Obama in Malaysia: A Strategic Partnership?


by Joshua Kurlantzick via Council on Foreign Relations
April 8, 2014

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.

Najib Razak: Interview on Al Jazeera


April 28, 2013

Najib Razak meets Veronica Pedrosa on Al Jazeera

Caretaker PM Najib Razak recorded an interview with Al Jazeera a few weeks ago, apparently, and it aired yesterday.

It will probably go down as one more of Najib’s election related blunders to go along with waiting so long to dissolve Parliament and campaign as a Presidential candidate in a Parliamentary election.

Najib_Aljazeera_interview

Few things about the interview. Firstly, Veronica Pedrosa did a great job. Interviewers frequently get intimidated in front of Heads of State or, out of respect, avoid asking the most obvious and difficult questions. Veronica did neither and I respect her for that.

Secondly, Najib’s body language was off for the interview from start to finish. His legs were shaking. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. His face showed, at times a lack of interest, and at other times a real sense of discomfort with the questions.

Thirdly, on content Najib probably scored a low C. At a general sense he did his best to present himself as someone in a position of leadership who has some grasp of the difficult issues facing his country. However, whenever the interviewer asked about specifics Najib gave answers that probably hurt him more than they helped him.

For instance when asked about debating Anwar Ibrahim, Najib said that there are many ways to engage with people in an election and he was focused on other ways. He said a debate “probably won’t happen”. Well, is it a probability or a possibility or impossible? His answer was weak and showed that after 2 years of avoiding facing Anwar head-to-head he still doesn’t have a good answer to the question.

When asked about the Allah issue I think Najib really botched his response. The first part of the answer probably would have been OK a it reflects a sort of flimsy, neither here neither there attitude of let’s just sweep issues under the rug and try to get along. But when Veronica pressed him on the comparison between Malaysia and Lebanon, Najib once again did not have a solid answer and just said in Malaysia we’re different just because and that’s that.

The problem is that Najib may not even believe the position on non-Muslims not using the world Allah in Malaysia is a valid position. He is a Western educated self-proclaimed ‘moderate’ who is hardly a hardliner when it comes to issues of religion. Yet on this one issue he needs to pander shamelessly to the ultra right Malay base. Even PAS has relented on the position and said there is no problem here. So Najib lost big time on this one.

Which brings us to PAS. It is quite “un-statesmenship” like to berate and attack the Islamic Party of Malaysia during an election like Najib did. Basically when asked “What does PAS stand for” Najib poured scorn on PAS as if it was some antique relic party that still used candles and push carts and wrote on papyrus and animal skins.

In actual fact, PAS is a very modern party going through an amazing internal transformation and has come out the other end far more willing and capable to adapt to the time then UMNO has thus far shown any capacity for. My sense is Najib’s distasteful comments about PAS, if they make it to the grassroots, will backfire among middle of the ground Malays who respect the positions that PAS takes but are focused on outcomes for the country.

I suggest you take 20 minutes to watch the interview. It’s telling how the Prime Minister, after four years in office, still lacks the confidence and composure to answer a few difficult questions.

By comparison Anwar Ibrahim gave interviews on  Al Jazeera and CNBC (above) 15 days ago and generally performed much better.–Din Merican

Najib offers the Masculine Touch as Shahrizat’s successor


April 8, 2012

Najib offers the Masculine Touch as Minister of Women Affairs, Family and Community Development

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Prime Minister Najib Razak today announced that he would assume the role of Women Affairs, Family and Community Development Minister.

This follows Wanita UMNO Chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s announcement on March 11 to step down as Minister when her term as Dewan Negara member ends on April 8 in the wake of the National Feedlot Corporation scandal.

Najib, who is also Finance Minister, made the announcement at an event in Temerloh, Pahang today. The Prime Minister, however, did not say how long he would be acting in the post. Shahrizat is nevertheless keeping her Wanita UMNO chief post.

Najib said Shahrizat had pledged to continue giving her best as Wanita UMNO chief. “Shahrizat has promised me that as Wanita UMNO chief, she will assure a big win for the Barisan Nasional in the upcoming general election,” he said.

“I dare say that the people are gradually coming back to us, their affection for us is rising. Shahrizat emphasised the word ‘sayang’ (love) during her ministership, if the people give their support, it comes from their minds, but if they give their love, it comes from their hearts.”When it comes from the heart, the choice will definitely be the one and only (Barisan Nasional),” he said.

Najib said the people would be able to evaluate what had been accomplished by the government in an effort to improve their livelihood through various assistance rendered. He said the people could also gauge the promises fulfilled by the BN-led government compared to that of the opposition, which had failed to honour their election undertakings.

Shahrizat’s key supporter

Najib’s announcement today quashes speculation that Selangor UMNO Wanita chief Raja Ropiaah was earmarked to stand in as Shahrizat’s replacement.

Talk of her possible ministerial role surfaced when Ropiaah’s name cropped up among the five leaders to be sworn in as senators tomorrow.

Ropiaah has earlier dismissed the speculations as “tall tales”. “I have not been informed of any appointment to be a minister,” she told Malaysiakini when contacted on Friday.When I become a senator on Monday, I will carry out my role to my best effort. I don’t want to say anything further than that,” she said.

Ropiaah, who is a Wanita exco member, is one of several vocal supporters of Shahrizat. Embattled Wanita chief Shahrizat had received calls from within the wing – in particular deputy Wanita Chief Kamilia Ibrahim – to step down over the NFC fiasco involving the alleged abuse of a RM250 million government loan by her family.

Kedah Politics: UMNO-BN needs a new Leader


March 31, 2012

Kedah Politics: UMNO-BN needs a new Leader

by Rashid Ahmad (03-30-12)@http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Kedah Barisan Nasional (BN) has lost a chance to shake the PAS-led Pakatan Rakyat state government when it did not “exploit” the recent crisis in the state administration. Political observers said the internal conflict in Kedah PAS had split the party and made it “vulnerable” to outside attacks but BN did not seize the opportunity, thus making it difficult for BN to retake the state.

Kedah PAS, say some political observers, is being manipulated by two main players keen to helm the state administration and also by “outside forces”.They said Menteri Besar Azizan Abdul Razak, who is from the old school of thoughts, is aligned to party president Abdul Hadi Awang. He is seen as the leader of the “fundamentalists” and is fighting hard against attempts from the liberals to take over the state administration.

Azizan’s “foes from within” – Kedah PAS Deputy Commissioner (I) Phahrolrazi Zawawi and Kedah PAS Deputy Commissioner (II) Ismail Salleh – are aligned to the liberals and they striving to push Azizan out. Words have it that the main reason for the attempted “mutiny” against Azizan is to find a place for Party Deputy President Mohamed Sabu to contest in the upcoming general election.

Mohamed Sabu or Mat Sabu, as he is popularly known, is said to be seeking for a seat in Kedah as he is not wanted in Kelantan, where he once stood as MP and won. The crisis, though resolved, is still a pain in the neck for PAS as Azizan is said to be still sticking to his decision not to entertain or recognise Phahrolrazi and Ismail as followers in the state administration.

Credible leader

So the split in PAS still exists but BN has failed to exploit it to enhance its chances of diluting PAS influence among the fence-sitters in the state.A political analyst, Ramli Mohd Yunus, said another BN weakness in the state was its failure to appoint a credible leader to lead Kedah as Menteri Besar if it comes back to power.

“Apologising [to the people for BN's mistakes in the past] is one thing but the main thrust is to win back the hearts and minds of the voters, particularly Malays. This can be achieved if BN has picked a credible, MB-material leader who will helm the state if the coalition wins.

“Kedah Malays, including the Chinese who have blended well with the Malay culture, know past and present BN and UMNO leaders in the state very well.They want to hear and see from the Prime Minister himself who he picks to lead the state. The way I see it, if Najib picks the wrong man, the votes will go to the other side.If Najib picks the man they respect and know, then the votes will go to BN. So it’s the man who will lead the state as menteri besar that matters now, not issues,” he said.

Even BN leaders in Kuala Lumpur share the same views. Observers believe that Mukhriz Mahathir is the man who could gain the voters’ confidence.

Matter of personality

Ramli said that he too has heard from the grassroots members in the state and also from some Chinese voters that Mukhriz (left) is the man best suited to take over should PAS fall.

“Kedah Malays and even some Chinese still hold Dr Mahathir Mohamad in high regard and obviously they also respect his son Muhkriz.What they told me is that Muhkriz is a new man and even though he is naïve in politics, he has the charisma to lead the state. Moreover, he is clean. But BN must also not ignore Dr Mahathir in its campaign because from what I gathered from the grassroots members, his presence may bring Kedah back to BN,” Ramli said.

However, there are some local leaders in Kedah who would not take too kindly to Mukhriz’s elevation if Najib decides to tap his shoulder. But Ramli believes the resentment was normal and would fade in time.

“The important point here is that Kedah BN needs a charismatic leader, a new man who has no record whatsoever. In this case, if it’s Mukhriz, it will be easier to win the hearts and minds of the voters because they still respect his father,” Ramli said. “So in my opinion half the battle will be won if Najib picks Mukhriz,” he added.

Thus, the battle for BN in Kedah is a matter of personality – the man who will lead the state after the general election. It all depends on Najib who he wants in the driver’s seat. After all, BN Kedah needs just four more seats to win the state. BN now has 16 out of the 36 state seats (UMNO has 14, MCA one and Gerakan one).