ASEAN summit: Obama tells Malaysian youths to look to peace

US President Barack Obama answers a question during a town hall with Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at Taylor's University in Kuala Lumpur on November 20, 2015.

PETALING JAYA - US President Barack Obama wants youngsters in Malaysia to reject the "terrible vision" that led to the Paris attacks, offering instead an alternative goal where traditional cultures co-exist within a diverse modern world.

"You can set an example," he told 500 Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) representatives at the Taylor's Lakeside University Campus in Subang yesterday.

Obama, who arrived onboard Air Force One at the RMAF Base in Subang at 3.30pm from Manila - where he attended the Apec Summit - removed his coat and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, a sign of his non-formal approach with the youngsters.

Obama called on the next generation to avoid a mindset in which people divided themselves along ethnic, racial and tribal lines, calling it "a precursor to discrimination".

He said the next step in that thought process would be to demonise those who were different, and that line of thinking was wreaking havoc and violence across the Middle East.

"Those countries are in chaos, so many of them, because of this notion that somehow, if somebody worships God differently than you, they're less than you," Obama said.

"And people are slaughtered based on that idea."

Even as Obama held his town hall session, gunmen attacked a hotel in Mali, where they took about 170 hostages. (Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice, briefed him on the violence as soon as he left the stage.)

The president's visit to the university was his first stop after arriving in Kuala Lumpur for the ASEAN Summit, which begins today.

Noting his personal connection with the region, Obama said Asia Pacific was "part of who I am and how I see the world".

The president lived in Indonesia as a child and his half-sister was born there.

A major dose of humility arrived moments later when one young man told the grey-haired president that he was "ageing toward a very senior life".

Although Obama said it hurt his feelings, he took it in stride. He laughed it off as he directed the questioner to finish his question and sit down.

"The first thing I want from young people is to stop calling me old," Obama quipped.

Choo Choon Sian, 26, who runs a financial education company for young people, said he had the opportunity to learn from the world's best minds on how to better structure a financial education programme while he was in Washington DC.

Launched in 2013, YSEALI is Obama's signature programme on strengthening leadership development and networking in South-East Asia through a variety of programmes and engagements, including US educational and cultural exchanges, regional exchanges and seed funding.

During his visit to Malaysia in April last year, the president held a similar session with YSEALI at Universiti Malaya.

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