Obama Warns Of America’s ‘Pitfalls’ While Speaking in Malaysia

Human Rights Watch says Malaysia has engaged in 'strong crackdown' on civil rights

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President Obama spoke to a group of young Southeast Asian leaders Friday in Malaysia and warned them about about avoiding the "pitfalls" the United States suffers from, the Washington Times reports.

Human Rights Watch says on its main Malaysia page that the country's government has engaged in a "strong crackdown on civil and political rights, including charging organizers of peaceful demonstrations. Though he had promised to repeal the Sedition Act, Prime Minister Najib Razak pushed through amendments to strengthen it, as well as a repressive counterterror law."

Obama, however, warned the leaders about such American weaknesses as racial divides, income inequality, harsh partisanship and a political system dominated by the wealthy.

"Right now, our political system does not work as well as it should," Obama said. "And what I would say to young leaders, what sort of pitfalls should you avoid, I would say, number one, it is very important to avoid any political system where money overwhelms ideas. And the United States politics process has become so expensive and it lasts so long, and even though I was successful at it, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars in television advertising and in all the things that go into a U.S. presidential campaign."

Obama added that politics in the U.S. was increasingly defined by "personal attacks and saying very sensational things to the media." It should be noted that Obama reamed Republicans this week during his overseas trip, implying they were cowards for their rhetoric about putting a pause on Syrian refugees entering the country.

He also said the race issue in the U.S. "has been very prominent" historically and warned against organizing political parties or interest groups on ethnic lines.

Full exchange:

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. My name is Jocelyn and I'm from Malaysia. Last year I joined the YSEALI program in spring, and I spent five weeks in Washington, D.C. So we've been exposed to a lot of different political parties and we've been exposed to a lot of different nonprofit organizations — in the country. So my question for you today is what (inaudible) the United States of America as a developed country, and what advice would you give to potential young leaders in this region to avoid the pitfalls of challenges facing the U.S.?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that's a great question. Look, the United States in many ways is better positioned than it has ever been for leadership in the 21st century. Our economy, after the crisis in 2007-2008, has recovered faster than almost any other country. And our economy is stronger than most other large, developed economies in the world. We are producing more energy than ever before, producing more clean energy than ever before. More young people are going to college than ever before. We have expanded health care through the program that I set up — Affordable Care Act. We have some of the best businesses in the world, incredible entrepreneurship, and we remain the leader in innovation and new ideas. And in the technology sector, obviously we continue to generate new ideas all the time.

But when you go to the United States, I think there are still some anxieties. And I would say that, number one, in the United States, there is a growing inequality that I think is a real problem not just for the United States but around the world. And some of this has to do with technology is replacing low-skilled jobs, and automation, and so it's harder for people, if they don't have good educations, to make a living. There's more global competition — that's putting pressure on middle-class families. And when people feel economic stress and inequality, then I think politics become harder because people are afraid for their futures and sometimes politics can become much more divided than it used to be.

Also what happens is when there's more inequality, the people who are powerful can influence the political system to further reinforce their privilege, and it makes it harder for ordinary people to feel that they have influence on the political process. And so people become cynical.

Now, these are all problems that can be solved, and I'm confident we will eventually solve them. But right now, our political system does not work as well as it should. And what I would say to young leaders, what sort of pitfalls should you avoid, I would say, number one, it is very important to avoid any political system where money overwhelms ideas. And the United States politics process has become so expensive and it lasts so long, and even though I was successful at it, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars in television advertising and in all the things that go into a U.S. presidential campaign. But it's also true for members of Congress. And when politicians have to raise so much money all the time, then they start listening a little bit more to the people who have money, as opposed to ordinary people.

And that I think is a danger that can be avoided by the system that you set up to make sure that campaigns are not reliant just on money. That's something to avoid.

I think the second thing is to — politics in the United States increasingly is defined by personal attacks and saying very sensational things in the media. Now, that's true for politics everywhere to some degree. But I think that for young leaders like you, as you get into politics, trying to focus on issues, and trying to debate people you disagree with without saying that they're a terrible person — I think that's something that you always have to watch out for.

Historically, in the United States, the issue of race has been very prominent. And that's not unique to the United States; every country has some divisions — not every country, but many countries have divisions around racial or religious or ethnic differences. And the young people of YSEALI, I really hope that all of you are fighting against the kinds of attitudes where you organize political parties or you organize interest groups just around ethnic or racial or tribal lines. Because when you start doing that it's very easy for people to start thinking that whoever is not part of my group is somehow less than me. And once that mindset comes in, that's how violence happens. That's how discrimination happens. And societies that are divided ethnically and racially are almost never successful over the long term.

Now, the United States, we've struggled with this for over 200 years, but it's still an issue that comes up. And so I would guard against that here in your home countries. But the truth is, here in Southeast Asia, as everybody here knows, that same kind of tendency happens. I remember when I was growing up in Indonesia, every once in a while you would have riots against the Chinese Indonesians, even though they were part of the community. But somebody would start saying, "hey, those people, that's a problem." And you'd have stores burned down and people killed.

And right now, in Myanmar, one of the big challenges that's going to have to be addressed is how ethnic groups are treated. The Rohingya, in Myanmar right now, are treated differently, even though they've been living there for generations. But there are a lot of people, because they're of a different religious faith, they say those aren't real — they're not really part of our country. Well, once you start going down that line, then that's a dangerous thing. So that's part of the biggest advice that I would give, is to watch out for that.

If you look at what's happening in the Middle East right now, those countries are in chaos, so many of them, because of this notion that somehow if somebody worships God differently than you, that they're less than you. And people are slaughtered based on that idea. And the countries can't grow. Businesses can't start. So of all the things to guard against, I think that's the biggest.

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