Obama holds dialogue with Asean youth

US President Barack Obama kicked off his visit to Malaysia yesterday by holding a townhall dialogue with 500 young leaders from all 10 Asean countries and urging them to steer clear of politics that divide people along racial, religious or ethnic lines.

Admitting that the United States was still dealing with racial issues after more than 200 years of its existence, he urged members of the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative to fight attempts to organise political parties or interest groups along racial, religious or tribal divides, noting that societies that do so eventually fail.

 "When you start doing that, it is very easy for people to start thinking that whoever is not part of my group, is somehow less than me," Mr Obama said. "And once that mindset comes in, that is how violence and discrimination happens."

Issues such as discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar had to be addressed, he added.

Mr Obama said some Middle Eastern countries were in chaos because they were not accepting of different religious views.

"What is happening in the Middle East right now is because of the notion that if someone worships God differently than you, that they're less than you, and people are slaughtered based on this idea," he said.

The instability of these countries has hampered the growth of these nations' economies and businesses, he said.

 Mr Obama was also frank about the need to avoid political systems where money prevails over ideas.

Singapore's own Ms Carrie Tan, founder of non-profit organisation Daughters of Tomorrow (DOT), was chosen to introduce Mr Obama. During the 100-minute dialogue, he fielded 10 questions on a diverse range of topics.

As his parting advice, Mr Obama urged the young leaders to promote the idea of celebrating differences and treating everyone with dignity and respect in their countries.

The US President also held a bilateral meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who later said their two nations and other like-minded countries will work together to counter terrorism and extremism in this region.

One initiative they agreed on was to set up a messaging centre to provide a counter narrative to the ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with the presentation of the authentic, true teachings of Islam, Bernama reported.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'Obama holds dialogue with Asean youth'. Print Edition | Subscribe