Three young leaders from Asia are in the Cowboy State learning about government and U.S. democracy.
Zahkung Tu Mai, Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen and Ooi Tze Howe are participating in a program in which leaders under 40 visit the United States. Young American political leaders then visit foreign countries as part of the exchange.
The idea behind the 51-year-old American Council of Young Political Leaders program is for people to learn from each other, which will ultimately result in better representation and policy for folks at home, said Bryan Pedersen of Cheyenne, a former state lawmaker who has participated in the exchange and is passionate about its benefits.
Pedersen and Dick Shanor, a Cheyenne city councilman and Wyoming Department of Education chief of staff, have largely organized the leaders’ schedule in Wyoming, which included visits to public meetings and the Wyoming Supreme Court. They also spent a week in Washington.
Pedersen said he’s been to India and Pakistan and later Japan.
The experience taught him how to be empathetic toward people with different backgrounds. When working with others, he said he looks for their different talents, temperaments and convictions.
“A better understating of where (people) come from will lead to a more constructive dialogue,” he said.
And that leads to better legislation and policy, he said.
Zahkung, of Myanmar, is learning about tourism efforts in Cheyenne.
Myanmar, also called Burma, was ruled by the military for five decades, Zahkung said.
Htin Kyaw recently became president. He is counseled by Aung San Suu Kyi, a renowned human rights activist who was under house arrest by previous regimes for years.
A social scientist, Zahkung said that he was struck by the amount of support and collaboration among the tourism industry, the city of Cheyenne and Wyoming.
“The government is very supportive, which you will not see in my county,” he said. “We have to engage a lot with the government in my county.”
Yii, a doctor and attorney in Malaysia, is interested in Shanor’s work on City Council and at the Wyoming Department of Education.
“The main difference between the United States and my country is the decentralization of education here in the United States,” he said. “The states have autonomy.”
Yii said the strength of the U.S. system is that instruction and curriculum can be tailored for different cultures and state priorities.
He sees a weakness in the system in that there aren’t a lot of national standards to ensure education is fair across the nation, he said.
In Malaysia, he said, schools are equally funded across the country. In the U.S., some states spend more on education than others, he said.
Tze Howe, who goes by TH in the United States, is also from Malaysia. He is an engineer for Schlumberger.
TH is encouraged by the level of civic engagement in the United States. He attended Cheyenne City Council and Laramie County Commission meetings and was amazed at the number of members of the public who attended and commented on local development projects and business licenses.
There’s not that level of engagement in Malaysia, he said.
When he returns home, he would like to educate people on their rights, the separation of powers in government and the Malaysian constitution.
“People don’t really understand the background, the reasons the system is set up in such a way,” he said. “There’s not much discussion on how we can make the system better. So I’m positioning myself to improve that, to make a difference on what I have learned over here.”
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock