KUALA LUMPUR, April 28 – United States President Barack Obama said countries in Southeast Asia as well as America should embrace the can-do spirit of the ‘Malaysia Boleh’ mantra, which loosely translates as ‘Malaysia Can Do It’, in forging closer bonds for a brighter future. “I’ve have been only in Malaysia for a day but I’ve already picked up a new phrase, ‘Malaysia Boleh’. We have a similar saying in America; ‘Yes We Can’. “That’s the kind of spirit with which I hope America and all the nations of Southeast Asia can work together,” Obama said at a ‘town hall’ session with about 400 young Southeast Asian leaders at Universiti Malaya here Sunday. The president drove home the point that it was the young generation who would have to carry this can-do spirit forward.

“Presidents and prime ministers can only help lay the foundation, but it’s you who’ve got to build the future,” said Obama who is on a three-day state visit to Malaysia, part of his four-nation tour of Asia. Obama noted that relations between nations were not just defined by governments but people as well while young people would have a part in determining the future for themselves. “Over the next few months, across Southeast Asia, we’re going to find ways to listen to young people about your ideas and the partnerships we can then build together to empower your efforts, develop new exchanges, connect young leaders across Southeast Asia with young Americans,” he said. The president said one of the things that made this region so interesting was its diversity, with people coming from different ethnic groups and backgrounds as well as religious and political beliefs.

This, he said, gave Malaysia a chance to prove – as America constantly tried to prove – that nations were stronger and more successful when they worked to uphold civil, political and human rights of all citizens. “That s why, over the past few years, Prime Minister (Datuk Seri) Najib (Tun Razak) and I have worked to broaden and deepen the relationship between our two countries in the same spirit of ‘bekerjasama’ (cooperation) that I think so many of you embody,” he said. Obama noted the central role played by Malaysia in this region that would only grow over time, armed with the country’s ability to promote economic growth and the opportunity to be an anchor of stability and maritime security. He also took the opportunity to congratulate Malaysia on its turn to assume the chairmanship of Asean next year.

Obama also fielded questions from the floor, including one from Myanmar on how to cope with various diversities not only in Myanmar but also across Southeast Asia. The president responded by saying that no country was going to succeed if part of its population was sidelined. “Treat people the way you want to be treated. And if you’re not doing that and if society is not respecting that basic principle, then we’re going backwards instead of forward,” he said. To another question, Obama said he was not always the best student, sometimes enjoying life too much as a teenager. “But around the age of 20, I began to realise that I could have an impact on the world if I applied myself more. I became interested in social policies and government, and I decided that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector for people who were disadvantaged in the United States,” he said. He said the most important thing for young people was to realise that they could have an impact on the world, and to do so, they had to focus not so much on a title or how much money they were going to make.

Queried on his regrets, the 52-year-old president said he regretted not spending much time with his late mother who died early battling cancer many years ago. “I was so busy with my own life that I didn’t always reach out and communicate with her and ask her how she was doing, and tell her about things. “I realised that I didn’t every single day, or at least more often, just spend time with her and find out what she was thinking and what she was doing (despite) her being such an important part of my life,” he said.The session involved 103 participants under the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) as well as about 300 invited guests. YSEALI is an initiative launched by Obama last December, which, among others, seeks to augment leadership development and networking in Asean, deepen engagement with young leaders across critical sectors and strengthen people-to-people ties between the US and young leaders across the region.

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