President Barack Obama’s Malaysia Problem

President Barack Obama’s Malaysia Problem

Former US Ambassador John R. Malott

A former US ambassador tells why he initiated a petition to free Anwar Ibrahim

It was still the evening of Feb. 9 on the US east coast when I learned that the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest, had upheld the conviction of the  opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The next day I saw a press release issued by a spokesperson for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council (NSC), saying that “the United States is deeply disappointed with Mr. Anwar’s conviction.” It said that “the decision to prosecute Mr. Anwar and the conduct of his trial have raised a number of serious concerns about rule of law and the fairness of the judicial system in Malaysia.”

While the content of the press release was good enough, many observers pointed out that it was issued in a name of a mid-ranking official in the NSC and not by a higher-ranking person in either the NSC or the White House itself. As such, to many people it seemed that the White House might just be “doing the necessary” and issuing a pro forma statement because it had to. Their suspicions were raised because Obama himself had been seen playing golf in Hawaii with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak just a few weeks earlier.

The golf match with Najib was a rare occasion for Obama, for as The New York Times pointed out in a March 10 article, Obama’s relationships with foreign leaders are almost all cool and businesslike. It is rare for him to invest his time in a personal relationship or to “click” with a foreign leader. According to present and former US Administration officials, however, Obama likes Najib. They “click.” They say that Obama likes meeting and talking to Najib.   

Malaysia’s Obama Problem

After learning of the verdict against Anwar, I decided that one step I could take was to write a petition on the White House “We, the People” website and see if we could hit the magic number of 100,000 signatures. That would get attention.

The problem when it comes to Malaysia and Obama is two-fold. First, Obama believes what Najib tells him. He has drunk Najib’s Kool-Aid.  He truly believes that Najib wants to reform his country but is being held back by conservative elements within his ruling party. According to people in the know, Obama thinks that pushing Najib in private or public will only make Najib’s task harder. So Obama took a light approach when he met Najib in Malaysia in April 2014, and it was only because of pressure from US human rights groups and others that the trip plans changed. Obama met with Malaysian civil society representatives for almost an hour (instead of the scheduled 15 minutes), and Obama NSC advisor Susan Rice met privately with Anwar and other opposition party leaders on the last day of the visit.

The second and broader problem is the failure of the Obama Administration for six years to make human rights and the promotion of democracy and political freedom a central element in its overall foreign policy. This is surprising for a president from the Democratic Party, which traditionally has placed great value on civil rights and political and personal freedom. It is even more surprising for Obama, our first African-American president and a man who regularly summons the rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the images of America’s civil rights struggle.

Will the Real Najib Please Stand Up?

Obama is not the first person whom Najib has fooled. The “international Najib” is impeccably dressed in expensive suits and speaks great English. He is courtly, polite, and soft-spoken. He talks of his dreams to reform Malaysia and move it forward.  When he addresses the United Nations and international think tanks, he speaks of leading a global movement of moderates and describes Malaysia as a tolerant, multi-racial, multi-religious paradise where everyone lives in harmony. He talks about his plans to reform Malaysia’s political system. But none of those promised reforms – from abolishing the sedition act to allowing for a free press – has ever taken place. In fact, Malaysia under Najib has become more repressive, not less. And thanks to Najib’s silence and passivity, racial and religious strains are higher than at any point since the murderous race riots of 1969. 

Most of the world, however, fails to understand the gap between Najib’s international rhetoric and his actions at home. That is because few people around the world, other than the Malaysian diaspora, follow developments in Malaysia. They only know the “Good Najib” and not the Najib surrounded by scandal, from 1MDB to Scorpene submarines to the Mongolian translator who was murdered by Najib’s  personal bodyguards.

God Bless the Queen

One who did pay attention, however, was Queen Elizabeth II. 

In January 2012, Najib hosted the first international meeting of his “Movement of Moderates” in Kuala Lumpur and once again proclaimed his belief in democracy and tolerance. Yet three months later, he sent his police force onto the streets of KL to beat and tear gas his own citizens, over 100,000 of them, whose only crime was to gather peacefully and express their hopes for free and fair elections in Malaysia. People whose only “crime” was to walk down the street wearing the color yellow – the symbol of Bersih, the organizers of the protest – were arrested.   

One week after his police force fired chemical-laced water on the protestors and detained over 1,600 people, the “good Najib” took a trip to London. But when he walked in the room to meet Queen Elizabeth, he got a big surprise. The Queen was wearing yellow. No one thinks it was an accident. Even the flowers in the vases behind her were yellow. The Queen had sent a clear message.

That was in 2012.  So it is surprising that three years later the Obama Administration still seems not to understand the reality of what is happening in Malaysia. I am very sure that the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur is reporting the situation accurately. The problem is that few people at the senior levels in Washington pay attention to Malaysia, and lower-level officers no doubt find it hard to counter the ideas about Najib and Malaysia that seem to be well-entrenched in Barack Obama’s mind.

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