What is it like to have a private dialogue with President Obama?

Next steps for Southeast Asia after the (star)dust has settled

Wednesday 14 March, 1:06 AM.
I just got home from the airport after an 8-day trip to Israel. It is 1:06 PM in Washington D.C. where the Obama Foundation is based, and I am about to speak to someone from there regarding my participation at the Roundtable Discussion in Singapore less than a week later. Google Hangout rings. Our interview commences.

Monday 19 March, 2:15 PM.
President Obama walks into the room where we, 10 emerging leaders from all around ASEAN, have been chatting about our work and their initial impressions of Singapore. The casual atmosphere is not threatened by the presence of (probably) the most influential man in the world, and you can taste the buzzing excitement in the air as he goes round the table shaking hands as we introduce ourselves.


The Obama Foundation’s mission is to inspire and empower people to change their world, and they do this by equipping young leaders and civic innovators with skills and tools and through their making their programmes accessible to all. President Obama was on a week-long tour of the Asia-Pacific region, and Singapore was his first stop where he was due to give an address to clients and guests of the Bank of Singapore, and had arranged to meet with emerging leaders representing each ASEAN nation in a Roundtable Discussion to hear about the work they are doing and brainstorm about how they and other young leaders in ASEAN can work together to promote sustainable growth.

Representing Singapore and what we are doing on the front of youth development, I was one of the ten young leaders selected to speak with President Obama. The work that we do at Halogen Foundation is extremely aligned to the Obama Foundation, with our mission being to inspire and influence a generation of young people to lead themselves and others well. We’ve spent the last 15 years making quality leadership and entrepreneurship education programmes accessible to all young people, complementing the excellent academic education that the Singapore government already provides, and we’re looking to take the next step and use our good standing to impact more young people from our shores and beyond.

Monday 19 March, 3:10 PM
We’re almost midway through the discussion, and we’re talking about the ASEAN identity among our youth and how we can engage governments to make systemic change in our home nations. “Don’t lose hope,” President Obama chimes in his familiar narrative as a response to our complaints that old stalwarts sometimes reject new initiatives very early on, “If you look at history and the big things that changed the world, most of them were started by young people. It wasn’t some old guy saying ‘There must be a better way’. It was the youth.” A split-second of silence followed as inspiration — more than just hope — seeded into our hearts.

Youth Activation and Engagement

The conversation centered around two main things on a regional level: Activating young people to spark change around them, and engaging them and others to sustain that change. President Obama’s hope for the future is very heavily angled towards what civic innovators — and many of them young leaders — are doing from the ground-up. While we spoke about how youth can engage governments to make monumental shifts, the audacity of youth to dream of substantial societal and environmental change, and him inspiring us to keep the flame burning and work together as one ASEAN, it was encouraging and very humbling to me that this was a room with one common purpose: Elevating our generation and the generations after us to make that change.

This is what we at Halogen Foundation aim to do, and we’re very excited to ideate and explore three possibilities that arise from this Roundtable.

1. Building Young Leaders and Entrepreneurs in ASEAN

As one of the first Global Training Partners in the region for The Leadership Challenge®, and the exclusive Licensed Partner for Habitudes® and the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship, we have impacted more than 130,000 students and 6,000 educators through proven and rigourous training programmes run in Singapore.

We want to reach out and enable educators from around ASEAN to benefit from these programmes as well, and will explore how we can tap on our experience to build new cross-border programmes for youth residing in our neighbouring countries.

2. Digital Leadership

In this age we have witnessed how technology has enabled us to do wondrous things, such as connect with someone instantly through a computer in your pocket, ask a machine to learn gargantuan chunks of data to make optimal decisions, and allow every person the ability to create content to broadcast their message to the world. With this comes a trade-off, and the Obama Foundation has kickstarted conversations on what it means to be a good digital citizen.

We want to look at how young people exercise their influence digitally, and how we can co-create with them (rather than develop without them) a method to inspire youths to use their influence responsibly and edifyingly. Beyond that, we’re also keen to explore how we can better educate youth to respond well to fake news. It’s about both the creation and consumption of online content.

3. Emulating the Success of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance

The My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative was launched to address opportunity gaps faced by young men of colour in the United States, and has since grown into an independent non-profit organisation known as the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance (MBK Alliance). Their belief is that every young person deserves equal opportunity to achieve success, regardless of their race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

This is the heart of why we have been running our NFTE programme for the past 4 years. We want to explore how we can work with partner organisations to propagate this belief and mission in this part of the world, closing opportunity gaps and improving life outcomes for all young people.

Credit:  Russel Wong  for the Obama Foundation

Credit: Russel Wong for the Obama Foundation

Monday 19 March, 3:40 PM.
The group photograph is done, and President Obama’s shaking hands and saying goodbyes. “Is he really here? Like actually here?” My mind still cannot wrap my head around this. He meets with Ambassador Wagar — great guy, I remember his parties and feel bummed that he’s not based here anymore — and we go back into the room to carry on the conversation with Mr. Ben Rhodes, who’s working on International Affairs with the Foundation. He’s the man who makes things happen; he’s going to be a big part of what elevates this region’s community building work. “I know Ganesh wants to get a drink so we’ll keep this brief.” Mr. Rhodes quips. This is Day 0 in the Halogen journey of impacting youth in ASEAN.

Join us in our Cause

We cannot do this alone. Effective and life-changing youth development is a joint effort, and we are fortunate to have worked with some outstanding partners over our past years. But as we scale our impact and reach more young people, we need to work with more educators, corporate partners, and other youth sector/social sector organisations to support and bring value to our future generations.

Reach out to me if this is exciting to you, whether as an educator, a volunteer, an intern, a donor, or even just a fellow youth based in ASEAN. We’re kindling the little flame that was sparked by our interactions with President Obama and the Obama Foundation, and we can’t wait for you to be a part of this with us.

Thanks to Ivy Tse and Sean Kong for reading the drafts before release. Halogen is hiring! Get in touch with us.

(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development non-profit organisation focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Outside of work, Tim is involved with communities making real impact, including Sandbox, WEF Global Shapers, Kairos Society, +Acumen Impact Circle, and volunteers as a youth leader in his church. This post also appeared on Medium.)