KUALA LUMPUR—President Barack Obama, speaking Sunday in personal terms about his youth, hopes, and regrets, encouraged young people from 10 Southeast Asian nations to strive for a world with less violence and greater opportunity.
Mr. Obama, in Malaysia for a three-day visit, held a town-hall meeting at the University of Malaya with more than 400 young people, many of them from a U.S. program aimed at supporting future leaders in the region.
The session was less a discussion of global issues than a forum for advice to young people as he fielded questions about his dreams, his values and the nature of happiness.
Mr. Obama presented an upbeat and idealistic worldview as he encouraged members of his audience to engage in public service and take a leadership role in their countries. Think less about how much money you can make, he said, and focus on how much you can affect other people’s lives.
“You really can have an impact on the world,” the president told them. “You can achieve your dreams.”
The president noted that he was returning to a region where he spent part of his childhood. As a boy he lived in neighboring Indonesia. In response to one questioner from Indonesia, he spoke a few words of Bahasa Indonesia.
More than 100 members of the audience belong to the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative, an organization launched by Mr. Obama last year for leaders aged 18 to 35 from Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The rest of the audience was made up of young Malaysians.
Many members of the leadership group already work with nonprofit organizations in their countries. After the meeting, several said they were inspired by the president’s message.
“His opinion and his advice is really empowering for many of us,” said Longdy Yi, 25 of Cambodia, who works for an organization that helps young people find job opportunities.
Some said they appreciated the president talking about his own failings as a community organizer in Chicago. Mr. Obama told how no one showed up at the first event he put on. Afterward, he said, he was very depressed.
“What I realized is, if you want to bring about change in a community or a nation, it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
Asked about what he regretted in his life, Mr. Obama said he wished he’d spent more time with his mother, who died when she was 52, the same age Mr. Obama is now.
He also said he wished he had used his time more wisely when he was young, rather than just having fun.
“I could have spent more time learning a foreign language or I could have spent more time working on a project that was important,” he said. “It would be useful for all of you to consider how you are spending your time and make sure that you’re making every day count.”