Barack Obama delivers impassioned speech to a crowd of youths during Malaysia trip

"I only had five shirts, a rolled-up futon, and a beat-up car" - Barack Obama delivers an impassioned speech to a crowd of youths during Malaysia trip


In his third trip to Malaysia and the first to the Southeast Asian country after he stepped down from the White House, former US President Barack Obama delivered an awe-inspiring speech to a floor of youths eager to learn more from him.

The trip was part of the 'The Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific Program', a one-year leadership development and community engagement initiative that seeks to inspire, empower, and connect emerging leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region. It took place in December 2019 in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

"I only had five shirts, a rolled up futon and a beat-up car," Obama laughed, recalling his early days as a community organizer and aspiring lawyer. "We all have struggles to make change in our lives. How far are we willing to go?".

During the two-hour session, Obama recounted that the most difficult decision that he had to make was whether to run for president as he had a small family to take care of. He struggled with the question of how the presidential race would affect his family, and whether he could really win, but said he entered the race after a confidence boost from his wife Michelle.

Obama said that he became the US President during a turbulent time as the US economy was reeling from a financial crisis at that time. He also shared that his decision to launch the military intervention in Syria was one of the most difficult decisions he had to make, as children there were being massacared by the government. He was unsure, he said, whether he did the right thing, but said sometimes we have to forgive ourselves when making mistakes and at the same time, surround ourselves with people who have good values in order to move forward.

Obama is a devoted family man. Despite his success as the 44th US President, Obama said that at the end of his lifetime, he will not remember his policy or speech, but of bringing his daughters Malia and Sasha to swim or to the park.

Below are some more of his inspirational advice from the event:

  1. The path to success is often not linear and we can't win at everything.

Obama said he was inspired by the optimism and dedication of today's youths and told them to persevere in their goals as "success is never linear". 

"Sometimes, we go backward and then forward again," Obama said, citing the Paris Talks as an example.

In this situation, he said, it is important to ask ourselves, "Where can we take some wins?" and said "better is good." 

  1. "Never feel guilty to need to pay the bills."

Despite their optimism, Obama said youths must also take care of what is most important first: survival. Social change can be pursued at the side or at a later time - there is no one answer.

  1. "Cultivate staying power."

"Success is a long journey and it takes years," Obama said. 

He cited the example of the late Rosa Parks - also known as "the first lady of civil rights". Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white person led to the Montgomery bus boycott which ultimately ended the racial segregation of public facilities in the US, but her protest, Obama said, had taken years of preparation.

  1. Diversity is strength.

Obama advised the audience to see each others beyond "us and them" and to recognize and honor the difference of cultures and history.

"We have more in common than differences.  People must respect one another," he said.

  1. "Seek out mentors who know more than you and don't be scared by that."

Obama noted his success to the many mentors whom he got to learn from - especially his professors. He said he was open to learning from people with different circumstances because "each have their own  strengths and weaknesses."

Obama said further: "Seek out people who know more than you and don't be scared by that," adding that while in government, he hired people whom he found smarter than him. Thus, he said, confidence and humility must go together.

  1. On having a healthy dose of ego check.

Obama said that it is important to have people who question you and are not yes-mans all the time, in order for you to improve and not make big mistakes.

"Michelle is my ego check," he shared.

 "My wife and daughters love me but are not impressed by me," Obama said to laughter from the crowd. "I embarrass them by making silly jokes and by dancing."

Mohani Niza

Mohani Niza is a writer with Muslim World Today. She can be contacted at [email protected]



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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