Obama steals hearts in Malaysia with Malay expressions

US President Barack Obama (R) high-fives a young student leaders after an interaction at the Young South-east Asian Leadership Initiative (Yseali) Town Hall during a visit to University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama (R) high-fives a young student leaders after an interaction at the Young South-east Asian Leadership Initiative (Yseali) Town Hall during a visit to University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - From "selamat petang (good evening)", "apa khabar (how are you)" to "terima kasih banyak (thank you very much)", US President Barack Obama's familiarity with the Malay language has won him hearts and minds on his first day of visit to Muslim-majority Malaysia.

"Hello everyone. Selamat petang," the Hawaii-born leader, who spent part of his boyhood in Indonesia, said as he joined some 400 youths at the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative (Yseali) townhall meeting in the University of Malaya on Sunday, reported The Star newspaper.

"These trips are usually all business. (But) I try to hold events like this where I get to hear directly from young people like you," he told the eager crowd at the Kuala Lumpur campus, who clapped and cheered in excitement whenever Mr Obama peppered his speech with Malay expressions like "apa khabar", "Malaysia boleh (Malaysia can do it)" or "the spirit of kerjasama (co-operation)".

Mr Obama also took eight questions from the youths, more than 100 of whom were participants from the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative (Yseali), a programme launched by the US president last December.

At one point, the good-humoured president urged the "guys" to put down their hands so that the "girls'" could raise their questions. He also cozied up to the crowd at the end of the session, shaking hands with those of them who scrambled to have a picture taken with him.

Civil society groups that attended the session, however, said it was a pity that the Yseal participants had not been tough on the US president.

Lawyers for Liberty representative Michelle Yesudas told Malaysian Insider: "I would have told him that the rule of law was not being taken seriously in Malaysia, and sought his response to that."

Others suggested that more questions concerning US foreign policies and their impact on South-east Asia should have been raised, as Yseali participants were seen as the future leaders of Asean.