“President Obama called on me and said ‘young man in the blue tie right there, you sir.’”
That’s how TFAS alumnus Alphaeus Tan (AIPE 14, AIPES 15) first shot to social media fame in November 2015.
Some people thought it was staged or that they planted him in the audience to ask this question. In reality, a great deal led up to Tan being called on by President Barack Obama at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) last fall.
Watch the video of Tan asking President Obama his now famous question:
In the now viral video, Tan makes a personal appeal to President Obama, asking him to speak with the prime minister of Malaysia on behalf of the people to encourage freedom of speech, democracy and political transparency.
“President Obama called on me and said ‘young man in the blue tie right there, you sir.'”
However, what viewers can’t see on the video is Tan’s persistence and drive to ask the president his question and shed light on issues facing his home country. By his own account, Tan says he stood in the crowd waving his arms around and shouting: “Hey President Barack Obama! Obama! Look here! Look here!” It was this enthusiasm and excitement that got the president’s attention.
Tan gained the passion leading up to this moment by attending two TFAS programs, the Asia Institute for Political Economy (AIPE) in 2014 and the American Institute on Political and Economic Systems (AIPES) in 2015.
“What I learned at TFAS was the main start of my student activism,” Tan said. “It has sparked what I want to do now, which is to serve the public.”
Because of the lessons he learned in TFAS, Tan knew that democracy and personal freedom were achievable. During Tan’s second summer with TFAS, he learned about the nonviolent transitions of power and how some Eastern European countries achieved democracy through peaceful protests. These examples led him to believe that he too could have this kind of impact on his home country of Malaysia.
Upon returning from his second TFAS experience in Prague, Tan immediately had the opportunity to get involved. Hours after his plane touched down, he participated in Malaysia’s largest protest to date for the rights of its people.
“I was tired and jet lagged, and I didn’t have the gear,” Tan said. “They were throwing tear gas, but I didn’t care. I thought ‘this is my time, and my country is calling for my help,’ and I didn’t want to turn a blind eye and ignore that call.”
Shortly after sleeping in the streets and demanding democracy in the nation’s capital for 36 hours, Tan was invited along with 500 other young leaders to the YSEALI with President Obama.
Knowing the conference would include a question and answer forum, Tan prepared for weeks drafting and revising a request for the United States president. On the surface, Tan’s question may sound simple.
However, these words are powerful coming from a young man from Malaysia, a country where there are limits on freedom of speech. Knowing these laws, Tan still spoke up.
Acknowledging that “you can’t solve a problem with a question,” Tan says he initially wanted to use this platform to help bring light to the injustices of the system.
“I think freedom of speech is a basic human right…my purpose of asking the question wasn’t to call on help from the United States, but it was actually to raise awareness around the world that our country faces this problem, and I think it has done that.”
In the days following the conference Tan thought he should downplay his outspokenness on this topic from fear of becoming imprisoned. However, he quickly gained social media fame, and support surrounding his words began pouring in, especially from young people.
Just as Tan thought things were looking up, in May of this year he realized his country still wasn’t going in the right direction. He saw parliament voting on issues that would lessen people’s freedoms even more than they already did.
In response to his dissatisfaction, Tan started the Red Circle Movement social media campaign. Inspired by the concept of the Black Dot Campaign for domestic violence victims, Tan says the Red Circle Movement is a way for anyone to express their oppression without saying a word.
The colors and meanings from his country’s flag inspired the design of the movement’s symbol. Tan explains that the color red stands for bravery, and that the circle means unity and standing together against oppression.
Overall, the Red Circle Movement means “unity and bravery against despotism and tyranny in Malaysia.”
Tan says that neither he nor the Red Circle Movement are “anti-government.” Instead, Tan says he is “pro-citizen,” and he is speaking up because he knows it’s important to fight for the rights of the people in his country.
Now this movement is spreading across international waters. With support from TFAS friends, as well as those who want to speak out against oppression, the #RedCircle movement is gaining momentum everywhere.
Tan says he’s learned many lessons from his TFAS experience, but most importantly that “if you want to change the world, you have to actually do something and you have to contribute.”
Tan is one of 15,000 TFAS alumni who are making a difference in their communities and throughout the world by upholding the values essential to the preservation and success of a free society.
“Alphaeus joins the ranks of so many of our alumni who have committed themselves to the cause of freedom in their own ways,” said TFAS President Roger Ream. “Our alumni around the world are getting involved in politics, starting think tanks and speaking out against tyranny. We are proud to call Alphaeus one of our own and know that he has a bright future ahead of him.”
This month, Tan and his childhood friend announced they were chosen as contestants for the upcoming season of The Amazing Race Asia. During the competition, Tan will be representing his home country as he follows clues and attempts to reach “pit stops” around the world to win prizes. If you are in a television market that airs The Amazing Race Asia, tune in to watch this TFAS alumnus compete in October. For more information visit The Amazing Race Asia website.