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Monday, April 28, 2014

Meeting Obama: ­ The day I arrived... or not


COMMENT "So, you have arrived," a 19-­year­-old tells me as I take
my seat in the midst of college students squirming with excitement.

Puzzled and sweaty after standing in the hot sun in the queue to enter the hall for the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative meeting with US president Barack Obama at Universiti Malaya last Sunday, I asked: "Arrived from where?"

"You've...arrived," she reiterates. "If they served us tea, we can say that we had tea with the president."

Curious, and frankly not sharing her view on the matter, I pressed
further to understand how being made to wait for hours (seating
commenced three hours before Obama arrived) for someone would
mean that we have "arrived".

Her answer was simple -being invited to this town hall meeting for
"future leaders" meant to that she was recognised as being worthy of being in the same room as Obama, based on her assumption that she was selected based on grades and extra­curricular
activities.

Next to her, another college student took a picture of his ticket to the event, lightly edited it using a filter and posted it on the social media application Instagram.

A non­-Instagrammer myself, I ask: "Tell me, why would you post your ticket onto Instagram?" Without missing a beat, he shrugs and says: "Bragging rights, I guess."

Next to me, a bright young man tells me about what he has been doing to gain more skills so he could be a successful entreprenuer.

He doesn't yet have a business, but he has a calling card, printed in
many different colours, with the title: Aspiring entreprenuer.

He just returned from the United States for what I gather was a youth competition ("on Fa­ma Foundation sponsorship", a reference to his parents) where I believe he was representing his college.

But he hadn't brought a question to the event—except, as it were, to ask Obama for a 'selfie'.

I am not sure if he raised his hand for it, but the chances of Obama
picking him out of the many who were raising their hands was slim to say the least.

‘Are we on Oprah?’

The lucky ones of this "creme de la creme" of youths from Southeast Asia, according to the emcee, who did get picked had lobbed softball questions, turning the event into a motivational session about reaching for the stars.

Those cringing while watching the live telecast should know that many of us in the hall, with our hands raised high hoping Obama would pick us for a question, were also cringing. 

My question left unasked was on the Trans­Pacific Partnership
Agreement (TPPA) currently being negotiated, and how it could mean more expensive medicines. Is the US prepared to support taking that provision, which could mean costlier pharmaceuticals, off the TPPA?

Some students, who for a brief moment raised placards against the
TPPA and in solidarity with the persecuted Egypt Muslim
Brotherhood, probably had similar questions.

It would have been a fitting question to pose, as Obama, despite saying the town hall meeting was for "fun" was really trying his best to hardsell the TPPA ­ a move to ensure equal standards for workers,
among others, he said.

"I really didn't have to be here to listen to all that," one man ­ possibly in his late twenties ­ grumbled as we waited to leave the hall, after spending an hour learning what happiness and regret meant to the president of the United States.

Meanwhile, Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs chief operating officer Tricia Yeoh, who was also among those invited for the session, tweeted: "And then the soppy questions like what's your biggest regret, what are your values, dreams, what happiness means. Are we on Oprah?

"Seriously where are the questions on human rights, democracy, what kind of Muslim nation we are in Malaysia?

"Do none of the Southeast Asian young leaders care about regional
security, electoral reforms, Crimea, civil and political rights?"

Watching some participants look wide­eyed in awe as Obama's ride
The Beast passed by, I couldn't help but wonder the same.



AIDILA RAZAK is a member of the Malaysiakini team. Although she does not agree with Obama that the questions were "impressive", she does agree that the man has charisma and wit coming out of his ears.

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