from Asia Unbound

What President Obama Should Do in Malaysia

April 21, 2014

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On April 27, President Obama will become the first sitting American president to visit Malaysia in five decades. This trip, which already had been postponed from the fall, has been complicated by the Malaysian government’s recent crackdown on opposition politicians, and by Kuala Lumpur’s inept handling of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 tragedy. However, Obama still plans to highlight the growing strategic and economic relationship between Malaysia and the United States, the relationship between himself and Prime Minister Najib tun Razak, and Malaysia’s supposed credentials as a moderate, Muslim-majority state and emerging democracy. But on his trip, the president should try to maintain a balanced focus, hitting the following points:

1. Give Malaysia its due. Malaysia has clearly been one of the success stories of human development in the post-World War II era. Perhaps it has been overshadowed by other tigers in Asia like neighboring Singapore, but Malaysia has certainly accomplished a great deal in just fifty-plus years of independence. Its economy is more diversified than many experts give it credit for, it has boosted GDP per capita to over $10,000 (and GDP per capita is much higher in urban areas like Kuala Lumpur), and it has built an efficient and modern physical infrastructure on peninsular Malaysia. The country suffers from challenges with graft, particularly in state-controlled companies, but no more so than neighbors like Thailand and Malaysia. President Obama should rightly celebrate this impressive development.

2. But look into Malaysia’s future. Malaysia’s future is not assured, however. The country has struggled to move into higher value-added industries, and its education system remains much weaker than those in Singapore and other, wealthier Asian countries. Prime Minister Najib, after a strong start, has mostly given up on many proposed economic reforms. Investors still like Malaysia for certain types of manufacturing, and the government offers many incentives for foreign investment, but in the long-term many foreign investors wonder what Malaysia’s competitive advantage will be. President Obama is not going to, by himself, convince Najib to pick up the mantle of reform again, but making the argument for reform would be welcome among American businesses investing in Southeast Asia.

3. Clearly recognize that Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country with many non-Muslims. Since last year’s parliamentary elections, in which the ruling coalition barely squeaked home (or, according to some analyses, stole the election), Prime Minister Najib has increasingly catered to hard-line and more conservative ethnic Malay voices in his coalition. The dismal showing of the coalition’s ethnic Chinese party further reduced the voice of non-Muslims and non-Malays in government. The past year has seen increasingly vitriolic rhetoric from government leaders and supporters against ethnic Chinese and non-Muslims in general, and many ethnic Chinese and Indians continue to take their capital out of Malaysia, or send their children abroad for school and, ultimately, to live. Prime Minister Najib’s plans to further boost economic preferences for Malays adds to this Chinese and Indian fear, and also distorts the economy. President Obama should clearly recognize that Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society, and should meet leaders of the Chinese and Indian communities, including those from opposition parties.

4. Avoid the “big man” problem. American administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, too often tend to associate reform with one supposedly groundbreaking leader in a developing nation, a supposedly democratic “big man.” In rare cases, such a leader exists, but more often than not a supposedly reform-minded “big man” requires many factors to go in his direction to successfully push his or her country toward democracy.  In the worst cases, “big man” leaders who initially look like reformers turn out, in power, to be as corrupt or autocratic as the men and women they replaced.

Prime Minister Najib, to many American officials, is the “big man” who has shifted bilateral relations and supposedly is leading reforms. But the reality is more nuanced, to be sure. Prime Minister Najib has skillfully wooed the Obama administration and Washington in general, both through his own diplomacy and through a series of effective ambassadors in the United States. Yet Najib himself is not Malaysia. If the American president focuses only on Najib, he risks alienating an entire generation of young Malaysians, who mostly support the opposition and voted for the opposition last year.

To avoid the “big man” trap, President Obama should meet not only with Najib but also with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently sentenced to five years in jail on highly dubious sodomy charges in a highly dubious (at best) trial. The president also could meet with leaders from Malaysia’s tough but embattled civil society.

What’s more, publicly highlighting some of the serious flaws in Malaysia’s system does not mean that the United States and Malaysia cannot continue to build a strategic relationship, as some analysts seem to believe. The United States has achieved such a balance with many other countries in the region, and many Malaysian elites already expect the American president to take a position on human rights.

5. Avoid discussion of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. After a bad start to the search for the plane, Kuala Lumpur has become more cooperative and seems to have given all its resources for the hunt. Enough people (including me) have dumped enough on Malaysia’s government for its inept handling of Flight 370 during the first week of the search. It is a tragedy, and President Obama should stick to other issues during his visit.