President Barack Obama’s Malaysia Problem

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.

If Not Us, Then Who?

I have always believed that the promotion of democracy and political freedom must be an essential part of American foreign policy. It does not mean that we should sacrifice our other national interests in any country. But to paraphrase Barack Obama’s rhetorical style: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

If America does not stand up for the principles upon which it was founded, then who will? How can we as Americans claim those rights for ourselves, while standing by indifferently as they are denied to others? Are we not prepared to work and sacrifice so that the blessings of liberty are brought to all of God’s children?

America has to stand on the right side of history. It must always stand for the principles that define America’s very existence and which have distinguished it from other nations. It must support those people around the world who believe in the same values that we do, and who only want – today -- the same freedoms that we have enjoyed for over two centuries.

So that is why I wrote the petition – as a wakeup call to Obama and his White House. America has to be true to its principles. Convincing Najib to release Anwar and carry out his long-promised reforms is just as important to America’s interests as the TPP, combating ISIS, or anything else that is on the Administration’s “wish list” with Malaysia.

America needs to make Anwar’s freedom, and indeed the freedom of all Malaysians, of all races and religions and political orientation, a priority in its policy towards Malaysia.

If we don’t, then how can we call ourselves Americans?

Malaysia’s Youth Are the Future

In Malaysia’s last two general elections, the voting pattern was clear. The youth of Malaysia have cast their lot with the democratic opposition. And Malaysia’s young people are the future.

A recent survey by the Merdeka Center, an independent polling organization in Malaysia, found that one out of two Malaysians want the political “old guard” to retire and pass the torch to a new and younger generation.

So the two key questions are this. Are America’s policies aligned with the aspirations of the next generation in Malaysia? And when the next generation comes to power, what will they think of us?

Looking at comments on Malaysia’s various news websites, it is clear that the new generation is skeptical of America. While their parents were conditioned by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and others to look at the US in Third World terms – as an imperialist nation – the younger generation’s view is different. They think that America is simply and selfishly pursuing its own interests at their expense – and that given a choice between the TPP and democracy in Malaysia, for example, America will choose the TPP every time, so its companies can profit.

This is not knee-jerk anti-Americanism among Malaysia’s next generation. Rather, their views are reinforced by hearing visiting senior Obama Administration officials talk about the importance of concluding the Trans Pacific Partnership or cooperating to combat ISIS – but not hearing anything about democracy and political freedom. Unless we change our policy, they will remember the pictures of Obama golfing with Najib, at a time when the Leader of the Opposition – the man that 53 percent of Malaysians and almost 70 percent of Malaysia’s young people voted for -- was about to face his final legal reckoning and head to prison.

Crossing the 100,000 Mark

So I wrote the petition on February 10 and placed it on the “We, the People” website.

It is very rare for any petition on the White House website to reach the magical number of 100,000 signatures. Of the over 141,000 petitions that have been filed since Obama became President in 2009, only 162 of them -- about 1/10th of 1 percent -- have ever obtained the required number of signatures.

As of this writing, the petition now has about 114,000 signatures, so we have won, so to speak. The White House is now required to send us a response.

There also was a counter-petition, reportedly launched by UMNO “cyber troopers.” It was pulled from the White House website when it was discovered that the great majority of its signatures – over 60,000 -- were fraudulent, generated by a disposable email website that appropriately is called “slipry.net.

When the counter-petition was put back up, those 60,000-plus signatures had been removed. A number of Malaysians commented, ‘phantom voters, phantom signatures. That’s how UMNO tries to stay in power.’ The attempt to defraud the White House became a major embarrassment for Najib’s party and supporters.

As for the Future….

I am not holding my breath that there will be a sudden “eureka” moment for Obama and his policy towards Malaysia. The White House petition, now so very successful, is just the first of many steps that need to be taken in the United States and around the world to make sure that Najib and the UMNO regime know that the world is watching, and that the con game of the International Good Najib and the Domestic Bad Najib is over.

The day will come when the world understands that there is only one Najib, and that he leads one of most repressive, racist, and corrupt regimes in Asia. And when that day comes, then hopefully we all will be wearing yellow.

John Malott is a former US career diplomat and was ambassador to Malaysia from 1996 to 1998