October 29, 2014
Malaysia as seen from Washington DC
By Kean Wong, Special to the Malaysian Insider
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had just outlined the robust prospects for Malaysia’s economy and was busy posing for photos with Malaysia’s new Ambassador to the United States Datuk Awang Adek and various Manhattan dignitaries on stage when a few visiting Malaysians and an American businessman familiar with what he called the “heyday of Mahathir’s Malaysia” opened up around the coffee stand about the challenges that needed trouncing today if the weather was to clear up in the weeks and months ahead.
Like President Obama – who considers PM Najib a close Asian confidante, and according to Washington insiders, a “most reliable friend” amid an anxious region – the Prime Minister has sought comfort in foreign policy wins over the often thankless and truculent realities of domestic politics.
So the ringing global endorsement of Malaysia as a new UN Security Council member next year that handily coincides with its much-awaited chairmanship of ASEAN (after Cambodia’s recent vexed leadership) is justly deserved and celebrated, avers a veteran former Asian diplomat now at the United Nations in New York.
The country represents a “necessary and useful” example and plays an international role as a globalised, Muslim-led country at a time of fraught Western relations with the Muslim world, notes a senior American diplomat echoing a common view at Washington-based think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In the current campaign against Isis and its unravelling of Iraq and Syria, where the Obama administration has been desperately keen on stitching together a better “coalition of the willing” (Muslim) nations to combat such extremism, the Najib government is a stalwart ally.
Despite American concerns raised over the alleged use of the Sedition Act to crackdown on Malaysian dissent and an expectation that this week’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim trial will turn out poorly for the opposition leader, there is a prevailing Washington agenda about terrorism, China’s rise and related trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – not necessarily in that order – that should not be derailed.
As a senior US State Department official explained in a briefing ahead of Secretary John Kerry’s series of bilateral meetings in Jakarta following President Joko Widodo’s inauguration, “at the top of the list (is) the international effort to degrade and ultimately destroy (Isis)… we hope that the individual countries can do more and cooperate more to ensure that, in the first instance, Southeast Asia remains immune to the proselytizing efforts of Isis; and secondly, that these countries assist effectively beyond what they’ve done already to rebut the false ideology.”
“Of course, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore are also members of the TPP negotiations. That’s a topic that is likely to be touched on (in bilateral talks),” Kerry said. “Malaysia, I would flag for you, has just won a seat on the UN Security Council circa 2015 and will take over from Burma in 2015 as the next chair of ASEAN. So there’s a lot of good work to be done in the meeting with Prime Minister Najib.”
Yet it was the mixed results so far of Najib’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) and worries over the Prime Mminister’s political future that coloured the backdrop of conversations accompanying a slew of Malaysian leaders over the past month of American visits.
For one traveling Malaysian businessman, speculating about life after a Najib Prime Ministership was apparently commonplace among his peers. He was concerned that the “many good ideas and sincerity” of the Prime Minister’s team in pushing Malaysia forward could be jeopardised by the various UMNO-linked pressure groups like PERKASA and ISMA, which “did not understand” how the globalised Malaysian economy worked.
Perhaps surprisingly, his American businessman friend was more adept at working out the realpolitik, contrasting Washington’s acute polarisation of politics and culture by going through Malaysia’s possible list of successors, and echoing what some in UMNO Youth have argued is the ascendancy of leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin to break political deadlocks (and stasis).
But as another visitor remarked, where does that leave the present incumbent? With looming defeat expected at next month’s polls for the Democrats – where losing control of the US Senate means souring prospects for Obama’s domestic agenda and legacy – perhaps navigating past lame-duck leaders will be the corporate world’s biggest challenge on both sides of the globe.
Yet the bilateral relationship between Malaysia and the US has “never been better”, greased along by a “strong” personal bond forged between the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama, explained a diplomat travelling with Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to Washington last month.
As a measure of the depth of bilateral ties, and in time for the current campaign against Isil and related security threats, Zahid was feted across Washington in long meetings with key Obama administration officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, CIA Director John Brennan (where Zahid spent three hours at the Langley HQ), and Attorney-General Eric Holder.
Zahid later explained at a Malaysian Embassy dinner that our “strong ties, trust” will also help propel along the likelihood of Malaysians being granted coveted visa waivers to the US, in another sign of the strengthening “people to people” links that are a key feature of bilateral ties.
In an embassy reception marking both Hari Merdeka and Armed Forces Day, Zahid as a former Defence Minister also listed in his speech the various ongoing Pentagon-funded programmes and regional exercises where Malaysia plays a key part, that was as much a legacy of Malaysia’s anti-communist Cold War role as today’s delicate exigencies over the South China Sea.
The Minister waved away concerns over domestic politics by referring to the “national interest”; moreover, as a senior officer working for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs staff saw it, Malaysia’s domestic uncertainties paled by comparison to the jostling ASEAN faces in the South China Sea with China and there was “much to look forward to with Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship”.
At a discussion a few nights later at nearby American University, the visiting US Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun (left) also echoed the Home Minister’s celebration of our American relationship, and explained that Malaysia was on track to join the US visa waiver programme as our “5% visa refusal rate” trends down towards a 3% criterion.
While the US envoy was perhaps more circumspect than usual in deference to the Malaysian Ambassador in the audience, Yun did note American concerns over the “social, political challenges” that included vexed differences over religious issues and the ‘politicised’ TPP negotiations.
The audience chuckled along when both envoys agreed the Malaysian government faced such dilemmas in a polarised atmosphere “just like Washington”, blaming much of it on “hard to control” social media and the Internet.
Yet as the former US Ambassador to Malaysia, John Malott, points out, strong bilateral ties notwithstanding, Malaysia has been a skilled diplomatic player in an increasingly anxious region, which knows its interests may be between that of the US, China and Asean over immediate issues like the South China Sea – and the need to recalibrate responses to China as it asserts its economic weight and ambitions.
“I find it amazing the US puts so much store in the TPP with Malaysia when there are other economic and trade interests that are just are important to American companies, when American companies don’t get a fair shake because of the problems of corruption, a lack of transparency in such areas as ‘no bid contracts’,” Malott said.
Perhaps a more attractive future Malaysia shimmered into view a week later when the increasingly popular Yuna took the stage at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium downtown. As the gaggle of so-called “hijabsters” danced, clapped and swayed in the aisles, Yuna charmed the rest of us with her mix of polished pop tunes and modest tales between songs about her experiences as a Malaysian taking on the Los Angeles music world.
In the crowd queueing for photographs and autographs afterwards, the Malaysians who turned out in force for their homegirl merged seamlessly with the wider America on display. The future seemed within grasp for now.