Director educates Malaysia on presidential election

By Austin Flynn

International understanding and strengthened relations with a trading partner are a of couple goals the director of Paul Simon Public Policy Institute hoped to accomplish in his trip to Malaysia.

David Yepsen departed May 11 and returned May 26 from a trip to Malaysia where he gave lectures on the upcoming 2012 presidential election. The campaign was set up by the State Department of Education and titled “Road to the White House: Candidates and Issues in 2012.”

During the campaign, Yepsen spoke about many different political factors in the 2012 race such as Latino and women voters and the economy. The presentations were held in three separate Malaysian locations: Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Penang.


“I felt honored (that) I was asked to do it because it’s my country’s government saying ‘We need you to go abroad and talk about America’s elections and about our values,’” Yepsen said.

Yepsen was suggested as a candidate to the State Department of Education by William Recktenwald, a senior lecturer in journalism.

Recktenwald, who has taken similar trips abroad to Sri Lanka and Maldives, said he chose Yepsen because of his 35 years of experience in the field of political journalism and his time covering the Iowa caucuses.

“Clearly, David is one of the stellar reporters of presidential elections anywhere in the country and nobody knows as much about them as he does …  so he was a natural for that,” Recktenwald said.

Yepsen, who took a similar trip to Zambia and Uganda in 2010, said the experience gave him a chance to speak to a modern, economically developed country and show people in the Malaysian  media how politics are handled in the U.S..

“I think the feeling the state department has is that these countries are emerging democracies and they’re friendly to the U.S., so we want to be friendly to them,” Yepsen said.

He said it’s in the interest of the United States to have people in those countries understand the U.S. and how its government not only works, but how it’s reported.


However, he said it’s also in the interest of Malaysia to understand what’s going on in the U.S. because what happens here can directly impact trading partners such as Malaysia.

Recktenwald said it is important for Yepsen to make this trip because often times America is only portrayed by what people see of it on TV.

He said this trip gave Yepsen the opportunity to show Malaysia a side of America not often seen by foreign countries.

“America’s Got Talent is not really indicative of anyone here other than a small, sometimes irrational group of people in this country, but it’s not the United States by any means at all, so he’s able to convey to them and explain complex programs very well,”  Recktenwald said.

Some of the presentations given by Yepsen had more than a couple hundred people in attendance.

Yepsen said he was even approached by an SIU alumnus during one of his lectures who wanted to know about the school and everything that had changed since he left.

Michelle Suarez, executive director of the SIU alumni association, said according to the university’s database, there are more than 400 students who now reside in Malaysia.

Carla Coppi, director of international services and programs, said she speculates there to be more than one thousand SIU graduates in Malaysia because of a strong Malaysian government-sponsored movement in the ’80s to get Malaysian students to study in America.

Coppi said with Yepsen’s recent visit and the number of alumni in Malaysia, it might be time to investigate the need for an SIUC network or club within the country.

“One of the things that David wanted to try to determine was if there was a need for a formalized chapter in Malaysia and he certainly heard a resounding ‘yes,’” Coppi said.

Although he was there to shed some light on the U.S. elections, Yepsen said the experience brought him understanding and respect for Malaysia also.

“I came away with appreciations for what we have here and an admiration for that country. They want to grow, they are growing, they’re working on education, many of their school facilities are new and modern and they’re putting their wealth in infrastructure and that’s good to see a country do,” Yepsen said.

After the trip, he said, he was more hopeful for the future of Malaysia as well.

“It will continue to be an important trading partner and a growing economic power and I think as they become more democratic and can be a freer people I think they’re going to be a more prosperous people,” Yepsen said.

Coppi said she would wager that Yepsen came away from his time spent there with more knowledge than what he came with.

“I’m sure David learned as much from them as they learned from him … and I always say when you have cross cultural learning, you ultimately one day achieve world peace and I truly believe that,” Coppi said.