Everyone falls silent as Aung San Suu Kyi enters the room. She’s somewhat smaller than I’d imagined, but slim, upright and elegant. We’re all suddenly aware that we’re in the presence of a living icon.
I step forward to greet her, introducing myself. She smiles. She’s a little disconcerted and slightly ill-at-ease. I lead her to her seat at the front of the room. I watch as she sizes up the audience — 50 or so young people from across Southeast Asia. Seeing their youthful and enthusiastic faces, she visibly relaxes. Then she takes charge.
Sadly, my session chairing “The Lady” last week in Bangkok was strictly off-the-record so I can’t write about what we discussed.
The opportunity to spend time with her arose quite by chance. For well over six months, I’d been arranging, along with my colleagues from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Southeast Asia, a special program for emerging Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders.
We’d set up the event because we wanted to promote two things: human resource development and a greater sense of Asean identity among young leaders. By the time the East Asia Summit came along, we had managed to assemble a slew of bright young people from across Asean, including journalists, a private equity fund manager, businesspeople, a female police officer, a ministerial staffer and various social entrepreneurs.
The impressive CVs aside, Suu Kyi was to make the deepest impression on all of us — both young and old. She chose her words with great precision, enunciating them clearly, like a schoolteacher wanting to ram home certain key messages.
I remember observing very closely and being struck by her poise and quiet dignity. She was dressed simply but elegantly, wearing a Burmese longyi, pale sky-blue blouse and rubber slippers. She had flowers in her hair and a shawl that she adjusted as she spoke.
Sitting alongside her I couldn’t help but think about all that she’d experienced over the past quarter-century: the excitement of the polls in 1990, the subsequent brutal suppression, her many years of house arrest, the constant threats of assassination, the attacks (in Depayin more than 70 of her supporters were murdered) and harassment, not to mention the cost to her own personal life — a husband taken from her by cancer and children who grew up with a mother in absentia.
Suu Kyi was quick to caution against those who were too overly optimistic with regards to the situation in Myanmar. As she said in a separate session at the WEF, referring to her country by its alternate name: “Good laws already exist in Burma but we do not have a clean and independent judicial system. …These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism. … A little bit of healthy skepticism I think is in order.”
At the same time, and obviously with the future in mind, she also spoke for the needs of the youth.
“The proportion of young people unemployed in Burma is extremely high,” she said. “That is a time bomb. Please don’t think about how much benefit will come to those who are investing. I understand investors invest because they hope to profit from ventures. I agree with that, but our country must benefit as much as those who invest. I want this commitment to mean quite simply jobs — as many jobs as possible.”
Suu Kyi represents the kind of leadership that Asean countries desperately need right now. We need men and women who are grounded, realistic and practical while being able to live by higher, nobler ideals — like a latter-day Nelson Mandela.
Suu Kyi is focused as she discusses a faltering education system, electricity blackouts and the uncertain future for her predominantly youthful nation. Yet she’s able to inspire and lead, providing a powerful moral message, underscored by democracy and fair play, because she understands that such leadership unlocks human potential.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.