In KL speech against inequality, Obama recalls ‘quiet’ White House female staff

President Obama gestures to the audience, as his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, joins the stage at an event hosted by the Obama Foundation in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR: Former United States president Barack Obama today spoke out against  identity politics and social equality, while drawing references from his experience in the White House.

Speaking at an inaugural gathering of young leaders from the Asia Pacific hosted by his Obama Foundation, the former leader said the idea that certain races or religions were superior to others has done a lot of damage.

Obama said people have more commonalities than differences.

“The dream of parents for their children in Vietnam is not fundamentally different from dream of parents in Australia,” he told some 200 young leaders attending the “Leaders: Asia-Pacific” summit.

Obama, America’s first black president who served from 2008 to 2016, said a lot of the political narratives were now based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

“All those things that say ‘I’m better than you because of my genetic predisposition or circumstances in which I was born’, those ideas are doing a lot of damage.

Barack Obama speaking in Kuala Lumpur. It is his third visit to Malaysia since 2014.

“They are a source of conflict, war,” he said at a plenary discussion on the Asia-Pacific region.

Obama said he believed certain core values still applied today such as the need to respect people regardless of their appearance or their faith.

Societies, he said, work better when everyone has a voice, rather than just a few.

He said he was aware of some cultures which believe only boys should be educated, adding that change cannot happen overnight.

“But I will insist, that as someone who has two daughters and a strong-minded wife, that women are at the very least equal to men.”

He said if a country does not respect its religious diversity, it will eventually see conflict.

“It is dangerous if a state says someone can’t practise the faith of their conscience.”

Obama also spoke about his experience meeting leaders who contributed to their communities, but with “misinformed” views on minorities including the LGBT community.

“It doesn’t automatically make them bad people, but it did mean I had to tell them that their views were not consistent with their belief in Jesus’ teachings,” he said, adding there were times he had lost friends for voicing his views.

He said there were cultural challenges to overcome in the quest for gender equality in education.

He said even in the White House, there were times when senior female staff were not speaking out.

“After a while, I had to ask someone (a lady) what they thought of something and when they spoke, they had amazing insights.

“But small habits of being little less assertive in meetings, meant they weren’t heard as much.”

He said it was time women take a bigger role in all sectors.

“For men, if your organisation has no women in leadership positions, you are part of the problem and you need to be part of the solution.”