By: John Berthelsen

For anyone in Southeast Asia with an interest in fair, honest and even-handed government, the disappointing visit of President Barack Obama to Malaysia is a victory for political expediency that largely glossed over growing discontent over racial tensions, corruption and abuses of judicial power by the ruling coalition.

Obama, according to most reports, walked a careful line on such issues, roaming the stage at a town meeting with students to tell them the country can’t succeed if minorities are suppressed.

But the president also continued to call the prime minister a friend and reformer. What kind of friend is this exactly?

The fact is that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was a willing perpetrator as defense minister in the looting of the public purse to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars – in bribery and kickbacks from the French munitions maker DCN over a US$1 billion submarine deal, as well as other deals involving patrol boats that were never delivered, Russian Sukhoi jets that cost vastly more than what other countries paid and other equally dubious transactions that have been repeatedly exposed by the opposition and printed on opposition websites, to no avail.

On top of that, Najib heads a country that is slipping backwards fast on human rights issues, with its most prominent opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, facing jail for the second time on what are clearly bogus charges of sexual deviance and another, Karpal Singh, who was about to be railroaded out of parliament on specious sedition charges when he was killed in a car accident. 

Other opposition leaders also face sedition charges in what Ambiga Sreenevasan, the former head of the Malaysian Bar Council, recently called “Operation Lalang by the courts,” a reference to a 1987 crackdown on dissidents that sent more than 100 people, most of them opposition leaders, to jail without trial.

Obama’s decision not to meet with Anwar “in and of itself isn’t indicative of our lack of concern, given the fact that there are a lot of people I don’t meet with and opposition leaders that I don’t meet with,” he told reporters in response to a question by CNN.

Anwar does get an April 28 meeting with Susan Rice, the president’s national security advisor, but the message on human rights was clear – the issue takes a back seat to geopolitics in Kuala Lumpur and perhaps to a desire to prop up Najib for fear of empowering more conservative elements inside his long-ruling United Malays National Organization or to gain his support for the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Obama either appears to have been hoodwinked by Najib, or decided that diplomatic niceties demanded a waffle. In response to a question, the president said in a press conference that … “the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia still has work to do,” that he “came in as a reformer and one who is committed to it, and I am going to continue to encourage him as a friend and a partner to making progress on that front.”

Najib’s lukewarm commitment to economic reform vanished in the wake of the May 2013 election, in which the opposition won a narrow popular-vote victory but lost parliament due to gerrymandering, and the subsequent ascendancy of the hardline UMNO wing led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his long-running ally Daim Zainuddin. The modest reforms Najib had put in place to reverse parts of the disastrous race-based New Economic Policy were washed away last September in an array of new economic benefits for ethnic Malays.

Najib, whatever his personal beliefs may be, is clearly in the thrall of such Malay chauvinist organizations as Perkasa, which preaches astonishing hatred towards Malaysia’s minority races. Nobody, including Najib, has ever spoken of reining in such groups. Minority and opposition politicians who raise an outcry over racial issues are often met with threats of sedition charges.

To anyone deeply familiar with Malaysia, the statement that Najib is committed to reform is laughable. None of Malaysia’s online news sites, which form the credible journalistic opposition, were invited to the Najib-Obama joint press conference. So while Obama was extolling Najib’s reformist credentials, Malaysia’s most trusted news organization Malaysiakini wass shut out of the press conference.

UMNO is a kleptocracy that continues to loot the country’s assets with impunity. The latest, for example, was the award – without an open bid ‑ earlier this month of a RM1.6 billion contract for the building and maintenance of a hospital whose entire board of directors was drawn from the youth wing of UMNO, and whose managing director is a close friend of Khairy Jamaluddin, the head of UMNO youth. 

These contracts are signed on a regular basis. Any suggestion that Najib doesn’t know they benefit his own political party is silly. He has participated personally in this kind of theft, which has resulted in his ostentatiously wealthy wife flaunting her riches worldwide to the anger of many people back home.

The party’s continuing use of fundamentalist Islam has nothing to do with true religious fervor but rather a specious use of faith to shore up its rural base at election time.  The decision to ban the word “Allah” in Malay-language Christian Bibles is an example. The word was banned for Bibles in mainland Malaysia, where Malays outnumber other races, but allowed to stand in Bibles in East Malaysia, where indigenous tribes are mainly Christians who support the ruling national coalition at the polls.

According to the New York Times, Obama’s visit underscores a change in Malaysian attitudes toward the United States, “which has evolved from deep suspicion, verging on contempt, to a cautious desire for cooperation.” 

But the fact is, as the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur knows well and surely told the president, is that despite Mahathir’s heated rhetoric during his years on office, the country has remained firmly in the western camp. Indeed, as the late Barry Wain illustrated in his book, Malaysian Maverick, while Mahathir was delivering speeches about American imperialism, he was quietly allowing the US military to train in Malaysian jungles. He was also sending his own children to American universities for their educations.

While Malaysia recognizes its future with China as its biggest trading partner, it is hardly the fulcrum of influence for or against the US in Asia.  It is nice for the US to have it as a strategic partner, as Obama stressed.  But it is one that should be kept at arms’ length.