Tuesday, July 21, 2015

My YSEALI Experience

It's been more than a month since I am back from the US and Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). I had been wanting to write down my experience but was a bit too pre-occupied with other things since touching down especially catching up with works. Anyway, here it is, better late than never. :) 


It's 25th April mid-night, I looked at my empty suitcase and thought, "o crap, I am flying tomorrow night to the US and I have not prepared anything!" After all, I have just finished a crazily packed day. Our office has been busy since the beginning of the month - we completed SS2 Wall Art project in the first week, ran anti-rape campaign together with All Women Action Malaysia (AWAM) in the second week, organised Youth Leadership Camp (LEAP) in the third week and just launched Change Your World's anti-human trafficking campaign on 25th April. I needed to cramp everything so that I could spare some time to go the US without short-changing our annual goals. 

Frankly, at this stage, being an introvert, all I wanted was to retract to my personal corner (you'll understand that if you are an introvert too, haha), definitely not to attend leadership program with many new people to meet and connections to make, not to mention the hassle to pack in the middle of the night! Argh. I started to regret and thought to myself, "Why on earth did I apply to this YSEALI?". 

But I was reminded of the reasons I applied to this program - to learn new knowledge, to gain new information, to challenge my current perspectives and to seek new ways of doing things. A person will only move backward if he/she starts living in his/her own world and repeating everything he/she has done before. So I cleared my mind, got myself a coffee, opened my eyes wide, and yes, started packing. And off I went to the U.S on Sunday 26th April 2015!

5 Things I Learnt in the US and YSEALI

I spent about a month in the US under YSEALI, a short period in Washington DC with most of the time in Seattle. Before I went to the US, I listed down more than 20 work-related knowledge/perspectives I would like to learn. I thought I would be very fortunate if I could get half of that completed at the end of this trip. 

To my very surprise, I managed to learn about 90% of them, thanks to the YSEALI hosts who went all out to arrange meetings that I thought was too rush/difficult to arrange. Overall, I've done more than 100 meetings, big and small, in the whole trip. I couldn't have asked for more learning opportunities than in YSEALI. Speaking and most importantly listening to important and experienced people at different arena provided me deep insights - much more than what I could learn reading tons of books! I took note on the learning points especially on policy-related issues but shall not bore you with the details here. 

Below are some photos of our meetings with different people. (I didn't take many photos, so all of these are group photos when we went in a group instead of my personal meetings). 

YSEALI Fellows with Washington State Justice, Sheryl Gordon

 YSEALI Fellows with Washington State Lieutenant General, Brad Owen 

YSEALI Fellows with the Elected Council of Tulalip Tribe Learning about 
US Indigenous People's Policy

Observing State Legislature Session 

Beside work related knowledge, since this is the first time I went to the US, here are the things I learnt from the country as a whole:- 

1. Great nation starts with great aspiration 

One thing I found interesting in the US is the optimism Americans have for their future and their deep belief in American Dream, that as long as you work hard, you'll succeed. They like to tell stories about how a children from disadvantaged family rose to success in this land of dreams. And in the US, most children have been told that they can be the next president of the United States! I should not be surprised actually, after all, this is the country that the president dreamt in the 1960s that mankind could reach the moon. I believe this is why the Americans have time and again revolutionalise mankind's progress - their ability to believe and work for the impossibility. 

2. Human talent is the most important element of a society

I have been to more than 20 countries, but the US was the first country that people take immense pride on the success of migrants' children. The country ability to accept talents, appreciate, promote and reward them, amazed me. The US really stands out when it comes to attracting talents and providing opportunities for them. They are also very good at connecting talents. I spent considerable amount of time in Seattle and watched carefully the way the corporates and non-profit sectors do things there. I found that the dynamic of human talent connection was tremendous in this place, facilitating the free-flowing exchange of ideas.  

When I first arrived at Seattle, I wasn't really impressed with the city's look itself. It is not as pretty as many other cities that I've been to. Nevertheless, after spending a few weeks there I realised that this is indeed a great city. I realised that a city is great not because of its buildings, but the freedom, vibrancy and innovative spirits of the people and the desire to do things better. After all, this is a city which headquartered  Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and Boeing! 

We had the privilege to visit Microsoft and Starbucks HQs and Google office at Seattle, all of which gave me a closer look at how big American corporations operate.  

City of Seattle

Visit to Microsoft HQ, where about 50,000 people work. Their Cybercrime Center was impressive!

Visit to Google third largest office. Tried out their VR Cardboard. 

Starbucks first Outlet at Seattle

Inside of Starbucks HQ which houses about 4,000 staffs

3. Efficiency is the key

One thing I learnt from the US is the way they hold meetings - always keep it concise and efficient. And they meet even during lunch, it's called working lunch. While I do have some lunch meetings once in a while, it has never been almost every day. I found that their ability to arrange and hold meetings efficiently actually make discussions more effective and can accomplish many things in a short time. 

I've been applying this new skill of meeting arrangement since I am back. For those who are working with me, now you know where the breakfast and lunch meetings come from. Haha! I found that by doing that, I have been able to spend more evenings at home. It's really good. Thank you YSEALI for teaching me the secret! :) 

Working Lunch - Meeting at Discovery Institute
Met former US ambassador to the UN Bruce Chapman and 
Mayor of City of Newcastle Steve Buri

4. Live life bigger than yourself

Seattle is a place where the non-profit organisations are well-funded, empowered, vocal and effective. There are many millionaire/billionaire-turn-philanthropists here. It's interesting to see so many people who have "made it" making so much efforts to make the society better. By the way, I am also one of the beneficiaries of Seattle-based organization - Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which granted me Gates Cambridge Scholarship for my master degree at Cambridge.  The foundation is also doing many more meaningful works all around the world - providing solution to diarrhoea, malaria, poverty etc. 

Because of one person's (Bill Gate's) decision to be generous and recognised that he could make a change, I had the opportunity to study in my dream university and many more lives all around the world are changed. I have always admire the great works of Gates Foundation and think that if one day I were to leave Malaysian politics, the foundation will surely be the top in my list to send my resume to. I had the opportunity to have a short attachment in Children Alliance, a non-profit organization that does advocacy for children related policies. There are not many advocacy groups in Malaysia, I learnt a lot from them especially on children policies. 

With the People in Children Alliance

At Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Gallery which showed their works around the world

5. Accountability 

My mentor during the YSEALI program is Zack Hudgin. He has been a state representative for 13 years, having won 7 elections. Now he's running for election director. Let's wish him all the best! 

Zack gave me a lot of insights into American legislature, brought me to Democrat caucus, something of a luxury for outsiders like us! I realised the importance of a good institution to cultivate accountability. In the US, legislature has considerable amount of control over the executive. However, in Malaysia, executive power is so much higher and legislature often seen as rubber stamps. Absolute power corrupt absolutely. There is a real need for reform in the legislative bodies if we are going to see a government that is accountable to the people. I've been writing suggestion papers on Selangor legislature, let's see how much I can do as a small legislator in the next few years. 

With Zack Hudgin

Zack also told me stories about an elected rep having to resign because she over-claim her transport expense and another will not contest again because he used official transport for his family vacation. To an elected representative from Malaysia like me, this is surely something unheard of. After all, I am doing politics in a country where no one was charged over RM12.5 billion PKFZ scandal and the PM can still be in the office, walking freely in and out of the country, although he and his wife are linked to multiple corruption cases. 

Other Things I did in the US 

1. Meet with other Malaysians 

During my stay in the US, I also arranged for meetings with Malaysians at Washington DC and Seattle to know more about their lives in the US and update them on the recent issues back home. I also had a small forum with the students at Washington University. 

With Malaysians students at Washington University

Picture with Malaysians at Seattle

2. Skype Meeting with our colleagues back home

For some urgent issues, I did Skype with people back in Malaysia at night. The below was picture of me spending the 2 hours of my birthday on Skype meeting with colleagues back home. Haha. 

3. Enjoy the local lives

One thing I found interesting in the US was that the elected representatives here do have most of their weekends and public holidays free (those are the period that we Malaysian politicians are the busiest, attending events and programs).  Anyway, because of that, I got to enjoy 3 free weekends (an absolute luxury!), which I made good use of doing the thing the locals do - hiking Mount Rainer, watching baseball game, visiting friends and something very American - barbecue party and road trip! 

With friends hiking at Mount Rainer

Watched baseball game for the first time. Supported local team Seattle Mariners of course. ;) 

Random picture during our road trip around Olympic Peninsular. 

4. Visit to White House

What is more exciting in the US than visiting White House and meeting with the president himself? We had the privilege to visit White House and had a town hall meeting with the president Barack Obama as YSEALI is one of the initiatives under Obama administration. I had the opportunity to ask the question to Obama about Malaysia democracy and the jailing of Anwar too. See here the news report. 

Meeting Obama

Random corner at White House

5. Dinner Department of State

Although we didn't get to meet John Kerry, the US Department of State hosted us (YSEALI and other American programs participants) a dinner. That's the best dinner I have had in the US. The food was awesome. 

With "Secretaries of State" at US State Department

6. Home is still the best

Although almost everything seems to be better in the US than Malaysia, to me, Malaysia is to the best home in the world - home is where the heart is. And it is our responsibility to make our home better. 

So, what's the best thing about YSEALI? 

Overall, it was a good learning experience participating in YSEALI. Overall, it is a program that can be taylored to what you want to learn. My advice is to be very specific on what you would like to learn so the host can arrange the relevant meetings for you. Keep a learning attitude and be proactive, I am sure it will be a fruitful experience for you. 

The best thing about YSEALI is that it is ABSOLUTELY FREE!  O, the cheapskate me! ;p 

Thanks YSEALI again and keep up the good work. :)