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Obama in Malaysia: A Strategic Partnership?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 8, 2014

najib-and-obama-in-2011 U.S. president Barack Obama meets with Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, on November 18, 2011 (Jason Reed/Courtesy: Reuters).

During his upcoming late April trip to Asia, President Obama will visit two nations in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and the Philippines, in addition to stops in Northeast Asia. The White House already has been briefing reporters on the overall messaging of the trip, and the specific themes the president plans to hit in Malaysia and the Philippines. In Malaysia, it appears from several news reports and from speaking with several administration officials, President Obama will add to the Malaysian government’s self-promotion that Kuala Lumpur is a successful and democratic nation, an example of other Muslim-majority countries, and a force for moderation in the world. The president apparently plans to hit these themes despite the regional anger at Malaysia’s handling of the Malaysia Airlines vanished plane, which exposed to the world many of the problems with Malaysia’s governance.

No matter, say some Southeast Asia experts. Some of Obama’s advisors, and many Southeast Asia experts, are urging the president to use the trip to cement a strategic partnership with Malaysia and establishing a roadmap for the kind of higher-level strategic cooperation that the United States already enjoys with Singapore and Thailand, among other countries in the region.

This approach to the Malaysia visit would mean downplaying – or simply not even discussing – serious regression in Malaysia’s domestic politics, including the recent sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in jail for sodomy, the highly flawed 2013 national elections that barely kept Prime Minister Najib tun Razak in office, and the increasingly shrill, anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rhetoric and legislation of the Najib government, hardly the kind of sentiments a supposed leader of political moderation should be espousing. According to this logic, if President Obama were to bring up such unpleasant issues as the Malaysian government’s crackdown on opponents over the past year or its unwillingness to reform pro-Malay policies that have entrenched a culture of graft and self-dealing at many Malaysian companies, that would sink the visit.

Under Najib, Malaysia and the United States have, on a strategic level, moved beyond some of the acrimony of the Mahathir and Abdullah years, and have made progress on a wide range of military-military and diplomatic cooperation. Najib definitely deserves some credit for this rapprochement, though growing Malaysian fear about China’s South China Sea policies are probably the main driver behind closer strategic ties with Washington.

But simply ignoring the disastrous Najib policies on human rights, political freedoms, and economic liberalization would not be a wise move by Obama. For one, it would play into the narrative that Obama cares little about rights and democracy promotion, a narrative that has gained significant force not only in Washington but also among many Southeast Asian activists and young people in general. And ignoring Malaysia’s opposition politicians, who won the popular vote in the 2013 national elections and enjoy their strongest support among young Malaysians, would be alienating the biggest growing pool of Malaysian voters. As in other countries in the region, like Cambodia and Indonesia, these young voters are increasingly favoring opposition parties or new figures like Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, breaking from long-ruling, autocratic parties. The United States should be cultivating these young voters who will prove critical to the region’s democratization. This new generation will eventually power the Malaysian opposition, in some form, to the prime minister’s office. It would be a shame if the United States president had ignored them, and their party leaders, before then.

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  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    It would be wrong to not point out that Malaysia’s democratization is moving in the wrong direction. The resurfacing of false charges against Anwar Ibrahim are particularly disgusting. The important question is how to do it and still avoid the knee-jerk nationalist backlash and without giving ‘evidence’ to UMNO that opposition are foreign lackeys. As Erdogan has shown recently, taking on West/US and painting opposition as traitors helps winning elections. Obama, therefore, may use an Islamic/Malay discourse to promote human rights and democracy.
    It is also important to personally meet with the opposition. As argued above, opposition parties are very popular and may win the next election. It is tempting to deal with UMNO leaders only and believe that they will keep winning elections (as they have done for the last half century) but times have changed and Malaysia is a different country now. And for the first time, Malays have a competent, popular Malay politician whose Islamic credentials are also strong. So, it would be increasingly difficult to keep claiming that UMNO is the only party that can counter threats to Malayness or Islam; a strategy frequently used by UMNO to win Malay voters. Other ethnic/religious groups already favor the opposition.

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