The Buzz

Obama’s Tricky Balancing Act in Malaysia

This weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama will make a historic visit to Malaysia as part of his four-country, eight-day trip to Asia –a do-over of a regional tour he missed last October due to a government shutdown. While his visit, the first by a U.S. president in nearly half a century, is an occasion to cement cooperation with an emerging American partner, it is also an opportunity to speak honestly with Malaysian officials about the differences both countries have and to address the Malaysian people more generally in light of the country’s troubling domestic politics.

In 1966, when then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson visited Malaysia, the country was touted as a model nation which had successfully defeated a communist insurgency and embarked on the road to economic development. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in a memo to the president prepared before the trip, called Malaysia “something of an economic and political showpiece in Southeast Asia.” Johnson himself, in a glowing tribute to the country at Subang International Airport, called it “a model of what may be done by determined and farsighted men in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world.”

Nearly half a century later, Obama will have a harder time uttering those same platitudes with a straight face. True, Malaysia’s embattled prime minister, Najib Razak, has tried to reform the country and promote better ties with Washington in spite of the numerous domestic obstacles he faces. But Najib’s loss of the popular vote in controversial elections last May, his subsequent backtracking on several economic and political reforms, and the recent sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, have undermined the Obama administration’s narrative of Malaysia as a moderate Muslim country and successful democracy. Hence, Obama faces a tough balancing act in consolidating cooperation with a key partner in the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific while also engaging the Malaysian people, a majority of whom may not support the government. Failure to strike the right chord risks either undermining potential bilateral cooperation that would promote American interests or losing credibility among a younger generation of Malaysian voters for not living up to the values the United States espouses.

The administration’s narrative for the trip focuses on highlighting Malaysia’s credentials as a moderate Muslim-majority and successful democratic state as well as potentially elevating bilateral ties “to a new stage”, as U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes put it in a briefing last Friday. Statements like these from the Obama administration usually indicate the attempted signing of a ‘strategic partnership’ of some sort which formally institutionalizes and structures the existing relationship – something that Washington has already successfully pursued with other key countries in the region like Indonesia and Vietnam as it pursues its rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific.

Forging such a partnership with Malaysia is a logical step in spite of the difficulties it entails. For all its limits, Malaysia is an important country striving to be both a developed nation by 2020 and an emerging middle power in the region and the world. Aside from its strategic location along the Straits of Malacca, which carries around 40 percent of the world’s trade, its role as a leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a mediator in disputes in southern Thailand and southern Philippines, and a global innovator in Islamic finance, are no small feats for a country of 30 million people. Malaysia’s international involvement is also set to increase in the following years with its chairing of ASEAN in 2015 – a critical year in the advancement of the ASEAN Economic Community – an added emphasis on its role in the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), and a potential seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). To be sure, there is no shortage of troubling domestic trends in Malaysia that may undermine or even contradict these foreign policy aspirations, including the rising intolerance against non-Muslims, the crackdown on the opposition using state institutions, and the aversion of hardliners in Najib’s own party to reform and moderation. Nonetheless, the United States has an opportunity to support this vision for Malaysia and to hold its leaders accountable for it.