Malaysia as seen from Washington DC

October 29, 2014

Malaysia as seen from Washington DC

By Kean Wong, Special to the Malaysian Insider

 The White HouseThe White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

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, andNajib and Obama 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.

Razali IsmailThanks to Malaysia’s “inspired and markets-friendly” global leadership during the Mahathir years, and fondly remembered diplomats like Tan Sri Razali Ismail, Malaysia still glows on the world stage.

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.

John KerrryAs 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”, Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, pictured in 2010greased 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”.

J YunAt 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, strongambassador-john-malott 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.


12 thoughts on “Malaysia as seen from Washington DC

  1. I am an American. As far as Washington DC is concerned, no news about Malaysia is good news. USA has enough trouble on its plate. It does not want to hear anything about Malaysia. So long as Malaysia maintain a non-violent Muslim approach toward world affairs, USA is very happy in its relationship with Malaysia. Allah willing.

  2. In short, the USA only cares for its own interest… it doesn’t care about the domestic abuses in Malaysia as long as the local administration is friendly and in sync with the aspirations of the US. Period.

  3. Ah, the last stop for a veteran Kelantanese Politician, they always do, being sent as Ambassadors! From Treasury to KeMenlu!
    Many have yet to better Tan Sri Razali Ismail, polished track Record.
    I am no longer enamoured by US, the Muslims butcher as in Iraq Wars over 200,000 `collateral damage’ killings for Oil.
    Now its trying to repeat another `SaddamHussein’ ISIS, the monster they spawned to beat Bashar Al-Assad.
    Omaba and his Generals are a bigger blunderbust to Muslims than G.W. Bush WMD claim of 2003 Invasion. And the 5 Arab Nations which teamed up with it in their joint airstrikes, are putting their citizens in `ISIS’ laser cross-lines targets.
    David Haines, was the latest casualty of US politico-tragic miscalculations. Iraq Shiahs folly will be Obama’s Dems unraveling.
    Bodybags will be hot on sales for both sides, when US put `boots on the ground’ if Obama relents on popular demand. Right now, it was tweeted that it costs the US nearly $2 million per day in its Kobane outing.

  4. The USA keeps making the same mistakes over and over again i.e.
    supporting repressive Third World regimes just because they are
    “anti-communist” (during the Cold War) or “anti Al-Qaeda” (present day).

    For example: during the Cold War days, supporting the apartheid South Africa racist regime and opposing Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. Today, Obama refusing to meet with Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia just because Pakatan Rakyat has PAS as a component party and also because UMNO Baru-BN regime is supposedly an “ally” in the “War Against Terror”. No matter that UMNO Baru-BN regime is semi-apartheid and neo-fascist and that UMNO Baru political leaders make threats against
    ethnic minorities and non-Muslim religious groups.

    I am reading Dr Rohan’s book on Al-Qaeda and he has documented how USA funding for radical Islamists (to create problems for the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan) has resulted in the monstrous “religious” terrorists groups that exist everywhere today. Also how the UMNO Baru-BN regime tolerated the presence of terrorists like Indonesia-born

  5. One more comment:

    Professor Chalmers Johnson has written about how short-sighted, cynical
    US foreign policy often returns and bites back (Johnson calls it “Blowback”) the USA.The funding of anti-Soviet radical Islamist mujahidin in Afghanistan during the 1980s is biting back the USA in the form of the various terrorist groups now targeting Western Europe and the USA itself.

  6. USA only care about their own interest, and they will do “anything” to safeguard their interest. They just want to milk all these third and/or developing world. Looks like they are seeing some milk from this country now, with bn harping on building nuclear power plants.

  7. The US is a world power. You may wish to do as they tell you to do but never do what they do. The US bailout of Wall Street is a case in point. Very few countries can come out with US3.5 Trillion and still see its currency hold its ground.

    But unfortunately many Third World Countries are trying to emulate the style of the US without the substance to back them up. The Third World countries can only survive if they have a system that allows them to address issues as they come up and weed out those elements that could have a toxic effect on their nation and particularly economy. When there is a issue fix it and move ahead and make sure that those who are responsible will never want to do it again or are not given the opportunity to it again. In this regard, financial prudence is the key to be a successful Third World Country because no one can spend money like the US. I think that Third World Leaders know what should be done but they just are not able to do it because they are thinking about being in power for as long as possible. The flip side is that if the country is successful the people will only be, too, pleased to keep you in office forever.

  8. Frankie Fook-lun Leung October 29, 2014 at 1:29 am summed it up well.

    Comparing to other Muslims-majority countries, Malaysia is doing very very well — no beheading, no suicide bomber, no rocket, no militants, no coup, no problem to other countries. All internal problems are kept internal.

    Malaysians complain about Malaysia only when we compare to non-Muslims-majority, developed countries.

  9. Malaysia at the present juncture cannot have the luxury as in the ideal standard of Western democracy – we are still a fledgling and we still have not learnt nor achieved the minimum required for Intergration, and looks like we are becoming more & more divisive – there’s too much under-currents , and no matter how much we try to portray calmness on the surface, the symptoms of restlessness and , each wanting to out-do another or the others, and the ‘schemers’ are hell-bent to try & disrupt what Malaysia has in fact greatly achieved so far through civilized dialogue by prudence and consensus …..even as Malaysians generally are ethnically or racially divided, there are still good and sensible leaders doing their part with good faith and dedication – we have to plod on collectively without undermining one another…..
    ( Malaysia tak boleh ? )

  10. Just sharing. Like it or not, we love our American friends.

    PS: Pak Ngah, there was an article in Star several days ago that the US is prepared to help build Malaysia’s nuclear plant. The US IÀEA rep or ambassador said it.

    Zin Dahari ZA #FSV #Bung Wak!!

  11. When international media WSJ and TNYT that does serious journalism is paying attention to Malaysia and for all the wrong reasons. The American goverment may be cosy with ours but it is the public or potential business people /investors who reads the news and forms their own opinions
    And The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are heavyweights in commentary on international events. Not tabloids to be brushed off.

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