy in Indonesia. (Applause.) Indonesia is in the house. (Applause.) My sister, Maya, is half-Indonesian — she was born in Jakarta. My mother spent years working in rural villages in this region, empowering women. And so the rich tradition of the Pacific — the food, the people — which I like the people and I really like the food — (laughter) — this is part of who I am and how I see the world.
But even if I didn’t have that special attachment, I would still know that the United States has to be a partner with Southeast Asia. It’s critical for our shared future. It’s home to so much of humanity, home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. And that’s a key focus of my foreign policy
— deepening engagement with nations and peoples in this region.
And we’ve been very successful over the last several years, making great strides. We’ve strengthened our alliances. We’ve deepened our partnerships with emerging countries and institutions like ASEAN. We recently negotiated the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership to grow our economies and support jobs in each of our countries. Together, we’re working to stand up for human rights and democracy. And I want to commend, in particular, the people of Myanmar for their participation in last week’s historic election. (Applause.) It’s another critical step in their transition to a more peaceful and prosperous and democratic Myanmar.
But as important as they are, security alliances and trade agreements are not enough. Governments and even businesses don’t have all the solutions. We’ve got to have a relationship that’s from the bottom up, not just from the top down, not just among the most wealthy or powerful, but also from ordinary people who are trying to give opportunity to everybody. And so that people-to-people relationship is what’s really important, and relationships between young people within the region and within the United States is what’s really important. Connecting with each other, understanding each other can have a profound impact
— whether it’s student exchange program or Yuna doing a duet with Usher.
Think about it. Here in the ASEAN region, 65 percent of the population is under 35 years old — 65 percent. That’s like 600 million people — that’s a lot of people. Young people like you are going to define the future of this region for decades to come. And thanks to technology and social media, you’re more connected to each other than ever before; you’re more connected to the world than ever before. I can barely keep up with you. I’ve got to get help from Malia and Sasha just to figure out how to use the phone. (Laughter.)
And perhaps more than any generation in human history, you have the power to change your communities and your countries and the world. And at a time when we face enormous global challenges — from the environment and climate change to empowering women, to income inequality and small business development — we have to have your talents and we have to have your skills.
Now, a lot of us have been thinking about the horrific attacks in Paris. And when you think about the terrible vision of those who carried out those attacks, and you contrast that with the young people who are represented here, who are building things, and helping each other, and creating businesses and opportunities for themselves and for others, and when you think about the incredible potential of ASEAN as a place of religious diversity and ethnic diversity — you can set an example, not just to stand up to violent extremism, but to build interfaith dialogue, promote tolerance, and to combine an appreciation of your own culture and traditions with the modern world.
And for all these reasons, two years ago, we launched YSEALI — the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative. And the goal is to empower young people like you with the skills and the resources and the networks so you can turn your ideas into action. And since then, our YSEALI Network has grown to more than 55,000 members across 10 ASEAN countries — we’re still growing. We’ve held nine regional exchanges. We’re offering workshops and online networking and hands-on training. We started a grant competition to support you as you work together across countries to tackle regional issues like climate change. I want to commend Malaysia for its new partnership with the Peace Corps to create a Malaysian volunteer corps that works in underserved communities in other ASEAN countries. That’s part of the spirit of YSEALI.
And as part of our YSEALI Fellowship, we’ve now welcomed more than 300 young people from across ASEAN to the United States, with another 200 who are coming in the next six months. So these Fellows study in American universities. They experience our state and local government. They work in our nonprofit sector. They intern in major U.S. companies. I welcomed some Fellows to the White House. And then they take these experiences home and they apply them to their communities. And they’re not just learning from the people that they’re working with in the United States — they’re learning from each other as part of network.
So they come back, they’re launching their own businesses. They’re advocating for an end to human trafficking, or expanding women’s rights, fighting corruption, promoting transparency and good governance. The point is, every day, the young men and women of YSEALI are making a difference across this region.
And just as important as the tools and the skills that you’re gaining is the connections that you’re creating, because as part of the YSEALI Network, you’re forging friendships that you’ll draw on for a lifetime. And you’re sharing ideas and learning from each other. Because when you’re trying to turn that idea into a business, or start a new civic organization, or even running for office, it helps to have people who understand the kind of change that you’re trying to make — and who you can go to for help and encouragement. And maybe they have some experiences that are relevant to what you’re trying to do. So as young people, you have to stand together.
And that’s why YSEALI is so important — because, of all the challenges and threats that the world faces, I am absolutely confident that young people like you — with your passion and drive and commitment — you can make a difference. And I know you will. You already are.
So before I open it up for questions, one of the things I want to do is just call on a few people who have been part of the YSEALI Network so they can give you just some examples of the great work that they’re doing. Also I want some of the older people here to hear about the wonderful things that YSEALI is doing. So I’ve got three individuals that I want to call on first, and then I’m just going to open it up and we’ll have a good conversation.
So, first, we’re going to have Htoo Kyaw Win from Burma who’s working on behalf of human rights and civil society organizations as part of the transition to democracy. (Applause.) Go ahead, please.
HTOO KYAW WIN: Thank you so much, Mr. President. It’s a pleasure for me. Over 10 years ago, I cannot imagine that I will be here now, because, as you know, Myanmar people have sustained the military regime for a long time. But after 2010 elections, as you know, a little transparency. So I joined — in 2013, I founded the Knowledge Society that is a publication house which focuses on the human rights and democracy issue. I am one of the editors of the Journal on Human Rights and Democracy. That is a journal of human rights in Myanmar after 2010. And then, last spring, I joined the YSEALI program — except to say that is the ACYPL program — the American Council of Young Political Progress. So I applied to the program. I was in Washington, D.C. I was walking in the Amnesty International — even I didn’t have — across the ASEAN country. But after I applied this program, I got now so many ASEAN countries, especially my friends from Indonesia, who always talk about their transition. And we, Myanmar people, always compare with the transitional period and democratization progress in Indonesia. We always talk about Indonesia. So I can learn some knowledge and ideas and experience from my friends in Indonesia. So that is why — YSEALI program inspire me too much, before and after very, very different for me.
So I do encourage you guys to look toward the future. And, by the way, I really thank you, Mr. President, because I noticed that actually one of your policies — engagement policy I admire most because you use this policy as a test in Myanmar — transparency and open to the democracy. Just now, recently, our historic and successful election has been. So that is one of the outcome of your engagement policy. And the other outcome is me and my friends from there, Myanmar.
One of my friends from here, he is actually a former political prisoner. He was sentenced to prison. He’s now studying in the Australian university. His subject is political science. Now, (inaudible) human rights. I am the chairperson of that. (Applause.)
Yes, thank you. My program just provided initiatives across the country. Now, I am working for promoting the human rights and democracy in Myanmar — not only Myanmar but also the world, especially the South Asian region. Thank you so much. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Fantastic. Well, thank you, Htoo Kyaw. That was an outstanding presentation. And we are feeling optimistic about what can happen in Myanmar, in part because of young people like you.
Next, we’ve got Choon Sian Choo from Malaysia who is training young people in entrepreneurship. (Applause.)
CHOON SIAN CHOO: Thank you, Mr. President. And it’s such an honor to be here. My name is Choon Sian from Malaysia, and I’m the founder of this youth development organization called LifeChamp. So, in Malaysia, we have the highest household debt in ASEAN. And our youth holding a massive (inaudible) and eventually, the result is seeking credit counseling. So what we do through our master program is to teach them to have good money habits, good money beliefs, teach them some money management skills, personal financial planning, and how to do that investment.
So YSEALI program has helped me tremendously in my endeavor. So, through YSEALI, I was flown to Washington, D.C. to participate in the global summit. I get to learn — I joined the financial inclusion track, which I got to learn from some of the world’s best minds on how I can structure the more effective financial education curriculum.
So, upon my return, I took the ideas and came back, and restructured my program, improved my curriculum. And eventually, YSEALI helped me to launch a series of campaigns and workshops nationwide to reach out to the underprivileged children and underprivileged students to teach them about to be more money-smart. And the other way we do is talk about entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, as well.
So I want to thank the President for such a marvelous initiative. And because of that, I learned and I benefitted. Thank you so much. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you.
So finally, we’ve got Chindavone Sanlath from Laos, who is dedicating herself to protecting the environment. Chindavone. (Applause.)
CHINDAVONE SANLATH: Thank you very much, Mr. President. I am very, very happy to be here today. I am Chindavone, a YSEALI alumni from Laos. I was born in one of the most remote parts of Laos. And my father passed away before I was born. And because of my background, I never thought that one day I would be able to help my community, to make some changes to my community. Because of YSEALI, now my thoughts changed.
Being a part of YSEALI expanded my thinking and enabled me to see the challenges facing my communities, and empowered me to be a part of the solution. I’m now working with a project called Forest Law Enforcement — which aims to promote legal timber trade and sustainable forest management. I have already been able to apply the lessons I learned in Montana to help improve forest management in Laos. YSEALI is my life-changing chapter. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. So you can tell, just talking to these young people, the incredible things that they’re already doing. I am wondering, was it cold in Montana? (Laughter.) Did you have a big coat?
CHINDAVONE SANLATH: No.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, when you were in Montana, did you have to wear a big coat? Or was it —
CHINDAVONE SANLATH: Oh, no, no —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was okay? You’re tough — because Montana is cold. (Laughter.) But maybe — I guess if it was in the summer, it was okay. It’s beautiful there.
But this just gives you some sense of the incredible work that’s already being done by so many of these young people.
So, with that, I want to open it up for questions, comments, ideas. Here’s what I’m going to do, though, is I’m going to call — I’m going to go boy, girl, boy, girl. That way we can make sure that it’s fair. I’m also going to take off my jacket because it’s a little warm. (Laughter.) And I know you may ask me some tough questions, so I want to — (applause) — okay, so let’s who’s going to go first.
I’m going to call this young lady right here, in the green. And if you can please introduce yourself first, and then the question or the comment.
Q Hi. Thank you, Mr. President. My name is Elizabeth and I’m from Indonesia.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hey, apa kabar?
Q (Speaks Indonesian.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Dari mana Jakarta?
Q Jakarta. (Applause.) Recently, you had a discussion about the role of the entrepreneurs to tackle climate change. So my question is basically — because some of us here are entrepreneurs. We are not yet political leaders, but we are entrepreneurs. So what is your expectation from entrepreneurs, young fellows, YSEALI for the climate change?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good.
Q And also —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes?
Q (Laughter.) For the upcoming U.N. climate change in Paris, whether you are optimistic the response of that.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: What kind of business do you want to start?
Q Now I’m in the energy and environment, so I —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Do you already have a business going, or you have an idea that you want to do?
Q Not yet. I have an idea about what to create.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Excellent. Okay.
Q Thank you.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. Well, first of all, I think that so many of the young people here understand why climate change is so important. The science is very clear that because of the carbon emissions that we send in, mostly from the use of fossil fuels — oil, gas, coal — the temperatures worldwide, on average, are getting higher. And that begins to change weather patterns. The oceans begin to get warmer. The ice in the Arctic begins to melt. And you get a feedback loop that as things get warmer that creates even more of a trend towards warming.
And if we don’t stop the amount of carbon that we send up, and we don’t find new ways of creating energy, then you’ll see the oceans rise, more extreme weather events, more drought, more flooding, bigger hurricanes, typhoons. And it could have a devastating effect on countries all around the world. And probably the biggest effect will be on poorer countries who don’t have as much infrastructure to protect themselves.
So this is not just an environmental issue, but it’s also a development issue. And once it starts, it’s hard to reverse. So this has to be one of our highest priorities, but it’s a hard issue to deal with because it doesn’t happen right away. It happens gradually. And so people always think, well, that’s something we don’t have to worry about now. But if we don’t get started now, it’s going to be too late.
So we have to be wise and think about the future. And young people especially, you have to care about this a lot, because if you don’t do anything about it, you’re the ones who are going to have to deal with it. I’ll be gone. But you’ll have to deal with it, and your children and your grandchildren.
So business has an important role to play in this because, first of all, a lot of the carbon pollution is created by industry for energy production, for electricity production, power plants, transportation. And one of the things that we’re trying to do is to encourage companies to both become more efficient so that they’re using less energy, which means that they can produce the same amount with less electricity or less oil or less gas. Also, transition to new energy forms, like solar or wind that are clean. And create, through research and development and new products, new ways of producing energy.
So when I was in the Philippines, I was with Jack Ma, who was the founder of Alibaba, and that’s a huge company that is really the leader in e-commerce in Asia. But I was also with a young woman who had just invented a lamp that could generate energy with sea water. So she could just take one cup of water and two tablets of salt, or take seawater potentially from the ocean, and it would create eight hours of light, instead of using kerosene. So she’s now trying to get funding to manufacture and distribute this lamp that she has created.
So business is going to be critical in dealing with climate change, because sometimes — especially in poor countries — people think, well, we don’t have to worry about the environment because first we have to develop and create businesses and become wealthier, and then we can worry later about the environment. But part of what I’m trying to persuade business is that you have start now, and there’s business opportunities — you can make money in clean energy, instead of using dirty energy.
And more and more businesses, I think, are beginning to realize that there’s no contradiction. And the same is true in countries as well. If you look at a country like China that has developed to fast, but now they can’t breathe in Beijing because the pollution can be so bad, and they’re starting to realize that if they want to sustain their development, they’ve got to start using different production models. And businesses can help to design new ways of manufacturing, new ways of developing energy. So we really want to encourage businesses to get involved, and they can make money doing it.
The most polluting industries are typically the old-fashioned industries, the old ways of doing business. I know that people here, for example, have been dealing with smoke from the peat fires that are coming over from Indonesia. Well, the palm oil industry, that’s not a high-value industry. I mean, that’s not something that’s going to develop a strong middle class and business opportunities over the long term. It’s just a classic extractive industry or commodity industry. And in the modern economy, you want to be inventing new products and services rather than just figuring out what you can take out of the ground. And so I’m encouraging both governments and businesses to start thinking about the opportunities of clean energy.
In Paris, our hope is to get all the countries to agree that they will set targets for reducing carbon emissions. It won’t be the same for every country. More developed countries, they should do more. Less developed, they don’t have to do as much because they haven’t contributed so much to carbon pollution. But everybody has to do something. And what we want to do is have each country try to create incentives for businesses, whether it’s tax breaks or investments in research so that businesses can work alongside communities to try to solve the problem. And I feel optimistic that we’ll get it done. It won’t be as strong initially as it needs to be eventually, but if we start now and everybody agrees that this is important and we don’t something, then I’m confident that we’ll be able to solve the problem. Okay? (Speaks Indonesian.) (Applause.)
All right. So it’s a young man’s turn. This young man in the blue tie right here. Yeah, you. Hold on one second.
Q So, good afternoon, Mr. President. My name is Alfeus (ph). I’m from Malaysia.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Did you say Elvis?
Q Sorry, no — not Elvis. Alfeus.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Alfeus, okay. Because I was thinking we had Elvis in the building. (Laughter.) Alfeus. That’s a cool name.
Q Thanks. The same as yours. (Laughter and applause.) So my fellow YSEALI cohorts and I are actually results of your vision, so thank you for that. And we’re very glad to have you hear with us talking about democracy and freedom of speech. Malaysia is currently embroiled in a political scandal. And its failed justice system can bring no rights. Therefore, as thankful as I am for this, I would like to take this opportunity to ask you for your assistance in raising this issue to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and encourage transparency and independence of operations — (applause) — for the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission, Public Accounts Committee, Bank Nagara, and all media organizations. So, thank you.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I will do it. (Laughter.) Now, I admit that I was going to do it anyway, but now that I hear it from you, I’m definitely going to do it. (Applause.) Now, keep in mind, the United States, we always have to be a little careful because we’re such a large country and we have a lot of influence, I think there are times sometimes when people say they don’t want us meddling in their internal affairs. And the United States has to have some humility because there have been times where we did the wrong thing. There have been times where we have problems in our own country. And so we will want to go tell other people what to do, but then back home we’re not always doing what we say we should do.
But I do believe that there are basic values that we all share. And one of those values is that countries work best when everybody has a voice that can be respected, and that the press is able to report on what is happening in current affairs, and people can organize politically peacefully to try to bring about change, and that there’s transparency and accountability. And when you look at which countries have done best in terms of development, typically over time, those countries that have some accountability and some measure of personal freedom tend to do better. And those countries that don’t, have more problems.
So whenever I meet in international forums, like APEC or AEAN, or whenever I meet with individual leaders, I try to encourage them to move more in the direction of transparency, accountability, to empower people so that they can participate in civil life. And I always want to be honest with people whenever I talk to folks, that that doesn’t mean that we don’t do business with countries sometimes just because we have shared security interests or economic interests. I have to meet with President Xi of China, even though I may not agree with the approach of his government towards human rights, because China is such a big country — and on something like climate change, if we don’t cooperate, then we won’t solve the problem.
There are occasions everywhere in the world where I will meet, and the United States has a relationship and cooperates with a country, even though their human rights record may not be good. But I want to assure you that in all of those meetings, we always raise these issues. And part of what we’re trying to do also is to create international support for these issues.
So one of the things that I did at the U.N., for example, was something call the Open Government Partnership. And the idea behind the Open Government Partnership is that every country each year makes a pledge for what they’re going to do to make themselves more accountable, more open, more transparent, to root out corruption. And not everybody starts out at the same place. But just by encouraging people to put out plans, even if they don’t always meet the plans right away, it raises the standards and the sights of people, and encourages people to aspire to improvements.
It’s just like democracy. When we were hearing about Myanmar, and they talked about Indonesia as an example — well, Indonesia, when I was living there as a child, was not a democracy. It was basically you had President Suharto and you had the military, and there weren’t elections every few years.
And it didn’t happen right away; the transition took some time. But as long as we keep on encouraging that kind of change, I think we really can make a difference.
Q Thank you.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. Good question. (Applause.)
That young lady right there. You. Yes, you. (Applause.)
Q Good afternoon, President Obama. Thank you for coming to the Philippines. So I’m a farmer and chairman of Agricultural Assistance, internationally. Actually, it is also a partner of U.S. Embassy Public Affairs in Manila. We are hoping to send four young fellows in the professional fellowship program. And we’re trying to make farming cool, smart, sexy and humane in the Philippines. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s nice.
Q Yes, because when I spoke in the World Economic Forum and I said let’s make farming sexy in front of our President in the Philippines and it became a headline, including a program about this. (Laughter.) We’ve been helping a lot of farmers in the Philippines and now including fishermen. And I know you have a garden in the White House by the First Lady, and thank the First Lady for that. It’s a common denominator, problem in ASEAN countries right now that our farmers are endangered species. They’re getting older — the average age is 57 years old. And there is a diminishing interest for the young people to be involved in agriculture.
And speaking of climate change, in connection to agriculture and, exponentially, building population, how do you see the importance of young people to be involved in not just food production but also for the stage —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think that’s a great question. (Applause.) A great question. So, first of all, although interest among young people in farming may be diminishing, if you look at the ASEAN countries, the majority of people are still making their living on the land, and you still have a lot of subsistence farming and small plots. And any country that is still in development stage has to focus on agriculture. That’s true in Africa. That’s true in Latin America. It’s true here in the ASEAN countries.
And it depends on the country, obviously, but typically, the first step is to help each farmer become more efficient. Because usually farmers are not — in poor countries, they’re usually not using all the agricultural technology that is available. And some of it is very simple, and some of it is very cheap, but they don’t have the information. So one of the things that we’re trying to do, through a program called Feed the Future, is to find farmers, work with countries to just give them basic seeds, irrigation practices, how do you improve your yields. And we’ve been able to see — because it’s starting at such a low point — farmers doubling their yields on the same amount of land without a lot of mechanization, without big capital expenditures.
Once they are able to increase production, then the next step is making sure that they get a fair price. And one of the things that’s been really interesting is the power of the Internet to empower farmers, because in most countries these days, even in rural areas, people have a cellphone. And so part of what we’re helping people to do is to find out what are the market prices for their products on a day-to-day basis on their cellphones so that they don’t get cheated. They know what it’s being sold — how much it’s being sold in the city, so now whoever the middleman is, they know that they should be asking for a certain price for their crops, and they can start planning in terms of how much grain, versus fruits and vegetables, or what have you, that they’re farming. And that can also increase their incomes, not just their production.
Once you do that, then they can start buying some — for example, one of the programs we’re seeing is an entire village sharing one tractor. It’s sort of like an Uber for farmers. (Laughter.) So instead of — it’s so expensive to buy an entire tractor, a lot of farmers can’t afford that, but if you set up a system where you can buy a tractor and then, essentially, they can rent that tractor or timeshare that tractor, now, suddenly, that also produces increased yields.
And then the next stage is to think about, okay, instead of just producing the product itself, can we also then do some of the processing? And you can start putting together cooperatives, for example, for food processing so that you’re moving up the value chain.
But the point is, is that when we start thinking about agriculture not just as subsistence but also how is it interacting with the market, how are you applying technology, now it starts looking kind of sexy — (laughter) — because you can actually — a young person can, instead of moving to the city, they can stay in their village and watch slowly their standards of living improve and begin to create small businesses, and the entire community can rise even as their own prospects improve.
And so this is something that we’re really going to try and focus on. And we’re working with governments, but also NGOs, to try to do as much of this work as possible.
But I think you’re raising an important point. We see this in the United States as well, that a lot of young people don’t think that farming is a high ambition. And we want to encourage people to recognize that working on the land is a wonderful and important thing. And if we’re going to feed enough people then we’ve got to have more farmers. And we’ve also got to make sure that they’re getting good terms on loans, because oftentimes what holds them back is just having enough capital, just a little bit of seed capital in order to be able to do what they need to do.
So, good luck. Keep up the great work. (Applause.)
All right, let’s see. Hold on. This young man in the purple shirt. That’s a nice-looking shirt. (Applause.) Now, why was everybody cheering for him? I mean, he does look nice in his purple shirt, but — (laughter.)
Q Thank you, President, and greetings. My name is Deng (ph). I’m from Cambodia. My question is, since many people have focused on a lot of high issue, I want to go low. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: How low are you going to go? (Laughter.)
Q I have no idea. So the question I want to ask you is that since yourself is aging to a very senior life — (laughter) —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s pretty low. (Laughter and applause.)
Q I’m sorry, President. (Laughter.) Okay, just go straight the question. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes.
Q So how do you see your kids and the young people, the young leaders as the — between the old people and the young people? Because from my society, the gap between the old and the young is very wide. So I want to see your perspective to what — what is your initiative and what is your will as a President, a person who see a lot of problems. So what do you want to see from young people like us in the future when you get old — (laughter) — I think you get my question, right?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I got your question. Sit down. (Laughter.) Well, the first thing I want from young people is to stop calling me old. (Laughter and applause.) Come on. You hurt my feelings. (Laughter.) Well, look, we all get old, it’s true. (Laughter.) And when I came into office I had no grey hair and now I have a lot. (Laughter.) Although I will tell you that I don’t dye my hair, and a lot of my fellow leaders do. (Laughter.) I’m just saying. (Applause.) I won’t say who. (Laughter.) But their barbers know, their hairdressers.
I think the most important thing for young people is that they’re not trapped in the past. And human progress is driven by looking at a problem with fresh eyes, with new eyes. And as you get older, what happens is, is that you just get in the habit of seeing the same thing and it becomes routine to you, normal. But when you’re young, you ask or question, well, why does it have to be this way? Why does my community have to be poor? Why do we have to have pollution in the air? Why do we treat women differently than men when it comes to being able to go to college and get an education? Why should we discriminate against a minority group in our country?
And that’s the power of young people, is asking why. Little kids, they naturally do that, right? When you talk to a four-year-old or a five-year-old, six-year-old, you tell them to do something — “Why?” “Why?” And sometimes, as parents, we try to say, “because I told you so.” (Laughter.) And we don’t want to talk about it, right? But that impulse to ask why is actually what drives human progress. That’s the reason that the steam engine was created. That’s the reason the Internet was created. That’s the reason that Martin Luther King was able to march and change America. That’s the reason that Gandhi was able to liberate India — is because they didn’t take for granted the way things are, but instead tried to dream about the way things could be.
And that’s the job of young people. Old people don’t do that because they’re comfortable or they’ve become resigned, or they become cynical, or they’re just tired, or they’re comfortable, and so they don’t ask those questions. But young people, you have to ask those questions.
Now, you then have to work. And one of the things that I always say to young people when I talk to them anywhere, including in the United States, one of the flaws of young people is you’re oftentimes impatient. And bringing about change, doing anything important typically takes time, and it’s hard work, and sometimes you’ll fail initially and you have to stay with it. And so you can’t give up. So if you’re asking the question, how am I going to — why not start a business for clean energy — well, you have to have an idea, you have to get capital, you have to have a business plan, you have to create the business. It may not work right away. You may get frustrated. If you’re trying to bring about political change, there may be a lot of risks if you’re trying to bring about political change in a place like Myanmar. Are you willing to take those risks? Are you willing to make sacrifices? What happens when it doesn’t work initially? Are you willing to then get back up and start again?
And that, I think, is the most important thing. Vision is important, but then you also have to have the persistence to keep working to make progress. And I always tell young people to have big dreams, but then also be willing to work for those dreams. It’s not going to come right away.
All right? Okay. (Applause.)
Yes, young lady right here.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. My name is Jocelyn and I’m from Malaysia. Last year I joined the YSEALI program in spring, and I spent five weeks in Washington, D.C. So we’ve been exposed to a lot of different political parties and we’ve been exposed to a lot of different nonprofit organizations — in the country. So my question for you today is what (inaudible) the United States of America as a developed country, and what advice would you give to potential young leaders in this region to avoid the pitfalls of challenges facing the U.S.?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that’s a great question. Look, the United States in many ways is better positioned than it has ever been for leadership in the 21st century. Our economy, after the crisis in 2007-2008, has recovered faster than almost any other country. And our economy is stronger than most other large, developed economies in the world. We are producing more energy than ever before, producing more clean energy than ever before. More young people are going to college than ever before. We have expanded health care through the program that I set up — Affordable Care Act. We have some of the best businesses in the world, incredible entrepreneurship, and we remain the leader in innovation and new ideas. And in the technology sector, obviously we continue to generate new ideas all the time.
But when you go to the United States, I think there are still some anxieties. And I would say that, number one, in the United States, there is a growing inequality that I think is a real problem not just for the United States but around the world. And some of this has to do with technology is replacing low-skilled jobs, and automation, and so it’s harder for people, if they don’t have good educations, to make a living. There’s more global competition — that’s putting pressure on middle-class families. And when people feel economic stress and inequality, then I think politics become harder because people are afraid for their futures and sometimes politics can become much more divided than it used to be.
Also what happens is when there’s more inequality, the people who are powerful can influence the political system to further reinforce their privilege, and it makes it harder for ordinary people to feel that they have influence on the political process. And so people become cynical.
Now, these are all problems that can be solved, and I’m confident we will eventually solve them. But right now, our political system does not work as well as it should. And what I would say to young leaders, what sort of pitfalls should you avoid, I would say, number one, it is very important to avoid any political system where money overwhelms ideas. And the United States politics process has become so expensive and it lasts so long, and even though I was successful at it, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars in television advertising and in all the things that go into a U.S. presidential campaign. But it’s also true for members of Congress. And when politicians have to raise so much money all the time, then they start listening a little bit more to the people who have money, as opposed to ordinary people.
And that I think is a danger that can be avoided by the system that you set up to make sure that campaigns are not reliant just on money. That’s something to avoid.
I think the second thing is to — politics in the United States increasingly is defined by personal attacks and saying very sensational things in the media. Now, that’s true for politics everywhere to some degree. But I think that for young leaders like you, as you get into politics, trying to focus on issues, and trying to debate people you disagree with without saying that they’re a terrible person — I think that’s something that you always have to watch out for.
Historically, in the United States, the issue of race has been very prominent. And that’s not unique to the United States; every country has some divisions — not every country, but many countries have divisions around racial or religious or ethnic differences. And the young people of YSEALI, I really hope that all of you are fighting against the kinds of attitudes where you organize political parties or you organize interest groups just around ethnic or racial or tribal lines. Because when you start doing that it’s very easy for people to start thinking that whoever is not part of my group is somehow less than me. And once that mindset comes in, that’s how violence happens. That’s how discrimination happens. And societies that are divided ethnically and racially are almost never successful over the long term.
Now, the United States, we’ve struggled with this for over 200 years, but it’s still an issue that comes up. And so I would guard against that here in your home countries. But the truth is, here in Southeast Asia, as everybody here knows, that same kind of tendency happens. I remember when I was growing up in Indonesia, every once in a while you would have riots against the Chinese Indonesians, even though they were part of the community. But somebody would start saying, “hey, those people, that’s a problem.” And you’d have stores burned down and people killed.
And right now, in Myanmar, one of the big challenges that’s going to have to be addressed is how ethnic groups are treated. The Rohingya, in Myanmar right now, are treated differently, even though they’ve been living there for generations. But there are a lot of people, because they’re of a different religious faith, they say those aren’t real — they’re not really part of our country. Well, once you start going down that line, then that’s a dangerous thing. So that’s part of the biggest advice that I would give, is to watch out for that.
If you look at what’s happening in the Middle East right now, those countries are in chaos, so many of them, because of this notion that somehow if somebody worships God differently than you, that they’re less than you. And people are slaughtered based on that idea. And the countries can’t grow. Businesses can’t start. So of all the things to guard against, I think that’s the biggest.
All right. (Applause.) I think I’ll call on this guy because I like his jacket. (Laughter.) That’s a sharp-looking
— here, hold on a second. Here, we got a microphone right behind you.
Q Hello, Mr. President. Thank you for this opportunity. So my colleagues and my friends already asked very high and low questions.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: This is a middle question. (Laughter.)
Q So I will ask a very simple personal question. So who is your most influential person in your life, and why? And does he or she reflect your current role?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hmm, that’s interesting. (Applause.) Well, the most influential person in my life was my mother, who
— she’s passed away now. She died young. She was a year younger than I am now when she passed away. She died of cancer. But she was somebody who grew up in the middle of America in a state called Kansas. My grandparents — her parents — were very ordinary middle-class, working-class people. They came from humble beginnings.
But somehow, at a very young age, she was very spirited and very adventurous. She was white, and she married a black man back in 1961, which is — at that time was against the law in some places in the United States. Even though they didn’t stay together, she then moved — remarried an Indonesian and came here to Southeast Asia. And initially just teaching English, but over time she became interested in how to help women in villages develop incomes. And so she spent most of her life in development work.
And she was a very kind person and a very loving person, and she believed that everybody was important. And so she would treat a very wealthy businessman the same as she’d treat a peasant farmer. And she tried to respect everybody. And she taught me that everybody has worth and everybody has a purpose. And so I think that the values that I have today — how I try to behave and how I try to treat people — is all based on those things that she taught me when I was young. And those are the same ideas and values that I try to teach to my daughters, even though they never had a chance to meet her. But hopefully I’ve passed on some of the same things to her. (Applause.)
Good, okay. All right, way in the back there. Yes, you.
Q Salamat datang, Mr. President.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Salamat datang.
Q My name is Wong (ph) and I’m from Malaysia. My question for you today is, you have two terms as President. As you wrap up your term, what would you consider the best part, and what were the parts you wish you could have carried out? Thank you. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay. Well, the most important things I did as President were the actions I took very early on to save the economy. Because when I came into office, not only was the U.S. economy on the road to a deep depression, but the global financial system was very fragile and could have broken down had we not taken some very important steps. I’m not saying that was the most fun part, but I’m saying that was the most important part.
I think that I take the most satisfaction from is the health care law that I passed, because today there are 17 million people who have health insurance that didn’t have it before. And we’re the only highly developed country in the world that doesn’t have a universal health care system where everybody has access to health insurance. And we still don’t have everybody getting health insurance, because the program that we set up, some politicians have blocked its full implementation in their states, and we have a complicated system of government. And the health care system generally, a lot of it is in the private sector, so it still leaves some people out.
But every day I meet people who come up and say, “You saved my life because, before, I didn’t have health insurance, and then I was able to get health insurance, and I was diagnosed with cancer. And if I hadn’t gone to a doctor, I would have never caught it in time.” So you feel good about that. And it was a hard fight. It was a big fight. And we got that done.
Since I’m an old man, as this guy says — (laughter) — one of the things I find is it gives me some perspective. So the things that were hard or I didn’t like, those fade in my memories. I don’t think them about them as much. I don’t have regrets. There are things I wish we could have gotten done.
For example, our system of immigration in America is broken right now. Historically, America — one of the great things about America is that we’re a nation of immigrants. If you walk down the street in Los Angeles or New York, or even in a small town in America, you don’t know exactly what an American looks like. An American can be African American, it can be an Irish American, it can be a Chinese American. But we’re all American. And that’s because we’re a country of people who came from everywhere. And that’s been our great strength.
Right now, we have a system where too many people have come, but they didn’t come with the right papers. Oftentimes it’s very hard for young people who want to immigrate to get approvals. And so we tried to streamline the system, but the other party so far has been very resistant to it. I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it will eventually get done. But we didn’t do everything that we could.
But one of the things that you learn — this is what comes from the perspective of age — is that you do what you can. And you’re never going to be completely satisfied with what you accomplish. And that’s why you have young people, so that — we leave you something to do. (Laughter.) Because if I had solved every problem, then you’d be bored and you’d have no reason to be part of YSEALI. (Applause.)
It’s a gentleman’s turn. This guy right here. Go ahead.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I’m from Myanmar. I’m a doctor and an entrepreneur myself. Being an entrepreneur you have to wear a lot of hats at the same time. You have to do management, you have to do financial, HR. When being the President of one of the most powerful nations of the world, how do you know when to stop yourself from juggling, and when do you know that you have to seek advice?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, what kind of business are you trying to start, or have started? Is it in the medical field?
Q No, it’s not. I call myself a multipotentialite.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay! Well, that’s a big word. (Laughter.) What does that mean?
Q It means that I have a lot of interests and I try to be good at everything I’m interested in.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay, well — so you’ve already started a business, though? What kind of business is it?
Q I’m trying to create a booking website, but I’m trying to — there’s a lot of mom-and-pop accommodations across Myanmar. But being late in technology, a lot of them are not tech-savvy. And I want to bring them online and —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Okay. So it would be a little bit like a Myanmar Airbnb.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I got you. Okay, that makes sense. It’s a great time to start businesses in Myanmar as things open up, because the potential for tourism there is really wonderful. It’s a beautiful country. And in some ways, the potential, if the development is planned to retain the beauty and the charm of the country, it could be really powerful. So good luck.
I will say, though, that one piece of advice is, don’t try to do everything — at least not all at once. It is true that as President I have to do a lot of things. And one of the interesting things about being President of the United States is that you’re not just President of the United States. If there are problems elsewhere, people still expect you to solve them, even though they’re not your country. And that’s part of the leadership and obligation and responsibility that we have as a powerful nation.
But I do find that I have to focus. Because if I’m trying to know everything and manage everything, then nothing gets done. So a couple of pieces of advice. One is, you have to continually decide, what are the things that are most important, and start with those. If you make a list, you have to prioritize what’s the thing that has to get done; what’s the thing that strategically is most important? What’s the thing that will make the biggest difference if I do this well? And if you focus your attention on that, then, yes, there will be some things that don’t get done, but your basic mission will be well-served. You have to prioritize.
Number two, you have to delegate. One of the things that I’m pretty proud of in terms of how I manage my presidency, but also how I manage my campaigns and past work is I’m good at surrounding myself with really smart people. And I think the job of a leader is not to try to do everything yourself, but it’s to try to organize people, each of whom have different talents and skills. Make sure that they are joined in a common vision about what needs to get done, but then go ahead and let them — give them the tools so that they can do what they need to do.
It’s just like a basketball team. I play basketball, so I usually use that. But if you prefer soccer, that’s fine. (Laughter.) But any sporting team. The teams that are the best teams are the ones where each person has a role to play, and they’re all working together. But I think sometimes there are a lot of managers or leaders who, they don’t know how to give up control to somebody else, so they want to just do everything. And then they get spread too thin. And the people they’re working for, they never develop and never feel a sense of responsibility of ownership for the project.
And as President, I can’t keep up — I can’t be an expert on everything. So my most important job is to identify that talent who I have confidence in, and then I put them in charge. I’ll give them a sense of direction. I will hold them accountable. So I expect them to produce. If they have problems, I expect them to tell me early so that we can together solve the problem. But I want to give them a sense of empowerment. And that’s how you duplicate yourself. That’s how you spread the amount of things you can do, is because you’re part of a team.
Very few things, great things are done by yourself. Maybe if you’re a Picasso or Mozart you can go off into a room and you can produce great things. But most great accomplishments, human accomplishments, they’re done as a group. And you’re job as a leader then, is to be able to assemble to bring together people in a common vision.
And then the third thing I would say is you have to be able to be honest in evaluating what’s worked and what doesn’t work, and make adjustments. A lot of times people go down one path, and even though they get lost and they’re at a cliff, and they can’t pass but they still want to keep going forward, and sometimes you just have to realize, you know what, this path didn’t work, we’ve got to try something different. And so you have to be honest and constantly reevaluate and reassess what you’re doing. And be open, then, to new information and criticism.
That’s part of what I was saying earlier about democracies and freedom of speech — well, that applies to any organization. If you are shutting down people from giving you suggestions or telling you what you’re doing isn’t working, is not smart — if you don’t want to hear that, then you’ll just keep on making mistakes because you’re not open to new information. (Applause.)
All right, let’s see. Young lady, right there. Yeah. Here we go. We got a microphone? Can we get a microphone to the young lady? Here we go, right behind you.