The headlines of virtually all the Malaysian newspapers have been screaming loudly and euphorically, since the ‘historic visit’ of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to the US, where he met President Donald Trump. They were ‘celebrating triumph’, hailing high hopes, and swelling with pride.
‘My gosh, the President of the United States really met the Prime Minister of Malaysia, face to face, during their ‘four eyes only’ meeting!
New Strait Times, on September 14, 2017:
“TAKING TIES TO NEW HEIGHTS: PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak hit it off with US President Donald Trump at their closed-door meeting at the White House. Trump says it is ‘a great honour’ to have Najib and his delegation at the White House and that he considers the latter a friend”
Such a statement is, of course, not too hard to comprehend, as Malaysia under the leadership of Mr. Najib has been lavishly ‘rewarding’ its allies in Washington (both the Democrats under Obama’s administration, and right after that, the Republicans), buying influence all over the US capital, and supporting conservative political think tanks.
Malaysia Mail, on September 14:
“’Trump: Malaysia vital to US’. Najib: * EPF to invest in US infrastructure development * Staunch and dependable ally of the US in fight against terrorism. Trump: * Malaysia crucial trading and investment partner. * Major player in fight against extremism.”
No public criticism of ‘the event’ is obviously allowed in the Malaysian mainstream media.
However, elsewhere, things are not as cozy at all. Both Trump and Najib have many enemies, and two of them together make extremely odd couple. The left is outraged, but even some extreme-right neocon figures are now shouting murder. In the U.S., there have been some loud outbursts of disagreements and even disgust, as this one, written by the former president of the World Bank (and staunch ‘neocon’) Paul Wolfowitz, who published his verbal blast in Newsweek on September 13:
“The Washington Post in an editorial yesterday said that the visit “sets a new low. Not only is Mr. Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia’s progress toward democracy. He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the US Justice Department.”
The Justice Department suit in question seeks recovery and forfeiture of over $1 billion in assets alleged to have been purchased with funds “misappropriated” from Malaysia’s One Malaysia Development Bank (or 1MDB), which the suit alleges is largely controlled and managed by someone identified as “Malaysian Official 1” — and who is widely known to be Najib.
In addition to his overall responsibility for the more than $4 billion of misappropriated funds, some $1 billion of which were laundered in the United States, “Malaysian Official 1” personally received $731 million, of which $620 million was supposedly returned, netting him a tidy $111 million.”
Etcetera. Mr. Najib appears to be unloved at home, as well as abroad, by both ‘progressive’ and conservative politicians, as well as by the general public. It is mostly agreed that he is suffering from extremely low popularity, although the precise numbers are unavailable.
Unpopular or not, Mr. Najib and his UMNO are still controlling the country, and he has been tightly and warmly embraced by both successive administrations in the United States: those of Obama and Trump.
Many citizens of Malaysia are now chuckling. They feel embarrassed by their leadership, or they are anxious, or both. Some are even outrightly frustrated and angry.
An artist at one of the art galleries at Pasar Seni (Art Market) in Kuala Lumpur doesn’t want to be identified, but he offered his opinion about the encounter of the two leaders in Washington:
“I believe that this government is too busy doing money laundering and buying support in the US. But it has no time and no appetite to solve many problems that this country is facing. Malaysia is in deep crises and Najib should be listening to his own people, not to those in Washington.”
A leading left-wing Malaysian intellectual, author, filmmaker and professor, Kia Meng, explained the frustrating and persistent situation in his country:
“The biggest problem in Malaysia is the failure to conceive of any other model, not just in economic development, but in political culture. The mainstream civil society and political parties are mainly concerned about removing Najib as prime minister, and there are no qualms about working with Mahathir in achieving that end. Again, such limited horizons, and those who criticize are called cynics while these ‘pragmatists’ say that at least they are getting their hands dirty in at least trying to bring about ‘change’. The question is why dissenters feel so unrepresented and where is the space for them to articulate other positions or visions? Sorry, I am angry at these developments, and am asking myself, what is there to be done? Where is the point of engagement in these times?”
Mr. Suhaimi, a consultant who lives in both Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta (Indonesia), sees the situation pragmatically:
“Najib is not popular in Malaysia… And the country has right now too many problems. Next year, in August 2018, there will be elections in Malaysia, and Najib is clearly seeking support from abroad.”
President Trump is well aware of the fact that the West is gradually losing support in many parts of Southeast Asia. For the first time in modern history, The Philippines are openly rebelling against the Washington’s diktats, while Vietnam is reassessing its policy towards the West, gradually warming up towards China, at least after the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, got re-elected at the beginning of 2016. Even the perpetually obedient ally of Washington, Indonesia, has lately been showing some mild signs of rebelliousness. Thailand is extending feelers in all directions, and could go either ‘east or west’, at any moment.
Of all the ‘important countries’ in the region, what is left for Washington to rely on is only the rich and opportunistic city-state, Singapore… and lately Malaysia.
Gone are all those fiery speeches and philosophical books of “Doctor M” (former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad), in which he used to scold the West and preach ‘Asian values’, while instructing Japan to ‘return back to Asia’.
Now Malaysia is full of praise for the West, and only the West. It is willing and ready to collaborate, to play by the [Western] rules. Remember those great moments of Malaysian history, the old slogans from the heady days of the liberation struggle against the Brits, a clenched fist and the shout: “Merdeka!” “Independence!” These are only sweet memories and nothing more, at least now, in 2017.
For the US, both Singapore and Malaysia are essential. These countries are sitting on one of the strategically most vital waterways in the world – the Straits of Malacca – and they are by far the richest nations of Southeast Asia.
Both Singapore and Malaysia are experiencing political problems, although to two very different degrees.
Now the White House is trying to rush to the rescue of the Malaysian leadership. The question is: would praise and compliments coming from one of the most unpopular political figures in the world – the President of the United States Donald Trump – truly boost support in Malaysia and the entire Southeast Asia for another highly disliked individual – Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak?
It is definitely a great gamble. But both leaders are now fighting for their lives, using all means available!
Andre Vltchek is philosopher, novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He’s a creator of Vltchek’s World in Word and Images, a writer of revolutionary novel Aurora and several other books. He writes especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”