By San Peng
United States President Barack Obama was in Kuala Lumpur from April 26 to 28. The three-day visit was the first by a sitting American president since Lyndon Johnson’s visit nearly 50 years ago.
One of the highlights of Obama’s trip was the Young Southeast Asian Leaders’ Initiative (YSEALI) town hall at University of Malaya on Sunday evening.
Saying the youth of Southeast Asia will shape the region’s progress and future, the president used the occasion to highlight the importance of the Asia-Pacific region, specifically Asean, to the US.
Obama said: “We’ve got a future with Asia. This is the world’s fastest-growing region. Over the next five years, nearly half of all economic growth outside the United States is projected to come from right here in Asia.
“That means this region is vital to creating jobs and opportunity not only for yourselves but also for the American people.
“And any serious leader in America recognises that fact. And because you’re home to more than half of humanity, Asia will largely define the contours of the century ahead – whether it’s going to be marked by conflict or cooperation; by human suffering or human progress. This is why America has refocused our attention on the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region.”
Applause greeted Obama’s observation and his message to the youth of Asean could not be clearer. Here is a dynamic region with a combined gross domestic product of US$3.3 trillion (in 2011) and a population of more than 620 million people and the 10 countries that make up Asean represent the future.
“Since President Johnson’s visit here to Malaysia in 1966, there’s perhaps no region on Earth that has changed so dramatically,” said Obama.
“Old dictatorships have crumbled. New voices have emerged. Controlled economies have given way to free markets. What used to be small villages, kampung, are now gleaming skyscrapers.
“The 10 nations that make up Asean are home to nearly one in 10 of the world’s citizens.
“And when you put those countries together, you’re the seventh largest economy in the world, the fourth largest market for American exports, the No. 1 destination for American investment in Asia.”
The more than 100 young leaders at the town hall session, aged between 18 and 35, were participants of a three-day YSEALI workshop in Kuala Lumpur.
YSEALI is an American initiative launched on December 3, 2013. Its goal is to invest in Asean’s youth, with an eye towards expanding and institutionalising diplomatic and programmatic engagement throughout Southeast Asia aimed at empowering the next generation of leaders.
More than 65% of the Asean population is under 35. Obama’s presence and YSEALI are an endorsement and an investment in the future of the region.
In the coming months, the US State Department will host YSEALI workshops aimed at developing a regional network for Asean youth to tackle common challenges, such as economic, environmental, education and civic issues and develop solutions from a regional perspective.
Funding for many of these teams to implement their ideas is through YSEALI Seeds for the Future.
Obama was keen to emphasise that the American strategy in the Asia-Pacific region was not only about security or trade agreements. It was more about building relationships between the people of Asia and Americans.
After the town hall, there had been criticism that the “future leaders” had squandered a golden opportunity for failure to ask the more hard-hitting questions about American policies and their impact on the region.
Among the eight questions fielded included those on Obama’s dream, his early work as a community leader and the meaning of happiness.
But Obama deftly turned his answers to touch on his legacy and focus on trade, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership that is still being negotiated.
Obama is aware of the transformations taking place in former resource-producing nations in the region as they move towards developed nation status.
His advice was that the region must remain an open economy and “if you want to move to the next level of development, then you have to open up an economy to innovation and entrepreneurship”.
The next phase for Asean is the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta). Most Asean members are already working towards zero tariffs in a bid to lower the trade barriers further. The liberalisation of trade in the region through elimination of both intra-regional tariffs and non-tariff barriers has given the region’s manufacturing sectors a boost in terms of efficiency and competitiveness in the global market.
In 2011, American foreign direct investment in Asean exceeded US$159 billion, led by investments in manufacturing, finance and insurance, and non-bank holding companies. With Asean trade set to grow further under Afta, it will serve only American interests if the US keeps a firm eye on the youth who will power the region.