President Obama talks to 1,000 young people in Ho Chi Minh City

May 24, 2016 | 07:58 pm PT
A rough and partial transcript of U.S President Obama's speech with YSEALI Town Hall in Ho Chi Minh City.

Obama's speech

I want to thank Vietnam government and people for hospitality. I'm deeply touched. Wherever I travel around the world, my job is to meet government leaders, its important means I spend a lot of time with grey hair.

One of my favorite part is to get out of the government offices and spend time with young people like you. It's fun and gives me incredible energy, drive that help to propel this region to new heights. I'm hopeful about ASEAN and future of the world. II have strong connection to Asia Pacific and SEA. Born in Hawaii, I have spent time in Indonesia as young boy. This region helped to shape me. I've been very happy with the food.

Key part of foreign policy is deepen ties in the region, pursuit TPP, working with governments, together promote peace, sustainable development, protect environment, meet challenges of climate  change.

Government is only a part of the equation. We have to build the relation with young people. Two third of Vietnamese people were born after 1975. Youth generation can look at the world with fresh eyes without the habits o previous generations. It helps to grow Vietnam, to shape the world. Thanks to technology, social media, you are more connected. I see my daughters always on the phone. They have to teach me. Like how you post selfies. I know. I was in the gym this morning, people tried to take selfies. You stream the latest Son Tung MTP hit but you also exchanging ideas, learning from each other. It gives you tremendous power to reduce poverty, advance equality for women, girls, and fight climate change. But change doesn't happen overnight. We must be active over long term and be practical in development. Since started, YEASIL has 67,000 members in ASEAN, over 13,000 are in Vietnam alone. It welcomes fellows in the U.S. and is rooted in power of education. While nearly 19,000 Vietnamese students are in the U.S. Now, on this visit,  I announced a new partnerships between Arizona state and Vietnamese Universities, Peace corps teaching English and Fulbright U.S. University in Vietnam – the first non profit, independent university. So all, no matter of background, can access quality education. Thank Bob Kelly – one of key people in this effort. This reflects our belief in you and your ability in moving Vietnam forward. There're some incredible young people here, great example of talent and drive. E.g: Nhung Dang. She started volunteer group to work with street children. 150 volunteers, seven thousands of hours of mentoring. Five libraries in two cities. One example of the incredible work in Vietnam. We've got Loc. He teaches at Ho Chi Minh City National University. Pasteur institute wants to deliver quality healthcare.

Elizabeth here, she became a refugee, packed in boat in a dangerous journey and made it to refugee camp in Malaysia. With $20, her family started building life in California. Now Liz is one of my top advisers on Asia in the White House. We rely on her on all kinds of policy. Thu, Loc, Liz, you show you can change the world to reflect the best values with commitment, hard work, optimist, everything is possible. This convinced relationship will go deeper, stronger. You are gonna change region like Tran Lap saiid the path to glory day is coming closer.


Question 1: Vietnam's companies produce high end plastic products. Would like to be given opportunities to approach the leading enterprises in the U.S., especially in consummer electronics, automotive, airline industries, other plastics. We want to become their supplier in supply chain and committed to share values of integrity and accountability.

Obama: We emphasize entrepreneurship, start business, creating jobs, services. Yesterday I have a chance to meet some entrepreneurship creating platforms to trade goods. Why we push for TPP is because it reduces barriers to sell goods and is an opportunity for big and small companies to raise labor and environment standards. If we can get that done, the goal is before this year, which will create opportunities and confidence of businesses.

My general rule is not to broker deals and sign contracts. My job is to make sure we have the kinds of rules in place that make it easier for businesses to meet each other. We and Vietnamese government constantly look for opportunities. We will make sure that through the embassy, if we have the U.S. Business that is interested in meeting with young entrepreneurs; see if you can make a deal, good luck.

Question 2: Hoang – Student from Vietnam National University. Two questions:

1. You are a great leader, we are young. How can we be like you?

2. Do you have any suggestion on how we can strengthen the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S.?

Obama: When I was your age, I wasn't as organized and sophisticated. I fooled around a lot. I was more interested in basket ball and girls. I wasn't always that serious. You're already way ahead of me. Whenever I meet with young people, my most important advice is to find something you care deeply about, find something excites you and put all energy into it. Everybody's path is different. Sometimes it's education, medicine, business. So no one’s path is to end being a leader. Some people think you have to make great speeches, or be in politics but there're a lot of ways to lead. Some are behind the scene. For example in the U.S., civil rights movement, when all heard of Martin Luther King but also Moses, John Louis going to communities, getting people to vote. They were big leaders, even though they didn't make speeches. Don't worry so much what you want to be. Worry more about what you are going to do. If you're passionate about your work. Over time, you will rise and people will respect. But if you just think I want to be a member of the National Assembly or rich then you will pay less attention to your work. Most successful people do. Bill Gates didn't start thinking I want to be rich. I like computers and want to build software. I decided that I wanted to help poor people to have opportunities. So I went to work in poor communities in Chicago because I was interested in the work. I started to ask questions: how can I help young people? How can I influence How can I build organizations?

That's my most important advice. Decide what you care about deeply and put all into that. If you are interested in social media, make a company and focus on that.

Question 3: Huong - Save Son Doong:

Yesterday I almost burst to tears when you mentioned preserving the cave. My question is Son Doong is the world heritage. How would you preserve it and you mentioned want to get back. If you visit Son Doong, are you going to go on foot or cable car? And I have a gift for you.

Obama: I definitely want to go visit. I'm a pretty healthy guy so I can go on foot. How long is it? Seven days? I'm good, alright, I can do that. Are there places to eat along the way or do I have to carry my own food?

The possible designation of world heritage is a long process of working with government of Vietnam and organizations. We would be happy to work with your organization. I do think one of the good things about your generation is that you're more conscious about the environment. It's important to preserve the sights and economic development, the well being and health of yours, depend on how we deal with environmental issues. To some degree, it's not fair. If you think of western development before they used enormous energy. For 150 years, we warmed the planet so it's not fair to tell developed countries to stop because of the climate change. But if China, Vietnam or India took the same development path as the West, we will be all under the water. Climate's going to warm so quickly and terrible consequences could impede development.

That's why there's an agreement in Paris which get all countries to deal with climate change. Different country at different stage of development like the U.S., China have to do more but all have to do something. And developed countries must help each others to find clean development path. The good news is that can happen. All here has Smartphone. In many countries like Vietnam, You didn't start off with phone towers. You've jumped to wireless technology. The same we do with communications, we need to do with energy. Instead of going through the same energy usage, we need to find cleaner energy sources, which create jobs and opportunities. We have to think about beautiful areas that need to be preserved but also recognize no matter how well we preserve one or two sites, the overall warming which is a lot will lead to trouble. Vietnam is one of the most affected by the climate change. In Mekong there are drought and salinity. It leaves a huge impact on Vietnam's ability to feed its people. Fishermen, farmers, it's up to you to start and I will be part of the help.

Question 4: Tan Phat – Vietnamese student studying overseas:

As you will leave the White House, any plan to hand over to the next president something already planning?

Obama: Our expectation is the next president want to continue the work with YSEALI. We have 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. What comes after, I'm still pretty young. I will continue to work on development of young people in the U.S. And around the world. In addition, my hope is that the next president will continue this program.

Question 5: Student from University of Montana:

It's about the global environmental issues and climate change. There are a lot of hydro dams in Mekong. It's not easy. Big and small country are relied on hydro building. Any suggestion for the governments of Mekong region to get together and sustain the economic and environmental interests? And where do you find yourself in five year, given that Malia will graduate from Harvard. Will you struggle to use phone and Trump/Hilary or Sanders have finished their presidency?

Obama: On Mekong, through ASEAN and East Asia Summit, the Mekong Delta working group. Through the State Department, I have been working to help them plan and create sustainable development across countries. You are right. One of the big challenges is how you deal with water resources. That's not unique to Mekong. Big projects get built with unintended consequences. 

It's common elsewhere which leads to environment degradation. We will continue to work with affected countries to provide technical assistance. Hopefully the power of information can be used to negotiate on an international level to prevent bad projects. One thing I've seen in ASEAN is that when small countries get together, the power magnifies. That's true on environmental, economic and security issues. Since I became president, there's been a great willingness for ASEAN to do more work. It wasn't always like that before. Now ASEAN is using a much more effective tool for policymaking.

Where I see the world in five years, some of you are going to do very great things. It's exciting to see. I suspect that I will be doing what I did all my life: organizing public policy, like a community organization, except I will be a little more famous than I used to be. In terms of U.S. politics, it tends to be positive. Other countries look at our election system and people think: oh , what a mess. But usually we end up doing okay because the American people are good people: generous, decent, hard working, but sometimes our politics doesn't express the goodness of the people. Usually workers make good decisions. One of the great things about the U.S. is that even when it makes mistakes, it can adjust to the correct course and take different steps. Things are going to be okay, I promise you.

Question 6: You are so handsome.

Obama: Oh ok, you can stop there if you want.

The human resource management and talent management. Joining the AEC and TPP pose many challenges for overseas companies that want to attract Vietnamese talents. Can you suggest a way for Vietnamese to seek their own development? How can we help Vietnamese to stay in Vietnam. And for entrepreneurship: lots of companies lack resources. How can young entrepreneurs deal with that?

Obama: TPP, new opportunities and the countries will be coming into Vietnam as investors and business partners. I think any good foreign company will want to be a partner with Vietnam if they get the culture and the system. They are going to be looking for young talent. If you start a company that helps to identify talent, help those who do business here to recruit, that would go very well. This is not an area that I'm an expert on. One thing that I see is, through organizations like LinkedIn, this could build digital platforms to update CVs. It's powerful. You can do something like that in Vietnam. In terms of entrepreneurship, it wasn't clear what your question was. Was it talented Vietnamese going elsewhere? How can government retain these talents? Like brain drain?


Obama: Look. The best way to retain talent is to make sure talent is rewarded. So have a strong rule of law and good education system; the ability to start a business relationship easily. To make sure the government policies, when it comes to tax or building infrastructure, are good ones, so people think it's the best place for them to make it. People usually don't want to leave their home country if they have opportunities. People usually leave when they feel stuck. About TPP: the government will make legal reforms which will lead to a better business environment. So there's no reason to leave. You also lose talent when there's lots of corruption that ends up frustrating people. Or when there's not a good education system. It's not you who need a good education but also your future employees. They would want to have good infrastructure, proper roads, and wireless services to do business in the 21st century.

About environmental issues, some countries find it hard to recruit people because it's hard to breathe in some cities. People don't want to raise kids if they have asthma and can't breathe. If you want the best talent today, you have got to pay attention to their quality of life. Those policies will end up making a difference in any country.

Question 7: Christina and Hoa: We work a U.S. anti-human trafficking agency. Vietnam has emerged with TPP and many countries will shift their factories. There will be opportunities for human traffickers to take advantage of workers. What is the U.S. government doing to prevent the human trafficking?

Obama: Human trafficking is something we have made a top priority. We have an entire set of policies designed to work with countries to prevent human trafficking. It began progressing with improved enforcement and law enforcement coordination. NGOs have been helpful with identifying the paths that people are being exploited.

TPP: we have a provision in the TPP designed to prevent human trafficking. If you want to be part of the TPP, you have to have a better system in place to prevent trafficking, including cross border trafficking. In Malaysia, one important topic is how you can do more to protect migrant workers so that there's better tracking, enforcement and protection of people. That's an agreement which needs a system in place to monitor.. These human traffickers are very clever. Cut one path and they will find another. They exploit people who are desperate. This can't just be a government initiative. We have to partner with the NGOs and human rights organizations. We have to be nimble on how to adapt to circumstances. Last thing, it's best to provide more opportunities for people in rural areas in Southeast Asia. It can give young people in villages a chance to make a living and an education. If we focus on women and girls, because trafficking often catches girls, who don't get as much of an education as the boys and find themselves in desperate situations, it will reduce trafficking.

Question 8: Nhat Linh – filmmaker:

I'm interested in personal stories. You said you liked fooling around when you were young, and I read on the internet you smoked weed. I wonder what made you change from that guy to a guy who cares about society. Many young people love fooling around.

Obama: I wrote a book, Dreams from my Father. You never know exactly why something inside you clicks and you decide to take a different path. For me, when I was young, because I didn't know my dad, my grandparents and mother raised me. I rebelled in part because something was missing. As I got older, instead of worrying about a dad who wasn't there, I thought about what I should do about me. So I studied more, thought more about social issues. One thing that I have learnt about being a leader is sometimes, we think that people are motivated by money or power or concrete incentives, but people are also inspired by stories, about what's important: lives, countries, and communities. Whatever field you are in, business, politics or non profit, it's worth asking people their stories because often you will find their motivation. When we come together, it's because we told a good story.

The U.S. has good stories like the declaration of independence, we are all equal... wonderful stories. When the declaration was made, there was no United States, just good story of what could be. People were attracted to the story; it led to independence, led Ho Chi Minh to adopt it when Vietnam was trying to declare independence. Stories we tell each other are very important. Don't believe what you read on the internet though.

Last question: Suboi – rapper from Saigon:

As artists, we have lots to say. We want to know how important it is for a nation to promote art and culture.

Obama: Can you rap?

I was rapping about some people having lots of money and houses but are they really happy. For Vietnamese, they think rapping is not for women.

Obama: That's true in the U.S. too. The arts are important. Artistic expression is important. What I just told the filmmaker is that music, poetry, representation of life as it is, how it should be will inspire people. Life is a combination of practical things, eat, work, build roads, and make sure some dam is not ruining a community. But also the spirit inside us. How it's expressed. How we want to live together. One of the most important issues about art is not how you think about yourself but to feel other's pain and hope. To realize that we have more in common. So if I read a novel by somebody in Africa, suddenly I understand more how we are similar. If I listen to Vietnamese rap, it connects to the things I'm feeling, I feel closer to the country on the other side of the road. That's how we can work together. Sometimes art is dangerous while governments can get nervous about art. But if you try to suppress art, you suppress the deepest dreams. One great thing in the U.S. is that we give much expression to rap – expression of poor Americans that spread to the world. Imagine when rappers started, the government said no because you are rude and curse too much, then that connection we see now in hip-hop culture around the world wouldn't exist. You've got to let people express themselves.

Launched in 2013, the YSEALI is U.S. President Obama's signature program to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia. Through a variety of programs and engagements, including U.S. educational and cultural exchanges, regional exchanges, and seed funding, YSEALI seeks to build the leadership capabilities of youth in the region, strengthen ties between the United States and Southeast Asia, and nurture an ASEAN community.

YSEALI focuses on critical topics identified by youth in the region: civic engagement, environment and natural resources management, and entrepreneurship and economic development.

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