Conversations with Daniel: Voices from Penang

Interview by Daniel (he/him), 26 QLD

We discuss the big challenges and important responsibilities facing young people from Malaysia – in Part Six of my journey to amplify voices in the Asia-Pacific region.

It has been a non-stop week in India, with very few opportunities to slow down and reflect.

If you’re following this series, you know that I’ve interviewed some incredible young people from across the Asia-Pacific. We’ve gained insights from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Nepal. These one-on-one informal chats are quickly becoming the highlights of my week.

Every day, I see more and more young people voicing their opinion – on stage, front and centre. Our collective confidence has grown. But time is running out, and there are still so many people I hope to see.

Enter – Mike Cheong, from Penang, Malaysia. I first spoke to him on the First Day, where he quickly made it known that he had a purpose behind his visit. This is no holiday – Mike is on a mission. He’s here to build connections and prepare solutions.

I was eager to learn more about his background. What’s it like being a young person in Malaysia? Here’s what he had to say:

What is the number one issue affecting young people in your community?

I think the number one issue is finding meaning in life. Everyone is just struggling to get to the next phase. They don’t have time to do something that is meaningful. It’s partially the fault of the economy, but also the influence of peers and the lack of opportunities.

What is the cost-of-living situation in Malaysia for young people? Are prices high?

Prices in Malaysia are getting higher and higher. You either go with the flow, or you get left behind. We don’t have much support. Everybody is out for themself. It’s really becoming a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world.

As I said, doing something meaningful is secondary – because everyone is just establishing themselves. And in the Asia context, parents are just rushing to see their children have success and start families. The children hold that responsibility – to meet the expectations of their parents.

Tell me more about your role as a youth leader?

I sit in a local youth organisation. I was staff before, but now I’m on a board. And I’ve also just been elected as the Vice President.

My local President is very open about stepping down for young people, and he has kept to his word. But even still, it has been challenging. The senior members still think I’m not really ready. Even people who are supportive still hold back – because “oh, he is too young for this.” That may be true, but how else can I learn without experience?

I wish there were more avenues for experience – because it all happens so fast. There needs to be more opportunities for senior and junior members to support one another. Senior members can provide opportunity to network. That is what young people are looking for.

Additionally, young people on boards should be supporting one another. We should be sharing resources – all of us, across the Asia-Pacific.

Do you think gaining meaningful work is an achievable goal for young people?

Young people have a lot of important goals. Saving the planet is a big one, but improving the economy and improving work is a big one too. It’s about surviving. Once we have our basic needs, that frees us up to do other work.

Our mission, our responsibility, is to young people. But we must remember that young people have to take up the responsibility themselves. They have to have ownership – otherwise, it can backfire.

Once again, the significance of doing work that’s meaningful was brought up. There is a sad acknowledgement that the jobs on offer aren’t always going to be personally enriching – you either “go with the flow” or get left behind.

Malaysia, like most countries in the Asia-Pacific, is also feeling cost-of-living pressures. In Australia, household inflation far outpaces growth in wages. We must remember our region is interconnected – economic performance in one country can have a drastic effect on another.

Mike’s comments about the ‘Asia context’ are very interesting – the pressure to be successful and have children. The ‘responsibility’ to make one’s parents proud is felt by all young people and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, anecdotally, the expectations of children are less intense in Australian society. Young adults are definitely waiting longer to have kids – but what about outside the Australian context? This is a cultural distinction we should be cognisant of – especially if we hope to deliver regional solutions that are responsive to all young people and their societal needs.

I wish to highlight Mike’s comments about giving young people ownership over their goals. Older generations have a responsibility to younger people – to safeguard opportunities and better society (to plant the tree, under whose shade they will never sit). However, that responsibility isn’t a licence to guard young people from making decisions of their own – it’s about giving young people the tools to succeed themselves (teach a man to fish…). Otherwise, what’s the point?

Mike says that without ownership over our solutions, they could “backfire”. He is speaking to something I’ve seen constantly throughout my career as a youth advocate – which I can only describe as scepticism and animosity towards ‘adults’ who claim to have the best interests of young people at heart. This is something I recognise – we are blessed with the opportunity to “be heard”, when really the solutions should be co-designed and led by young people. Without that sense of ownership, and without young leaders standing behind and speaking to those solutions – there is little hope for the next generation of decision makers.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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