What was the US President Donald Trump trying to convey with his body language as he sat, with arms tightly folded across his chest, facing down Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was seated opposite him at the conference table during Najib’s Sept. 12 visit to the White House?
Well before Najib had landed in the capital, there were calls for Trump to find an excuse to cancel the meeting with Southeast Asia’s most-tainted current leader, under investigation in what has been called the biggest kleptocracy probe of a foreign leader ever implemented by the US Department of Justice.
Malaysians took to social media to denounce the visit, with one suggesting that Trump use Hurricane Irma and the need to mobilize a relief effort for the storm victims as an excuse not to meet.
This visit was no big deal for Trump. For Najib, it was everything, as indicated by the magic dust of airplane purchases, infrastructure and stock investments he threw at the President. It was acceptance on an international scale he was looking for, but more importantly, the trip and the photos of him shaking hands with Trump in the White House were to be used to exonerate him and distance himself from the justice department’s investigations.
The visit would be tantamount to telling Najib's power and support base, the rural Malaysians, that he is not the much-touted “Malaysian Official 1” who has been accused of looting billions of ringgit from Malaysian taxpayers in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal. The fact that he met Trump and returned a free man was designed to be used as political fodder and propaganda in the upcoming general election.
Nonetheless, Najib is a man on borrowed time. He has six months in which to dissolve parliament and call Malaysia's 14th General Election. There are numerous scandals he has to whitewash or cover up, ranging from the secret bank accounts revealed by the Panama papers to Sirul Azhar, the killer of the Mongolian party girl and translator Altantuya Shaaribuu, who remains in an Australian detention center, a walking time bomb who could cause chaos by confessing who ordered him to kill the woman in 2006.
There was no warmth conveyed at that meeting. In one photo, Trump adopted the "power pose" or the "bully pose," in which he attempted to make himself look bigger and more intimidating. That is the classic pose we see in bouncers outside clubs. Trump may think otherwise, and call it his "Superman" pose, in his effort to "make America great again."
Although Najib has made much capital of his visit to America, in the Malaysia Day speech, he didn’t dwell upon it.
"Najib is beginning to realize that the rural voters may not be too thrilled by his American visit, and meeting with Trump. The Washington trip may have backfired on him,” said one social analyst. "Remember that Trump is the white supremacist who called for a ban on Muslims from certain Muslim nations from visiting America. To see Najib smiling and shaking his hands will not have the desired effect with the rural Malays, who are by nature Muslim conservatives. It was a different matter when Najib met Obama. The black president was seen as ‘one of us;’ moreover, his second name, Hussein, reminded them of his Muslim youth, and it jelled with them. The fact that he lived in Indonesia made Obama more acceptable. You begin to wonder if Najib's advisers have made a terrible mistake and that he relied too much on them. He lives in his ivory tower, and perhaps his advisers are foreigners who do not know what the rural Malays think and feel."
Said another social and political analyst: "After Najib met Obama, you could see billboards with the pictures of the two men for several months at the Maju Junction near the Pertama Complex, in Kuala Lumpur. Despite Umno-Baru supporters praising Najib on his latest Washington visit, we have yet to see any billboards with Trump and Najib on display. That is a sure sign that this trip didn’t turn out as Najib would have liked."
Trump is aware that the Malaysian PM was going to use this visit to try to whitewash his blemished character. His press secretary, Sarah Hutchison Sanders, was at pains to tell reporters the Justice Department investigation was continuing and had nothing to do with the visit.
Nonetheless, milking the trip for all it was worth, Najib and his entourage have tried to convince the Malaysian public, on their return, that it was a worthwhile working visit. Few have been persuaded. The hints to the electorate, that Trump had twice referred to Najib as "my friend" smack of trying too hard to sound convincing.
One cynic said, "Najib had plenty to tell us about his purchase of the Boeing jets and investing EPF money to prop up US infrastructure. What did Malaysia gain from this trip? I cannot see anything significant coming out of the White House reports. Malaysian money has been promised to boost and prop up the US economy. Why did he not invest the money locally, and boost our economy? When he returned to Malaysia, via London, he met Theresa May, the British PM. He was photographed shaking hands outside 10 Downing Street. We are still not clear what Malaysia stood to gain from these two meetings?
"The result of the trip seems to be nothing more than a few photographs. It is as if these trips were publicity shots taken to use and show Najib's support base, the rural Malaysians, that he met Trump and there were no repercussions, nor was he arrested. Remember he is the subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy launched by the Department of Justice. Many people wonder how many millions this trip cost. If it was not an official visit, why was the self-styled "First Lady of Malaysia"(FLOM) and a massive entourage on the private government jet? This appears to be another expensive foreign junket.”
At the Malaysia Day celebration in Kota Kinabalu a few days after his return, Najib told the audience that Trump had given him a warm welcome and great respect, and that Trump was proud of Malaysia's success. Citing Malaysia's value as a sovereign state and a capital exporter, Najib was reported to have said, “That is why when I met with the US president, I brought forth what I described as a value proposition, I told him that we were planning to purchase Boeing jets from the US, including eight Dreamliners (Boeing 787-9s), not merely to give easy profit to the US as bandied about by the opposition, but to enable Malaysia Airlines (MAS) to have state-of-the-art aircraft.”
Najib claimed that when the old planes are replaced, MAS will be one of the world's leading airlines. But instead of praise, Najib's speech about MAS was met with skepticism. The airline’s move last year to sell its fleet of Airbus A380s, the double-decked behemoths that have proven too large for the London route, was unsuccessful. One MAS employee said on condition of anonymity, "Where are they getting the money from? I hear that there will be another cull and MAS will terminate the services of another 6,000 employees. If they are purchasing more planes, which routes are these going to fly? Our European sector consists of one station -- London. If more planes are added to the fleet, where are the crew to fly them? There is much that the management has omitted to tell us."
Najib told the crowd in Kota Kinabalu that he did not wish MAS to lag behind. "We want to be on the front line, so that we can bring more tourists to Malaysia, including Sabah.”
A tourist operator said, "It is pointless trying to attract more tourists when the Sabah Eastern seaboard is rife with kidnappings, smuggling and security issues. Despite the billions of ringgits poured into the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), many Sabahans disagree that their safety concerns have been fully addressed.
"The sophisticated machinery and surveillance techniques on land, sea and air, reinforced by informants and intelligence gathering, have not made Sabahans feel safe. Our livelihood is threatened and our tourism industry is suffering. What is the point in encouraging more tourism when we are afraid?"
Mariam Mochtar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Malaysian freelance journalist and social activist