In Malaysia Visit, Obama Strikes a Positive Tone

April 27, 2014

In Malaysia Visit, Obama Strikes a Positive Tone

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The last time a top American official visited this Southeast Asian nation was in 1998, when Vice President Al Gore rebuked its leaders for suppressing freedom and embraced “reformasi,” the rallying cry of a student-led protest movement.

najibobamaOn Sunday, President Obama visited Malaysia to underscore how much has changed in the last 16 years — not least in the country’s attitude toward the United States, which has evolved from deep suspicion, verging on contempt, to a cautious desire for cooperation.

Citing negotiations for a trans-Pacific trade accord, a formal agreement to cooperate in halting the spread of nuclear parts, and the desperate search for the missing Malaysian jetliner, Mr. Obama said, “we’re working more closely together than ever before.”

White House officials liken Malaysia to a “swing state” among Southeast Asian nations, falling somewhere between the free-wheeling democracy of the Philippines and the one-party authoritarianism of Laos. Encouraging Malaysia’s evolution into a more pluralistic society, officials said, could make it a model for the rest of the region.

In some ways, though, Malaysia remains the same work in progress it was in 1998, blessed with an industrious, multiethnic population but an often corrupt political system, ruled by an entrenched Malay elite that does not hesitate to deal with its detractors through what the opposition considers trumped-up charges.

Speaking at a news conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak, Mr. Obama treaded politely into these issues. He said he pressed Mr. Najib during their meeting about Malaysia’s civil liberties and human rights record, which has come under fresh scrutiny in recent weeks because of the legal travails of an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.

“The Prime Minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia has still got some work to do on these issues, just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do,” Mr. Obama said.

“Prime Minister Najib came in as a reformer, and one who is committed to it, and I am going to continue to encourage him as a friend and as a partner to make sure we’re making progress on that front,” he said, as the Malaysian leader looked on gravely.

But Mr. Obama did not meet Mr. Anwar, a former Deputy Prime Minister whose January 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges was thrown out by an appeals court last month, putting his political comeback in jeopardy. Mr. Anwar’s first trial in 1999, which ended in a conviction and six years in jail, was widely condemned as politically motivated.

Mr. Obama did not offer a reason but said his decision was “not indicative of a lack of concern, given the fact that there are a lot of people I don’t meet with, and opposition leaders I don’t meet with, but that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about them.”

As a consolation prize, Mr. Anwar will get a meeting with the national security adviser, Dr. Susan E. Rice, on Monday. Some human rights activists said that was not enough.

“Anwar, to Malaysia, is almost as important a figure as Aung San Suu Kyi is in Burma,” said Andrew Khoo, a human rights lawyer here, referring to the country also known as Myanmar. “If President Obama took the time to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, it is a little odd that he wouldn’t meet with Anwar.”

 Mr. Obama, however, was keen to keep the spotlight on Malaysia’s future. To showcase its high-tech development, Mr. Obama had a hectic day of diplomacy, dropping in at a science and innovation center, where he was shown an electric go-cart and a wristband for diabetics that transmits a distress signal if it detects a cold sweat.
Obama in KLPresident Barack Obama at Town-Hall Style Meeting at University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur

Later, he presided over a town-hall-style meeting with young people from around Southeast Asia, where he shared stories about his own political development and offered advice on how countries emerging from repression, like Myanmar, should deal with ethnic and religious strife.

As societies open up, Mr. Obama said, these conflicts often bubble to the surface. He cited both the legacy of ethnic strife in Malaysia, with its Muslim majority and Chinese and Indian minorities, and Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya minority faces persecution.

“Malaysia won’t succeed if non-Muslims don’t have opportunity,” he said, roaming the stage at the University of Malaya in a relaxed style that recalled some of his early campaign events. “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is repressed.”

For all its flaws, administration officials said Malaysia could still develop into a model Muslim-majority country with a diverse population. Mr. Najib is a far less authoritarian figure than Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister who dominated Malaysian politics for a quarter-century and who often railed against the United States.

“President Obama and I are both equally concerned about civil liberties as a principle,” Mr. Najib said at the news conference, citing legal reforms Mr. Najib initiated when he came into office in 2009.

Human rights activists credit Mr. Najib with reformist instincts early in his tenure. More recently, though, they say he has been pulled back from a path of moderation by reactionary elements in his party, which represents the country’s Malay majority.

Mr. Obama, however, has clearly developed a level of trust with him. After their meeting, Mr. Obama went out of his way to express sympathy for the government’s so far fruitless search for the Malaysian plane, which has exposed Mr. Najib to criticism.

“Obviously, we don’t have all the details of what happened,” Mr. Obama said. “But if, in fact, the plane went down in the ocean in this part of the world, that is a big place.”


South Korea’s PM resigns over ferry disaster

April 27, 2014

COMMENT: This is the tradition observed by politicians in SouthHishamuddin Hussein Korea, Japan, those in Europe and elsewhere but not in Malaysia. Our Ministers cling to their posts shamelessly. There is no sense of remorse and public accountability. The acting Malaysian Minister of Transport,for example, remains in his post despite the Genting Highlands bus tragedy and MH370 disaster. He is also Minister of Defence and was a former Home Affairs Minister when the ragtag army of the Sultan of Sulu invaded Lahad Datu, Sabah. Why? –Din Merican

South Korea’s Prime Minister Chung resigns over Ferry Disaster

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won announces resignation amid criticism of government handling of the Sewol ferry disaster.

Chung Hong-won announced his resignation early on Sunday at an emergency news conference in Seoul [AP]

Chung Hong-won announced his resignation early on Sunday at an emergency news conference in Seoul [AP]

 South Korea’s Prime Minister has announced his resignation over the widespread criticism over the government’s response to the April 16 ferry disaster. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won announced his resignation early on Sunday at an emergency news conference in Seoul, the capital.

“I offer my apology for having been unable to prevent this accident from happening and unable to properly respond to it afterwards,” he said. “I believe I, as the Prime Minister, certainly had to take responsibility and resign.”

The Sewol ferry sank on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the traditional holiday island of Jeju.

The Sewol ferry, weighing almost 7,000 tons, sank on a routine trip from the port of Incheon, near Seoul, to the southern holiday island of Jeju. Investigations are focused on human error and mechanical failure.

The Sewol ferry, weighing almost 7,000 tons, sank on a routine trip from the port of Incheon, near Seoul, to the southern holiday island of Jeju. Investigations are focused on human error and mechanical failure.

The government, along with almost all of its branches, has come under fierce criticism over the disaster, and the handing of the rescue operation. Chung said that he wanted to resign earlier, but had given the situation “first priority,” adding that he did not want to be “any burden to the administration”.

More than 300 people, most of them students and teachers from one high school on a field trip, have died or are missing and presumed dead.

The children were told to stay put in their cabins, where they waited for further orders. The confirmed death toll on Sunday was 187.

All 15 surviving crew members responsible for sailing the vessel are now in custody and face charges ranging from criminal negligence to abandoning passengers.

Tempers have frayed over the slow pace of the recovery and frequent changes in information provided by the government.

President Park Geun-hye, who has the most power in government, was booed by some of the relatives of the missing when she visited a gym where families of the missing were staying.

Terima Kasih, Malaysia, says President Barack Obama

April 27, 2014

Terima Kasih, Malaysia, says President Barack Obama

Good evening. Selamat Petang.

Obama and King of MalaysiaPresident Barack Obama with The King and The Queen of Malaysia


Your Majesty, thank you so much for those warm words. To you, Her Majesty, Madam Rosmah, Prime Minister, distinguished guests and friends – thank you for the extraordinary hospitality that you’ve shown me and my delegation.

And on behalf of my country, I want to thank the Malaysian people for the wonderful welcome that you extended to us today. I’m delighted to make this historic visit. As some of you may know, it has been nearly 50 years since an American President visited Malaysia.

In his memoirs, Lyndon Johnson wrote of how impressed he was by the “extraordinary vitality and eagerness” he saw in the faces of people here and throughout Southeast Asia. And I’m eager to see that same boleh spirit tomorrow – (applause) – when I have the opportunity to speak with young people from across Southeast Asia at the University of Malaya.

Mr. Prime Minister, I look forward to our work together, and I pledge to infuse our efforts with that same spirit. Tonight, I simply want to express my gratitude for the generosity that you’ve shown us today – a generosity the people of Malaysia have extended to my family since I was elected.

As some of you may know, two years ago, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia hosted an exhibit that showcased some of my mother’s batik collection. Now, my mother loved batik. I remember when I was a boy growing up in Jakarta, she’d come home from village markets with her arms full of batik and she’d lay them around the house and look at them, and make dresses out of them. And I was a young boy so I wasn’t as excited as she was.

And they weren’t particularly fancy or expensive – although later in life, she would get some antiques that were extraordinary – but for my mother, batik wasn’t about fashion. It was representative of the work and the livelihood of mothers and young women who had painstakingly crafted them. It was a window into the lives of others – their cultures, and their traditions, and their hopes. And it meant so much to her and it was part of her spirit, and so I’m deeply grateful to the people of Malaysia for celebrating that part of my mother’s life. It was very kind of you.

And I tell this story because my mother believed, and I believe, that whether we come from a remote village or a big city, whether we live in the United States or in Malaysia, we all share basic human aspirations: To live in dignity and peace. To shape our own destiny. To be able to make a living and to work hard and support a family. And most of all, to leave the next generation something better than was left to us.

These are the aspirations that I believe illuminate a new era of partnership, of “berkerja sama” between the United States and Malaysia. For while we may be different as nations, our people have similar hopes and similar aspirations. And we can draw strength in both our nations from our ethnic and religious diversity. We can draw hope from our history. And we dream of a brighter future for all of our children.

So I would like to propose a toast: To the strength of our relationship, the power of our friendship, the peace and prosperity of our peoples, and the good health of Their Majesties the King and Queen.

Terima kasih banyak. Thank you very much. – The White, April 27, 2014.–

* Remarks by President Barack Obama at the State Banquet at Istana Negara on April 26, 2014, in conjunction with his visit to Malaysia.

APCO in the state of denial

By Rusman

Yesterday’s interview with Anwar Ibrahim on ForeignPolicy [here] by Isaac Stone Fish included an interesting snippet.

[Anwar Ibrahim]: In the United States, APCO and other public relations firms portray me as anti-Semitic. I have taken a large beating through Najib’s hiring of APCO as his consultant. As you know, they have been involved in Nigeria and Kazakhstan in the past, and the highest paid is Malaysia — $20 million in one go!

I don’t have a problem with the government using APCO — but why must they use paid bloggers, journalists, to demonize me in the United States?

[APCO did work for the government of Malaysia until 2010. In an emailed statement, Adam Williams, APCO’s global media relations manager wrote that “we have never worked to portray Mr. Anwar as anti-Semitic. We have never taken editorial control over or paid bloggers or journalists to write stories. It is against our code of conduct as a firm.”]


APCO denying they were involved in a scheme to smear Anwar Ibrahim in America? We find that laughable and also very difficult to believe. A year ago we summarized the APCO story here. It’s very clear from the public documents that:

1) Joshua Trevino worked for the Malaysian government via companies like APCO and FBC.

2) He was paid a ton of money

3) He and his network of bloggers published paid-for pieces in blogs and newspaper outlets

4) MANY of those articles were blatantly ad-hominem attacks on Anwar Ibrahim suggesting he is 1) guilty of sodomy 2) a closet islamic terrorist sympathizer 3) anti-semitic

Adam Williams of APCO (@AW_DC on twitter) probably did not get the memo and did not see all of the press exposing this particular UMNO scandal. Maybe he will see this and he will reconsider his position.

For more info see Buzzfeed and WSJ.

Platitudes not needed, Mr.President

April 27, 2014

Platitudes not needed, Mr.President

“Malaysians hope that your visit to Malaysia can be a beacon of light in these difficult times.  We hope that you will be able to share your personal journey and the fight by great American leaders against institutionalised racism and discrimination to make it possible for you to become elected as the President of United States, the leader of the free world”.–Tony Pua, Member of Parliament

Dear President Barack Obama,

Barack ObamaWelcome to my country, my home, my beautiful Malaysia. We Malaysians are extremely proud that America’s first African American president is the first President in 48 years decided to visit our humble country.

Although you are an American, Malaysians together with much of the rest of the world celebrated with you, when you won the historic presidency in 2008. To quote your predecessor, President George Bush, your “journey represents a triumph of the American story”.

I was personally moved and inspired by your victory acceptance speech in Chicago, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer… at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

Hence you would surely remember and appreciate the struggles of African Americans in the history of the United States, for freedom, justice and equality.  The Article 1, Section 2 of 1787 first constitution of the United States had defined African Americans as “three fifths of a person”.

In the landmark US Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v Sandford (1857), it was decided that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens.

Even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery by the thirteenth and fifteenth amendment to the United States constitution (1865), the white supremacists had subverted the objective of these changes by using various strategies to disfranchise their African American citizens.

The subversion of the US constitution was even endorsed directly and indirectly by the Presidents and the Congress of the era to enforce segregation and discrimination.

It is only through the continued political efforts of the African American civil rights movements in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the Civil Rights Act (1964), which outlawed discrimination, based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.

Four decades later, the world witnessed the inauguration of the first African American President of the United States. We were inspired, and we celebrated because in Malaysia, we face very similar challenges, challenges which we are still struggling to overcome.

Our struggle the same
Minority races in the country are extensively discriminated politically, socially and economically. No Malaysian can imagine ever the possibility of a non Malay ever becoming the Prime Minister of the country.  Race and religious issues are exploited extensively and openly to entrench the powers of the ruling elite.

Civil liberties are curbed via a web of draconian laws, with the complicity and collusion of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.  The late Karpal Singh, the former chairman of my party, was found guilty of sedition, for simply expressing our federal constitution.

This government even wanted him jailed for the “offence”, even though he was pretty much paralysed waist down. The Leader of the Opposition, Anwar Ibrahim has been politically and unjustly persecuted and previously jailed since 1998.

Even I myself am under the threat of being disqualified as a Member of Parliament and jailed for up to two years if I were to be found guilty of “illegal assembly” for taking part in a peaceful candlelight vigil.

What’s more, religious freedom in the country is becoming increasingly suppressed, with religious extremism rearing its ugly head. Malaysia is the only country in the world where the term ‘Allah’ is deemed exclusive to Muslims, a position which our Prime Minister, Najib Razak has openly endorsed. Malay language bibles have been seized. The Church is currently prosecuted in the courts while religious leaders are being outrageously investigated for sedition.

Weren’t you briefed?

Mr President, needless to say, I am certain your diplomatic corps would have also briefed you on the extensive corrupt practices as well as abuses of power by our Government to enrich the influential elite and their cronies.

53 percent of Malaysians voted for a change of government in the last general election held a year ago.  Unfortunately, due to extensive gerrymandering, media manipulation as well as corrupt electoral practices, the aspirations of change by the ordinary Malaysians could not be achieved. Hence it is our hope that your visit will not just be about “trade relations”, the diplomatic euphemism for “profit maximisation”, and “regional security”.

Malaysians hope that your visit to Malaysia can be a beacon of light in these difficult times.  We hope that you will be able to share your personal journey and the fight by great American leaders against institutionalised racism and discrimination to make it possible for you to become elected as the President of United States, the leader of the free world.

Malaysians too, dream of the day discrimination, marginalisation and segregation by race, religion, colour and sex will be a thing of the past, and all Malaysians will be given equal opportunities and just treatments.

Platitudes not needed

Mr President, with all due respect, we do not need you to visit our country to tell us that our country is a standout example of moderation, because it is not.  Or for you to praise our Government that it is a model plural society living in peace and harmony, because it is only but a façade.

We need you, Mr President, to speak of the universal virtues of humankind, of the T.Puaprinciples your forefathers upheld and sacrificed for.  We want you to speak of the importance of basic human rights, equality, freedom and fundamental democratic principles.  We want to know that the president of United States still believe in the protection and promotion of civil liberties throughout the world – those very liberties which allowed you to be in your position today.

We hope, Mr President, you will carry on the legacy of one of the world’s best loved civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, who believed in non violent civil disobedience.  You have rightly honoured his achievements in your speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of King’s famous speech in November last year.  You told us:

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“…We rightly and best remember King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.

“…And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.

“Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.  Because they marched, America became more free and more fair…”

Martin Luther King’s words hold true

We Malaysians hope that you, Mr President will share your dreams with Malaysians and the rest of the world, just as King did so with Americans, in that “soaring oratory”, where he said

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today.

Mr President, Malaysians have a dream too, and we hope, from the bottom of our hearts, you will share our dream.

Thank you, Mr President.  We hope you will enjoy our acclaimed Malaysian hospitality. –Tony Pua @

TONY PUA is Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara and DAP national publicity secretary

Obama’s Malaysia Test

April 26, 2014

Obama’s Malaysia Test

by Bridget Welsh (April 25, 2014)

Bridget Welsh is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University

KUALA LUMPUR – When Barack Obama lands in Malaysia this weekend, his two-day stopover will be the first visit by a US president since 1966. Unfortunately, human rights will probably not be on the agenda. Even as Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s government pursues yet another politically motivated case against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the United States, by refusing to schedule a meeting with Anwar, has signaled that it will not stand up for justice in Malaysia.

Najib_ObamaIn fact, the Obama administration has refused to treat Malaysia like a normal country and engage leaders from all sides – a stance that has emboldened Najib to move against Anwar, whose coalition received a higher proportion of the popular vote in the May 2013 election than Obama did in the 2012 US election. And the many serious challenges to human rights and governance in Malaysia do not end with politicized convictions of opposition leaders. Just days after Obama declared last October that Malaysia was a model of “diversity and tolerance,” Malaysian authorities denied non-Muslims the right to use the word “Allah” in the practice of their own faiths – a decision condemned throughout the Muslim world for its negative portrayal of Islam.

Moreover, members of Najib’s government endorse hudud, a class of penalties within sharia law that could imply strict limitations on Muslims’ right to choose how they practice their faith. According to the US State Department’s own human-rights reports, curbs on religious freedoms have included demolition of Hindu temples, bombings of Christian churches, and a ban on the practice of Shia Islam, to which some 15% of the world’s Muslims adhere. Likewise, according to the Pew Research Center, Najib’s government has “very high” restrictions on religious freedom.

International measures of press freedom and corruption reveal persistent deficits as well. Malaysia’s mainstream media, owned and controlled by the ruling coalition in power since 1957, regularly fabricate stories. Most recently, coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has blamed the US, effectively belittling the support of American personnel and other resources in the search effort. And, in its latest report, Global Financial Integrity ranked Malaysia second in the world for illicit capital movements, reflecting years of outflows from a massive informal economy tied to corruption.

Malaysia’s institutional problems extend to elections. The Electoral Integrity Project ranked the 2013 election 66th for polls held worldwide last year – placing it firmly in the lowest tier, below Pakistan and Iran. Indeed, the government lost the popular vote and took power with a margin of parliamentary seats that was lower than the number of constituencies where serious irregularities were reported. And, given the country’s politicized judiciary, most electoral petitions were summarily dismissed on technical grounds, with many candidates denied even the right to present their cases. (The Najib government promised to address the irregularities; a year later, no investigation has begun.)

Rather than strengthening democracy, Najib has chosen to increase cash handouts, straining government finances with a $10 billion expansion of a race-based affirmative-action program that favors Malays. And he is accommodating his party’s chauvinist elements, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Racist discourse – tinged with anti-Western rhetoric that Najib has ignored – has reached fever pitch, with right-wing groups openly advocating intolerance and racial hatred. Not surprisingly, this has compromised much-needed economic reforms and is causing deterioration in the business environment.

Malaysia’s economy is caught, moreover, in the middle-income trap, unable to “graduate” to advanced-country status. In an effort to attract much-needed foreign capital, Najib has introduced the Goods and Service Tax (GST) and cut back on subsidies; but this has not been accompanied by fiscal prudence or effective measures to stanch the leakages from corruption and cronyism.

Citizens have been hard hit by rising inflation and record-high household debt, which now stands at 80.5% of GDP. The government is failing to provide an adequate supply of even basic necessities, with water rationing now in effect.

As a result, the government’s popularity has plummeted, contributing to the Najib government’s inability to muster public support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed mega-regional trade agreement with the US and ten other Pacific Rim countries. The government has already issued a statement that Obama’s visit will not yield progress on the TPP, indicative of the prevailing lack of confidence in the measure.

America’s role in Malaysia is highly polarizing. The Malaysian government has already interpreted Obama’s visit as an endorsement of Najib’s leadership, while opposition activists accuse the US of abandoning its democratic principles and whitewashing the government’s growing authoritarianism.

This does not serve America’s long-term interests in Asia, where it is viewed increasingly negatively – particularly in Malaysia. According to the latest Asia Barometer Survey, only 30% of Malaysians – the lowest share in Southeast Asia – view the US favorably, with negative sentiment most highly concentrated among young people and Muslims. A visit by Obama that fails to address Malaysia’s fundamental political and economic challenges will erode America’s standing further.

Such a visit will also raise further questions about what Obama actually stands for. From Egypt to Ukraine and beyond, there is a deepening global perception that America’s commitment to fighting racism and intolerance, defending human rights, upholding good governance, and promoting free and fair elections has faltered under Obama. This week’s long-overdue trip will carry enormous symbolism. That is why it could haunt America for years to come.