HO CHI MINH CITY - US President Barack Obama on Wednesday spoke about the importance of the younger generation to the future success of Vietnam and the region at a town hall meeting with 800 members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI)
Speaking on his final day of a three-day trip in Vietnam before heading to Japan for the G7 summit, he said: “I want to thank the government and the people of Vietnam for the wonderful hospitality that you have given me over the past three days. I’ve been deeply touched.”“Spending time with young people like you gives me incredible optimism about the future because all of you embody the energy and drive that is helping propel this region to new heights. You make me hopeful about the future of Asean, hopeful about the future of the world.”
He noted that key parts of his foreign policy relied on cooperation and agreement on a variety of policies, but that “government and businesses were only part of the equation”.
“If we’re going to meet all of these challenges, we also have to build strong relationships between our people and especially between young people like you.”
Young Vietnamese and the future
He encouraged the members of YSEALI, a signature initiative begun by Obama to promote leadership development in South East Asia, to remain involved in the challenges facing the area.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight. It requires that you stay active and involved over the long term and it requires you to develop some practical tools. And that’s why three years ago, I launched the YSEALI (Young South Asian Leaders Initiative). And the goal is to empower young people like you with these skills, resources and networks that you need to turn your ideas into actions.”
“It’s why on this visit, we have announced the new partnership between American universities like Arizona State University and Vietnamese universities and Fulbright University Vietnam. The goal is to make sure that Vietnamese students, no matter what their backgrounds, have access to a world-class education that is rooted in Vietnam’s rich culture and fueled by this free exchange of ideas.”
Obama also expressed his thanks to former US Senator Bob Kerrey, one of the key people in the effort to establish Fulbright University Vietnam.
“This reflects our belief in you and your ability in moving Vietnam forward. There are some incredible young people here, a great example of talent and drive,” Obama said.
The US President mentioned two outstanding young Vietnamese, Ngan Dang and Le Xuan Loc, who exemplified the dynamic spirit of today’s generation.
“Ngan started a volunteer group to work with street children, orphans, and people with physical disabilities right here in HCM City. So far, they’re recruited some 450 volunteers, delivered over 7,000 hours of mentoring, and built five libraries in two cities. And that’s just one example of the incredible work that has been done by young people right here in Vietnam,” he said.
“Loc teaches at Vietnam National University – HCM City, and is a researcher at the Pasteur Institute. His dream is to go back to his hometown to open a medical center so he can deliver quality, affordable healthcare.”
“The fact shows so many of you are already showing that you can change the world to reflect our best values,” Obama said. “You’re showing that with determination and commitment and optimism and hard work, anything is possible. And that’s why I’m so hopeful about the future between the US and Vietnam, that our relationships will continue to grow deeper and stronger. But I’m also optimistic that you’re going to be able to change the region and the world in so many positive ways.”
Asked about export opportunities, Obama emphasised entrepreneurship, start-ups, the selling of goods across borders, and creation of jobs and great products and services.
“Yesterday, I had the chance to meet with a number of young Vietnamese entrepreneurs who have already created digital platforms to sell goods. This is one of the reasons we are pushing very hard for the TPP because it reduces the barriers between countries to sell their goods and services,” he said.
“It gives opportunities not just for big companies but also small companies to enter the global supply chain. It raises labour standards and environmental standards so that all countries are working on a level playing field,” he added.
“And if we can get that done and the goal is, I think, to complete TPP by the end of this year, then that will open up a lot of opportunities and create great confidence among investors here in Vietnam and US companies who are interested in working with young people like you who may have a great idea.”
“My job is to make sure that we have the kind of rules in place that make it easier for businesses to get to know each other, to meet. And one of the things that we are doing with the Vietnamese government is looking for opportunities for trade missions, for businesses to come and learn about what’s going on.”
Different paths to success
During his talk, Obama also spoke about his years as a student and young professional, and his path to success.
“When I was your age, I was not as well organised or well educated and I wasn’t always serious. So you already are ahead of me, you’re doing well.”
“Whenever I meet with young people, my most important advice is to find something you care deeply about, find something that excites you and put all your energy into it,” he said.
He added: “Because the path for everybody is different. People sometimes think that to be a leader, you have to make great speeches or you have to be in politics. But there are a lot of ways to lead. Some of the greatest leaders are people who are behind the scenes.”
“You have to feel passionate about something. And one of the things that I always tell young people is don’t worry so much about what you want to be, worry more about what you want to do. And what I mean by that is if you’re passionate about your work then naturally, over time, you are going to rise, and people will admire and respect what you’ve done.”
The President went on: “When I finally stopped fooling around and I wanted to get serious, what I decided was I wanted to help people in low-income communities, poor people, have opportunities. So I went to work in poor neighborhoods in Chicago.”
“And because I was interested in the work, I started asking the question, OK, how can I get more education dollars for these communities, how can I get better housing built in these communities. That was when I became aware of how politics works and I started asking more questions about how I could get more influence and how I could build an organisation that could potentially deliver the things that I was interested in.”
In reply to a question about protecting Vietnam’s famous Son Doong cave, Obama said that “one of the greatest things about your generation is that you are already much more conscious about the environment than my older generation or previous generation and that it is really important.”
But he also warned: “The well-being and the health of your people and everyone around the world are going to depend on how we deal with some of these environmental relationships.”
“So it is not entirely fair to say a country is developing now, you have to stop because of climate change,” he said. “If a country like Vietnam or China or India took the same developing path that the West did, we would all be under water because the climate is going to warm up so quickly and the climate patterns are going to change. The terrible consequences could actually impede development rather than advance development.”
YSEALI in the future
Obama said he expected that the next president would continue working with YSEALI.
“We have a young African leaders program. We have in our homeland an American version. We’ll bring key leaders from each area so they can learn. I hope that the State Department will continue this program,” he said.
Small countries banding together
In reply to a question about hydropower dams on the Mekong River and how the governments of the Mekong region can work together to sustain economic and environmental interests, Obama said that, through the Asean and East Asia summit, a Mekong Delta Working Group of all the countries affected was created.
“Through our State Department and various programs, we’re working to help them plan and create sustainable development across countries,” he said.
“Now you’re right that one of the big challenges is how to deal with water resources and the building of dams and hydropower. That’s not a problem that’s unique to the Mekong Delta. So, what we’re going to try to do is to continue to work with the affected countries and provide them with technical assistance and evaluation of what needs to happen, what they need to watch out for.
“And hopefully, that information is power, and that information can then be used for negotiation on an international level to try to prevent some projects that might have very bad effects,” he added.
He continued: “One of the things that we’ve seen in Asean is, when small countries band together as a unit, their power is magnified. That’s true on economic issues, that’s true on environmental issues, that’s true on security issues. And we’ve seen since I became President, I think, a greater willingness of the Asean countries that do more substantive work.”
Another topic that Obama addressed was the vital importance of rewarding talented people and offering them opportunities for growth.
“The best way to retain talent in any country is to make sure that talent is rewarded. And the way to reward talent is to have a strong rule of law, to have a good education system, have the ability to start a business relatively easily, make sure that government policies, when it comes to taxation or when it comes to building infrastructure, that those policies are good ones, so that people feel as if by staying here, this is the best place for them to make it.
“People usually don’t want to leave their home countries if they feel like they had opportunities in their home countries. Usually, they end up leaving if they feel as if they’re stuck in their home countries,” he said
“So one of the benefits of the TPP is that it’s going to lead to the government taking a series of legal reforms that I actually think will create better businesses environment, and that means for young talented people like you, there is no reason to leave because you’re going to be in a position to do great things here in Việt Nam,” he added.