Obama Must Pivot Towards Democracy in Malaysia

Apr 28, 2014 | Updated Jun 28, 2014

President Obama is hoping that his visit to Asia this month will break new ground on the Asia Pivot that has been one of the pillars of his foreign policy. So far, however, the visits to Japan and South Korea have not been kind. In Japan he was unable to make progress in negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Leaving empty handed, he has much less to talk about with the rest of the stops on the trip. In South Korea, the nation is in mourning over the sunken ferry boat and loss of life. Normally a state visit by an American President would attract more fanfare.

He is now in Malaysia - a key trading partner whose support for the TPPA is integral. But Malaysia has already indicated deep concerns about the agreement and the impact it will have on the local economy.

The visit to Malaysia is also intended to strengthen bi-lateral ties. But before even arriving, controversy over the President's itinerary in Kuala Lumpur has cast a shadow on the limits of those discussions.

One week ago the white House announced President Obama would not be meeting Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Despite meeting with opposition leaders in the UK, and Germany, the Administration seems to be hiding from Dr Anwar. This raised red flags immediately in America as well as in Malaysia. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on President Obama to engage with all groups in Malaysia. A few days later, the White House did announce a meeting between Anwar and NSC director Susan Rice. Malaysians frustrated by the decision have launched a Twitter hashtag #AudacityToMeet in hopes that President Obama may reconsider his position.

Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, leads Malaysia's opposition which won 52% of the popular vote in last year's general election. Yet as a result of gerrymandering of seats, their vote majority did not translate into a majority of seats in Parliament. A study conducted by Harvard ranks Malaysia as having one of the worst standard for electoral integrity in the world.

On March 7th Anwar was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of sodomy that are widely viewed as a politically motivated effort to end his political career. He is currently on bail but pending an appeal which many believe will go badly for him, he could be back in jail by the summertime. Anwar already spent seven years in solitary confinement for charges of sodomy leveled against him in 1998, also condemned widely as politically motivated.

The President's visit to Malaysia is unlikely to yield much tangible change in the bi-lateral relationship. America and Malaysia will continue to be trading partners. They will continue to cooperate on national security and military engagement. For all the effort, the net gain will be limited.

However by signaling that he will not meet Anwar, President Obama is implicitly giving the Malaysian government the nod that it's OK to proceed with the trials of Anwar Ibrahim. And if Anwar ends up in jail then it is something that Obama could have done something to prevent, but didn't. Six other opposition leaders are facing charges ranging from sedition to violation of public assembly laws. The crackdown should be troubling to the United States.

The President, on the other hand, can engage directly with Anwar. In doing so he sends a message that America will not be cowed by semi-authoritarian leaders who, in exchange for selective ambivalence on human rights issues, will sign trade deals. By acknowledging Anwar's legitimacy in the eyes of 52% of the Malaysian public, including a disproportionately large segment of Malaysia's youth, Obama demonstrates that he sees where Malaysia is headed.

In Malaysia's hotly contested political environment, there is little room for foreign dignitaries to meet with opposition figures. The ruling UMNO party is used to controlling its image and allowing its political opponents to cry foul over fraudulent elections, media freedom and judicial interference does not bolster the country's image.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College and International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago. He is a supporter of Dr. Anwar Ibrahim who has aided Dr. Ibrahim during his travels abroad. He is not paid for these services, nor is he officially affiliated with Dr. Ibrahim's campaign or any other political activities in Malaysia.