Inspiring change: Malaysian leaders chosen for Obama Foundation Programme share their insights

Mark Ryan Raj
(L-R) Cheryl, Rozella, Amalina and Vivienne were selected to be a part of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific Programme. — Pictures from Saw Siow Feng, Firdaus Latif, Vivienne Chew and Rozella Mahjhrin.

PETALING JAYA, Dec 9 — Leadership is often viewed as a key element to successful change.

Without change, there is no progress, and without progress, we’d all be stuck repeating the same mistakes.

Inspiring change, on the other hand, is a feat easier said than done, as “change” is a very broad term that encompasses so many different factors, making it almost impossible for a single person to influence such wide-scale transformations.

Many global leaders, including those from Malaysia, have been working their entire lives in their respective fields to put the wheels in motion for change and to see it through for the betterment of society.

It’s because of that hard work and effort that some of the Malaysian leaders in social activism have gained the attention of the Obama Foundation and have been chosen to take part in the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific (APAC) Programme.

The APAC Programme will be held for the first time in Kuala Lumpur from December 10 to 14, as 200 of the world’s emerging leaders, who hail from 33 different countries, will convene for discussions, held by prominent speakers like Michelle Obama, around progress, opportunity and values-based leadership.

Gearing up to the programme, Malay Mail met up with a few of the selected 16 emerging leaders from Malaysia as they discussed what they hope to gain from the programme and how they can use new knowledge to be more influential in their fields.


The Malaysian education system has been a topic of heated debate for many in the country for a long period of time.

Some say it’s good enough, while others say that it is nowhere near the standards of other more successful countries.

So where does change begin?

Well, for Global School Leaders (GSL) Malaysia’s country director Cheryl Ann Fernando, it starts with making changes at school and in the mindsets of teachers and principals.

Cheryl said that changing the entire school system is too big of a dream to achieve in such a short time, but she hopes to get the wheels in motion for systemic change through GSL Malaysia’s initiatives. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

“We know the Malaysian education system is really... well, everyone has an opinion about it. Everyone thinks something is wrong but no one actually knows how to improve it,” said Cheryl.

“There are so many layers of problems, there’s no one silver bullet to solve it.”

Having worked as a teacher under Teach For Malaysia (TFM) for three years and had a movie called Adiwiraku made about her success in teaching, Cheryl explained that schools and the way of teaching haven’t changed since the time she was in school, over 16 years ago.

“The world is changing, but Malaysia is still stuck in ‘chalk and talk’. So what we’re (GSL Malaysia) trying to do is to get the school leaders to look at teaching differently and not repeat the same things, but expect different results,” said Cheryl.

She added that she hoped being selected to attend the Obama Foundation Leaders: APAC Programme would propel her and GSL Malaysia’s efforts in their aim to be the spark of a systemic change to our education system.

Cheryl, 33, will be working with 45 schools starting next year under GSL Malaysia’s fellowship programme as it plans to help school leaders, like principals and teachers, improve their schools and increase student outcomes and achievements.

“When I was a teacher, I saw how important it was to be a leader and to develop leadership skills amongst my students,” said Cheryl.

“So it’s quite exciting to be part of the Obama Foundation programme because the whole thing revolves around values-based leadership,

“We are left behind in our education system, we have lots to do, and changing it is such a big dream, but at least I hope that we can make small steps to see changes.”


When Malaysians talk about “inclusivity”, the topic always revolves around religion or race, but what many fail to realise is that there is a whole group being left out of the conversation.

That’s where Rozella Marie Mahjhrin comes in, as she inspires to give the differently-abled community a voice so that they have the capacity to speak about their opinions.

The 35-year-old started a social awareness project four years ago in 2015, called True Complexion which highlights individuals living with body image issues, different medical conditions and disabilities.

Rozella was often ostracised when she was younger because of the birthmark on her face, but hopes to shine a light on the differently-abled community and their achievements through her inclusive social platform. — Picture courtesy of Rozella Mahjhrin.

“You don’t see a lot of representation of people who are different, being born with a birthmark on my face, I struggled with my insecurities for so long,” said Rozella.

“So I thought, why don’t I use this thing, which I thought was my biggest curse, for something bigger than itself.”

She explained that she grew up feeling very isolated and was bullied a lot, as no one in her small town in Kota Kinabalu looked like her so she aspires to “be the person she needed when she was younger”.

“My vision is for others to see people beyond their physicality, beyond their disability or differences because the people in the community I work with are all capable and talented,

“They want to do things, they want to play major roles, but a lot of the time they are looked down upon and are seen as heroes for doing normal, everyday things, which is not what they want.”

Rozella added that that she was overjoyed to have been selected as one of the 200 emerging leaders in Asia as she hopes to use this opportunity to take her project to the next level and make Malaysia a more inclusive nation.

“I’m looking to take it to the next level, to grow it more, to have more representation for the differently-abled community, especially when it comes to education and employment,” said Rozella.

She added that she hoped to educate more parents and schools on how to talk to children about their differences or disabilities and possibly get employers to be more accommodating of differently-abled individuals.

Immigration Detention

Chew has spent nearly 12 years working with refugee and migrant populations. — Picture courtesy of Vivienne Chew.

With more than a decade of experience working with refugees and asylum seekers, Vivienne Chew has been actively advocating against immigration detention in Malaysia.

Chew works as the International Detention Coalition’s (IDC) regional director for the Asia-Pacific region and advocates for governments to look for solutions, other than immigration detention centres, to manage refugee and migrant communities.

“Immigration detention is so harmful, especially for children, and what we’d like to see is a Malaysia that doesn’t detain children for immigration reasons,” said Chew.

“I want to see a Malaysia that protects children who are seeking international protection and not just put them in a detention centre, with or without their parents.”

She added that being one of the selected few to attend the Obama Foundation programme, she has the perfect chance to raise public awareness about this issue, and hopefully get fresh ideas from the other brilliant minds.

“I’ve got a hope that through the foundation we have an opportunity to raise the profile of this issue, I think the average Malaysian doesn’t know that there are 13 immigration depots in the country and that children, babies are being held there,” said Chew.

“I have no time for professional development, so it’s such a privilege to be able to access everyone else at the programme, so I can learn from them and use that knowledge to make the work I am doing better.”


Focused on empowering youths, Nurul Amalina Che Ariffin is one of the original founders of the Chili Padi Academy, which is an environmental education and leadership accelerator programme for senior high school students around South-east Asia.

Amalina has spent a lot of her time working, ever since she was in secondary school, on youth empowerment as she strongly believes that similar to a cili padi (small chilli pepper), youths may be small or young, but at the same time are very strong and powerful.

Amalina said that she wants the youth to take power into their own hands instead of complaining and waiting for someone else to do it. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

“I strongly believe that in order for us to solve the world’s problems and challenges, we have to empower the people who hold the key to the future, the youths,” said Amalina.

“Instead of waiting for the government to make changes, the youths need to be more empowered, address key issues and take action for themselves.”

The Chili Padi Academy aims to equip high school students with the skills, emotional intelligence and networks to become the next generation of environmental leaders.

Amalina hopes that by attending the Obama Foundation programme she can help amplify the connections of youths across the region.

“Everyone has the best intentions and passion for doing the work that they do, but why should we compete against each other to see who’s the best?” said Amalina.

“Why don’t we collaborate and connect since we’re all trying to achieve the same goal? So I hope that through this programme, people from all over the region can make connections and learn from each other.”