Obama Dilemma: How to Treat Malaysia’s Pariah PM

When US President Barack Obama begins a Nov. 14-22 Asian swing, the White House will face a dilemma – minimizing his face time with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has become an albatross around the US neck due to international publicity over massive scandals and a United Nations demand that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim be freed.

The President is expected to participate in the G20 summit in Turkey and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Philippines as well as the US-ASEAN summit and the East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur, according to a White House statement, all of which will feature the Malaysian premier.

The scandals and criticism haven’t slowed down Najib. As the revelations have persisted and grown, he has continued to push critics out of the government and bring sedition and other charges against opponents, often on the thinnest of pretexts.

Maria Chin Abdullah, the president of the Bersih (Clean) election reform group, was arrested on Nov. 2 for failing to give proper notice for a two-day demonstration in August which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad,. Najib’s biggest opponent, is expected to be summoned for questioning over remarks he made at the same rally. On Nov. 5, yet another opposition figure, Ng Wei Aik of the Democratic Action Party, was notified that he would be charged with sedition for an article he wrote in a Penang-based Chinese language daily nine months ago.

A UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions has found that the imprisonment of Anwar on spurious sex charges is "arbitrary" and has urged his release, the latest in a series of international setbacks for Najib.

Despite the depth of the scandals, Najib seems secure in office for the foreseeable future. The opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance is fractured and impotent. He can’t be touched by law enforcement and his own United Malaysia National Organization appears to be solidly behind him. The country’s sultans, after issuing a statement asking for a quick resolution of the investigations into the scandals, have gone quiet. Despite misgivings over the scandals, the sultans dislike Mahathir even more over his attempts to rein in their power during his years in office.

“Let's face it – Najib is now an embarrassment to Obama and the world – and Obama wants to distance himself from Najib personally without screwing up our important relationship with Malaysia, the country itself,” said John Malott, the former US Ambassador to Malaysia who has become the country’s staunchest international critic. “It's a tough situation. But – they put themselves in this mess, and now they are desperately trying to find a way out of it.”

“Based on my knowledge of how the government works, “Malott said, “I am sure that they all are trying to figure out how to minimize Obama's physical and visual contact with Najib when he is in Malaysia and avoid meetings, conversations, photos, etc. – anything that would embarrass Obama by being seen with this guy and which would provoke questions from the US press corps.”

The President needs Malaysia as one of the keystones in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact that Obama wants to make a signature achievement of his eight years in office, which ends at the end of 2016. With its economy heavily geared to exports, Malaysia needs the pact as well.

For much of his presidency, Obama has regarded Najib as a key player and a strong force for democracy in an Islamic nation. He invited the prime minister to play golf with him in Hawaii at the end of last year, only to have two huge scandals blow up later in the year, with the apparent looting of the 1Malaysia Development Fund, which Najib chairs as chief economic advisor, and questions over how US$681 million ended up in his personal accounts in 2013. In addition, the New York Times, in a lengthy article, detailed vast properties in New York and Los Angeles apparently owned by Najib’s family. A US grand jury is now probing property transactions purchased by his stepson, Riza Aziz.

The White House, Malott said, is probably “trying hard to figure out how to respond to aggressive US press inquiries such as ‘Just last December you were playing golf with Najib, but what do you think now, in light of the latest revelations from the UN group?’ In response, we will get broad, vague, pro-forma answers about how much Obama loves democracy and human rights, etc. as well as references to his meeting with civil society reps in Malaysia a year ago. But there will be nothing specific about Najib, no specific criticisms, etc.”

The US government is conscious of the damage to relations between the United States and Malaysia that ensued in 1998 when then-Vice President Al Gore rebuked the Malaysian government at a meeting of Pacific Rim Countries for suppressing freedom and for the persecution of Anwar. It won’t repeat that, especially now with the need for Malaysia’s participation in the TPP. The state department has already given Malaysia a pass in a human trafficking report, a pass it hardly deserves.