Anban Raj, 21, is the founder of the World Youth Leaders Organisation (WYLO) and he is also the only Malaysian to receive the Diana Award in 2022 for his efforts in advancing access to quality education and leadership empowerment for all. Here, he shares thoughts on leadership, discovering God’s will and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
When Anban Raj speaks, his answers are methodical and his thought processes are organised. He’s also a fast talker yet wastes no words.
A logical approach to conversation and life ought to be expected from a young man whose favourite subject is mathematics, and who is pursuing a degree in data science today. But equal to his love for maths is his passion to build and grow young leaders.
Anban, 21, founded the world’s first leadership development programme by young people, for young people in 2021. The World Youth Leaders Organisation runs its flagship Youth Leaders Programme (YLP), an intensive two-day leadership course offered free to aspiring youth from around the world. For his work in advancing education for all, he received The Diana Award in 2022.
It’s clear that Anban is a born leader. His words are graced with eloquence, charisma and empathy. His eyes hold steady and sincerity shines through. It is a glimpse of Anban’s quiet trust in a God who’s never forsaken him.
God was present throughout Anban’s childhood
Anban grew up in Penang and only moved to KL for his A Levels at Taylor’s College. He was raised by his mother, Dr Annamalar Anthonysamy, and they lived with his maternal grandparents.
“My childhood was far from conventional, but God was very present throughout the process. He made sure I came out untouched. It taught me resilience and leaning on God in every aspect,” the young man remembers.
His parents separated when he was an infant and the divorce was finalised in 2004. At the time, Anban’s parents were granted shared custody and so he spent time with both sides. But in 2008, when he was seven, he decided he didn’t want to go back to his father’s.
“One evening, I just decided I’m not going to go to my dad’s side. We had to call the lawyers and police just because I refused to go. I consciously knew and even my mum remembered, I had to make a decision that I would not be going back.”
There were a few court proceedings and Anban also remembers having to reiterate his stand to the lawyers repeatedly. A year later, the High Court granted his mother full custody. As a young boy, Anban says he would not have been able to make that choice and go through with it if it had not been for God.
“Just because your parents are Christian doesn’t mean you own the faith. I took the effort to really know Jesus and have a personal relationship with Him. I did not have one defining moment where I came to know Jesus, but I’ve had a personal encounter with Him and that’s extremely important,” he says.
To lead, connect and empower the youth of today into leaders of tomorrow
A bright mind, Anban has always done well in school. But he is quick to acknowledge that it has not always been through his own efforts but through God’s grace and the support of those around him.
It was a one-week leadership course in 2017 at the University of Melbourne that first sparked the idea for a youth programme. At the age of 16, Anban received a scholarship to attend the course and it was “life-changing”, as he describes it.
“I would say that was a phase in my life where perspectives were really made clear, especially in what I wanted to do in university, what leadership was actually about and of course, giving me international exposure. But coming out of it, I was thinking, “I got this opportunity because of this scholarship; what about other young people who have not had such international experiences or even any leadership training because of financial constraints?”
Four years later, he decided to form an organisation to advance leadership among youth and to kickstart the team decided on a fully virtual YLP for access and affordability.
An original leadership programme by young people, for young people
The goal was to bring together young people from across the globe, to learn about leadership, discover other cultures as well as connect personally and professionally. In seeking support, they shot out emails and surprisingly, sponsors came back because of the long-term vision.
“The programme was original, we did not try to copy or mimic anyone… and it all circles back to the for young people, by young people concept,” Anban says. YLP is an intensive two-day programme covering leadership, opportunities for application and cultural exchange.
The YLP also contributes towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 of quality education for all, for which Anban won the Diana Award this year. It has been endorsed by several leading names who have spoken at YLP sessions, including:
- Mark Tewksbury – Olympian, speaker and TV host
- Tessy Ojo – CEO of the Diana Award
- Zubair Junjunia – educational activist, entrepreneur and founder of Znotes
- Vladislav Kaim – activist and Youth Climate Advisor for the UN Secretary General
Today, WYLO is helmed by Anban and supported by 12 young leaders from El Salvador, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Cyprus, Nigeria, Morocco and Jamaica. The positions are all voluntary, but what warms Anban’s heart is that many of the young people had zero experience prior to joining WYLO.
“For example, Hidayah from Morocco joined us in 2021 and she had no experience in leading or speaking publicly. But she joined us and has just grown tremendously. She has been in several public speaking competitions and won so many accolades.”
The YLP has been conducted three times over the past two years. Of the 500 applications received, 300 young people have been admitted into the programme.
“Young people are really open to change,” says Anban
With 45 countries represented in the YLP programme today, Anban has observed that young people are keen learners. However, a gap is the lack of awareness on diversity and culture.
“For many, YLP is their very first international event. It’s therefore a responsibility on our end to ensure it’s a good experience. Another gap is a lack of understanding of true leadership. In our mentor groups pre-event, we always ask them to share their ideas on leadership. There’s a clear observation of ideas and concepts contradictory to what leadership is truly about.”
Leadership, Anban emphasises, is about empathy. A true leader empathises with people, while on the other hand a boss only focuses on the task at hand.
If an issue arises affecting the completion of the task, a boss would be uncaring and reframe the person responsible as ‘opposition’ to his goal. “A leader, however, will re-strategise so that the team achieves the goal but the person is also taken care of in the process. The leader will still see you as being on his or her side,” he explains.
When asked who his biggest inspiration as a leader is, Anban laughs. “It sounds pretty cliche, but first it would be Jesus Christ. Next would be my mother.”
Jesus was a living example of the perfect leader
“I always refer to Jesus as the perfect leader. There’s no better leader than Him, how He treated His disciples, others and even those who opposed Him. He broke the rules for the right reasons.”
One of Anban’s favourite accounts in the Bible is between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Instead of judging her, He stood in the gap and raised a ‘barrier’ to protect the woman from the onslaught of human judgement. This shows how standing up for the right reasons can lead you to your goal.
“The way He did things is so practical and good, it can solve any problem. He’s someone I really look up to, and what we’ve learned through the Scriptures. He sets a perfect example of how we should act in certain situations,” Anban says matter-of-factly.
Throughout her life, Anban’s mother showed him a life that placed others first
Another great source of inspiration in Anban’s life is his own mother. Throughout the interview, Anban mentions his mother often when he speaks of his accomplishments.
A medical doctor, Dr Annamalar made huge sacrifices to raise Anban on her own. She gave up opportunities to complete a specialisation as it would have meant giving up time with her son, staying in the ranks of Medical Officer (MO) until today.
“She also chose not to go into private practice as there was more job security in the government sector, and she wanted to provide a stable life for us,” Anban shares.
Dr Anna and her parents are also strong Christians. They have worshipped at Harvest Revival Centre in Butterworth all of their life and raised Anban in the ways of the Lord.
To her only son, Dr Annamalar’s life is one he deeply admires. “My mother gave up a lot. She showed me resilience, love and sacrifice. That has really taught me to put others before myself and given me a clearer picture of how I want to live and lead.”
In KL, Anban is plugged into Kingdomcity and is active in the church community. He is training to be on the visuals team, and hopes to serve God in ways He can.
“Lean on God and let Him take the lead.”
Anban is midway through his data science degree at Monash University Malaysia, and how he ended up there is divine in itself.
“After my A Levels, I had a whole list of scholarships and schools to apply for. But none of them worked out. I was shocked, and I was like, “Okay, God. Now what?” I had to really lean on God and let Him take the lead.”
Although Anban didn’t make it through the final round of selection for a scholarship with Monash University Australia, the university was impressed by his file and found a way to grant him a scholarship at Monash Malaysia.
On the academic front, he will be continuing for an honours pathway and hopes to pursue a PhD if God sees fit.
There are also plans to step up the YLP programme but Anban points out it is very subjective to commitment level. “The way we run is fluid, very responsive to requests and needs. We have an interest list which we use to plan our intakes and we want to give a better experience,” he says, adding that growing awareness of WYLO has resulted in more partner requests.
Asked if a physical gathering is on the horizon, Anban is hopeful. He says that practically, it would take one to two years to organise such a meet and find sponsors.
On a personal level, Anban also hopes to spend more time with God on a consistent basis. “ A few months ago I took a step back and viewed my whole life and Jesus has been my only constant. He has been unchanging in His attributes and His love,” he says simply.
We have to be the change we wish to see
“I hope the youth of today will really be the change they wish to see. Instead of just saying, there should be action. Young people may feel small, unseen or weak but it’s really important to just do it because as long as there are genuine people being impacted, there’s real change,” Anban says firmly.
One of his favourite Scriptures is Psalm 28:7, which he says is reflective of his life and relationship with God. It is engraved on the back of his watch and in true form, he methodically breaks it down:
- The Lord is my strength (my stronghold and constant) and shield (He protects me)
- My heart trusted in Him and I am helped (God’s help is definite and when you trust Him, He will see it to completion)
- Therefore, my heart leaps for joy and with my song will I praise Him (praising and worshipping God is important to him)
This verse encompasses much of Anban’s life journey thus far, the ups and downs, the challenges and joys. He doesn’t know what lies ahead, but he holds onto a nugget of wisdom passed down by his mother.
“My mum always tells me, “As a young person, don’t always try to be the best there is through intensive competition. But always be the best that you can be, using the best of your abilities and what God has given you.” Use that in whatever way you can and He will expand, teach and guide you through the process. So yes, don’t try to be the best but just always be the best that you can be.”
To learn more about the World Youth Leaders Organisation and their upcoming YLP, click here.
All photos provided by Anban Raj.