The biggest takeaway from Barack Obama’s speech was that he really isn’t that interested in solving our domestic issues.
I WAS one of the lucky young leaders who attended the town hall meeting with United States President Barack Obama. It was an incredible experience and I was impressed by his energy, oratory and diplomacy.
However, that town hall meeting left our social and mainstream media buzzing with two issues – the questions raised by the participants and Obama’s quotes on affirmative action in Malaysia.
Many Malaysians viewed the less-than hard-questions asked Obama (such as the meaning of happiness) as a waste of an opportunity. They felt the most powerful man in the world needed to be asked some powerful questions.
I, too, had some serious questions for him. However, I am not, as some critics put it, “disappointed in the future leaders of Asean” for asking theirs.
Four hundred young people attended the town hall meeting but only eight questions were taken. Two were from the social media (curated by moderators and, therefore, bound to be “safe”). The social media questions and three others from the audience came from non-Malaysians, leaving the remaining questions for only three Malaysians.
Might it simply then had been an unfortunate coincidence that Obama happened to pick the three Malaysians, in a sea of raised hands, who chose not to ask about the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement) or human rights?
Obama is a role model to many. Not all young people are political journalists, critics of his foreign policy or otherwise determined to tembak him.
The Asean participants are my friends and fellow alumni of the US State Departmentsponsored exchange programmes. I know them well enough to know they have a different take to politics than we do.
Malaysians thrive on discussing issues of the day in a kopitiam, at a forum or via Twitter. We’re practically hardwired to talk politics. Contrastingly, my Asean friends are here on a leadership initiative. They’ve attended numerous programmes, conferences and workshops all geared towards helping them become leaders of civil society.
Their focus is to find solutions to poverty, climate change and human trafficking – not to zoom in on policy and trade agreements.
Their questions simply illustrate that they’re more concerned with bettering themselves and their world than turning everything into a debate. This was a town hall for young leaders on leadership. Expect some young (read: naïve) questions on leadership.
At one point during his address, Obama said “Malaysia will not progress if non-Muslims are not given equal opportunities.” I, like many others, took his sound bite to social media.
Many people went further, calling on Obama to pressure our government into reform, to “save us”! And of course we had people labelling Obama a hypocrite, his comment either ridiculous or irrelevant, and condemning those who looked to him as a saviour.
These reactions reminded me that we are once again stuck in our dichotomy of “accept wholesale or reject wholesale”.
I personally think the biggest takeaway from his speech was that he really isn’t that interested in solving our domestic issues.
Many times, he urged us to fight a good fight, but he made it a point to remind us that he has his own problems in America to solve. I couldn’t agree more.
Realistically, the US president has bigger problems to deal with than us.
Idealistically, we shouldn’t need him to help in any major way. My Sejarah textbook taught me that time and again when our rulers were faced with domestic problems, they opened themselves up to colonisation by seeking help from foreigners instead of facing up to their countrymen.
However, I disagree with those who dismiss Obama. Yes, this is an issue we’ve been dealing with for so long that the US president isn’t adding anything substantive to the debate, but that doesn’t make him irrelevant!
It’s like any other old debate such as abortion or creationism. You’re perfectly entitled to roll your eyes and say “Yeah, I’ve heard this one before,” but to some people it’s a big deal to have the leader of the free world publicly say, “I’m on your side.”
Others cite his domestic and foreign policy to label him a hypocrite, but you can agree with what he said yesterday without having to agree to what he said last year or did in Syria.
I highly appreciate the public relations value of the leader of the free world demonstrating an awareness of my cause, but it doesn’t have to follow that I adore him, agree with all his policies or think he’s Superman.
In a week’s time, people will forget what he said. But the fight goes on, right?
So, instead of obsessing over whether he had the right to say what he said, whether it matters that he said what he said, or making idle wishes that someone else had said what he said, let us focus on the more important part of his speech – that it’s our battle.
Open Season by Marina Tan
> Marina Tan won the 2012 English Speaking Union International Public Speaking competition. She is presently studying at Kolej Yayasan UEM and will be going to Yale University in the United States in August to pursue a double major in engineering and economics.
Marina Tan The Star-ESUM Public Speaking Competition 2011