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WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Obama gets personal in Asia

Monday - 4/28/2014, 4:30am  ET

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall style event at the University of Malaya with participants in the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, April 27, 2014. With the first visit to Malaysia by a U.S. president in nearly half a century, Obama holds economic and security talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who leads a southeast Asian nation with an important role in Obama's efforts to forge deeper ties with the region. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

JULIE PACE
AP White House Correspondent

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Human rights. Trade talks. Religious freedom. Asian economics. China.

President Barack Obama was prepped and ready to be quizzed the thorniest of topics in U.S.-Asian policy as he took the mic Sunday in front of hundreds of young Asians at a town hall-style forum at the University of Malaya.

But when the questions started coming, many of the young questioners were more interested in getting a personal sense of the first American president to visit Malaysia in more than four decades.

What is happiness? asked one young person. Spending time with your family, Obama replied after a few seconds of thought.

Another participant wanted to know about Obama's aspirations as a youngster and whether he had achieved his goals. Reflecting on a personal biography that's already familiar to many Americans, Obama recalled high school years in which he didn't take his studies as seriously as, well, perhaps he should have.

"Sometimes I was enjoying life too much," Obama said, inviting the youngsters to read between the lines.

When one questioner asked Obama about his biggest regrets, Obama had a quick retort: "I regret calling on you, because now I'm going to be telling everybody my business," Obama said.

Turning serious for a moment, Obama said he regretted not spending more time with his mother before she died of cancer.

"What you remember in the end, I think, is the people you love," Obama said near the conclusion of the 80-minute town hall. "I realized that I didn't every single day -- or at least more often -- just spend time with her and find out what she was thinking and what she was doing, because she had been such an important part of my life."

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There are selfies, and then there are presidential selfies.

Not just everyone qualifies for a coveted amateur snapshot with Obama. But if you're the leader of a strategically important nation 30 million people strong, you just might make the cut.

"My selfie with President Obama!" read the tweet from Prime Minister Najib Razak. He posted the shot of him and Obama, in suits against a white wall, on Twitter just as he and Obama were preparing to answer questions in Kuala Lumpur.

Others haven't been so lucky.

During a stop in South Korea earlier on Obama's trip, an elementary school-aged girl asked Obama for a selfie after he spoke to U.S. troops at a military garrison. Reporters trailing Obama couldn't hear his exact response, but he smiled and moved along the rope line without granting the request.

Selfies with Obama have become something of a phenomenon in recent months, starting with a selfie that Obama took with Denmark's prime minister that spread like wildfire on social media.

They've also become something of a headache for the White House.

At an event honoring the Boston Red Sox earlier this month, player David Ortiz tweeted a selfie he took with Obama on a Samsung phone. When the company used the photo to promote its smartphones, the White House wasn't amused.

"We certainly object," said presidential spokesman Jay Carney.

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What a difference half a century makes.

Taking the podium with Obama for a joint news conference, Najib reflected on the state of affairs when Lyndon B. Johnson, the last American president to visit Malaysia, came here in 1966.

"TV was black and white," Najib said with a hint of nostalgia. "The Monkees were topping the U.S. charts with 'Last Train to Clarksville.'

"It's a good song," Obama chimed in.

"And 'The Sound of Music' movie was winning Academy Awards," Najib continued.

Careful there, Mr. Prime Minister. You're dating yourself.

The generational gap with a younger cohort of Southeast Asians came up again later at the town hall forum, when Obama was asked about Generation Y picking up the baton from Generation X on social and global issues.

"I'm trying to figure out which generation we're on," replied a befuddled Obama, pondering aloud whether today's young people comprise Generation Z. "Are they here yet, or is that next?"


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