Barack Obama’s star quality shifted the focus of the event towards himself, and away from U.S. policy and its impacts.
After waiting in the blazing afternoon heat for over an hour, I was finally seated in the Dewan Tunku Canselor, the iconic hall of Malaysia’s oldest university, along with several hundred other youths – people under the age of 35 – from Malaysia and other ASEAN countries.
It was a relief to get into the air-conditioned hall in Universiti Malaya, which was looking in tip-top condition. Two large flags, of Malaysia and the United States, hung side by side, covering the far wall. Rows of chairs lined the hall’s four sides. In the center, a square black stage, with a teleprompter on either side of a podium which bore the seal of the President of the United States.
There was a clear sense of anticipation in the air as we waited for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Town Hall to begin. People were taking group pictures, tweeting about the who’s who in the hall, and whispering about the secret service agents. Member of Parliament Nurul Izzah was a popular side attraction, with audience members filing her way to get a selfie with the popular opposition politician.
Two hours had passed when a large entourage entered the press area – perhaps the journalists who had been covering the President’s prior event, a joint press conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak. The front row seats on stage-left began filling up. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun took their seats. We were asked to take ours.
Then, after another half an hour, the moderator finally announced the arrival of the man we had been waiting four hours to see, the “44th President of the United States of America”. And from the corner of the hall on stage-right, flanked on either side by the flags of the ten ASEAN countries and the United States, and to loud cheers, a standing ovation, and camera flashes, emerged Barack Obama.
Yes we can
The hype was to be expected. After all, this was the man whose candidacy inspired people the world over, not least youth. The man with roots in Kenya and Indonesia, who spent his early working life community organizing in Chicago. The first African American presidential candidate of a major party in the United States, who ran a revolutionary grassroots campaign. The man who, against the odds, was elected President of the world’s superpower.
And the President lived up to this hype. His opening speech was nothing less than what one would expect from the master orator, and his each response to the questions posed by audience members a mini-speech on its own, undoubtedly responses he had made many times before.
He invoked his iconic predecessors, Washington and Kennedy. He spoke grandly, using phrases like “Old dictatorships have crumbled. New voices have emerged,” and “Together, we can make this world more just.” His Southeast Asian roots earned the President bonus points. “I lived in Indonesia as a boy,” the President declared to endearing cheers. And he made sure to throw in a few local words and phrases throughout the session – “kampung”, “apa kabar”, and “Terima kasih banyak”.
But Barack Obama’s story, the aura of the Presidency, and his charisma were not all he had brought to endear himself to the youth he was addressing. The President took small risks to further gain the admiration of the largely urban English-speaking crowd, by appealing to values and ideals, making the case for fundamental liberties and equality.
The President emphasized the importance of civil society and political space. “We must recognize that democracies don’t stop just with elections; they also depend on strong institutions and a vibrant civil society, and open political space.” He added, “We want to see open space for civil society in all our countries so that citizens can hold their governments accountable and improve their own communities.”
This message could reasonably be construed as a rebuke to the Malaysian government under Prime Minister Najib Razak, which has a record of harassing Malaysian civil society groups, to the point that several United Nations Special Rapporteurs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights felt the need to express concern.
In January this year, the human rights coalition COMANGO, of which I had been an active member, was declared un-Islamic and unlawful by the Home Ministry. In 2012, Bersih 2.0, the popular movement for clean and fair elections, was also declared unlawful by the Home Ministry. The President would later that day spend close to an hour with ten Malaysian civil society leaders, including leading activists from COMANGO and Bersih 2.0.
Twice the President made strong comments on upholding the rights of LGBT people, urging that the rights of “every human being, regardless of … who they love” be upheld, and that “the rights of every citizen, regardless of … sexual orientation” should be protected and respected.
This is in stark contrast to the sentiments and policies of the Malaysian Prime Minister who, while campaigning in the general election last year sneered that “with [opposition party] PKR, everything is possible, pluralism is possible, LGBT is possible too”. His government also sponsored an anti-LGBT musical play titled “Abnormal Desire” in which unrepentant LGBT characters were killed in a lightning storm.
Perhaps the most adventurous issue the President ventured into was religion, which has become an increasingly sensitive topic in the religiously plural Muslim-majority country.
“Here in Malaysia, this is a majority Muslim country. But then, there are times where those who are non-Muslims find themselves perhaps being disadvantaged or experiencing hostility.” And he added, a phrase that would become headlines the next day, “Malaysia won’t succeed if non-Muslims don’t have opportunity”.
Judging by the applause, laughter, and the oohs-and-aahs throughout the hour and twenty minute event, it was clear the President had largely won the crowd over.
A town hall wouldn’t be a town hall without interaction with the audience, and I was particularly looking forward to the question and answer session. Unfortunately for me, each time I lifted my hand, hundreds of other eager hands went up waiting to be picked by the President, and my chance didn’t come. In the end, there was enough time for nine questions.
Following the event, there has been much criticism of the questions asked, as being uncritical and wasteful. The Malaysian Insider ran a story titled, “Wasted opportunity as ‘future leaders’ throw weak questions at Obama, say NGOs”. A COO of a local think tank tweeted, “You have the US president in the hall and you ask questions that you could have known answers to by reading his biography.”
There were questions about Barack Obama’s experience as a young person: one about twenty-year old Obama’s “dream” and another on his “first project”. There were questions about Barack Obama’s reflections on his life and career: “What are the things that you regret,” and “What is the legacy you wish to leave behind?” There were questions about Barack Obama’s belief system: one person asked about his “values”, and another simply asked “What does happiness mean for you?”
And there were questions asking for Barack Obama’s advice: on how to cope with “numerous diversities” in ASEAN, on how Gen-Ys can “have a say” in policy matters, and on how Malaysia can “become a developed country in six years’ time”.
I can see why aspiring youths would want to ask these questions, yet it seemed like we had missed a rare opportunity to ask the President of the United States some pointed questions on U.S. policy that affects the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia and Malaysia.
A fair amount of time was spent on climate change, an issue that the President said “uniquely threatened” countries in ASEAN. But no one probed the President about the Keystone XL pipeline, which U.S. climate activists are fighting hard to stop, or about concrete legislation the world’s second biggest carbon polluter is taking to put a cap on carbon emissions.
Several times, the President promoted, what could be one of his landmark economic legacies, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). But no one asked about the TPP’s secretive negotiation process, how it would allow corporations to take a government to an international tribunal for “alleged diminution of their potential profits as a result of regulation”, or how it would “raise the price of medicines” even in “the poorest countries”, as Joseph Stiglitz wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times. A small group of students did however, hold up anti-TPP signs towards the end of the event.
No one asked if the U.S. planned to accept responsibility for its use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which til this day continues to cause birth defects among Vietnamese, or if the U.S. would provide more adequate levels of assistance to those affected.
In a country concerned with unlawful detention, abuses in custody, and extrajudicial killings, no one asked if the President was equally concerned about these issues – when he would finally close Guantánamo Bay, or about the use of drones in the battlefield.
Essentially, the focus of the questions, and by extension the interest of the majority of the youth in the audience, was the man Barack Obama – his journey, his hopes, and his thoughts – and not on U.S. policy and its impacts.
Shining man (not city) upon a hill
At the 2008 Democratic National Convention where Barack Obama was named his party’s nominee for president, Bill Clinton declared Obama fit to “restore America’s leadership in the world”, a task the former president deemed as one of the “two great questions” of the 2008 election.
Whether or not Barack Obama has fulfilled this task may be disputed. Americans are not alone in feeling disillusioned by the President, who has fallen short in many foreign policy areas. Perhaps he tried, but was up against circumstances beyond his control, not least inheriting a fragile economy and two wars, and a hostile Republican Party.
But there is little doubt that his story, charisma, and ability to appeal to values and ideals gives Barack Obama a star quality that neither his direct predecessor or two Republican challengers could bring to the presidency. A star quality which, faded as it is after six years in office, may not be enough to fully restore America’s leadership in the world, but as demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur, has been a major asset towards that goal.