By Dennis Ignatius
After months of speculation and, no doubt, frenzied behind-the-scenes lobbying by high-priced and well-connected Washington power-brokers, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak finally received his long-awaited invitation to visit the White House later this month.
In the run-up to the meeting, General Zulkifeli Muhammad Zin, Director-General of Malaysia’s National Security Council, was given the unusual honour a few weeks ago of an oval office meeting with Trump himself, an extraordinary gesture outside of normal White House protocol.
Ostensibly it was to thank Malaysia for its assistance in search and rescue operations involving the USS John S. McCain which, at the time, were still on-going. Malaysia’s efforts were, however, limited; other countries (Singapore and Indonesia) that were involved did not merit similar attention. All this suggests that high level connections have been established between Putrajaya and the White House to pave the way for Najib’s visit.
News of the invitation immediately sparked off a frenzy of questions, speculations and denunciations in both Washington and Putrajaya, though for different reasons.
Angst in Washington
In Washington, the invitation to Najib at a time when the Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating the 1MDB scandal immediately raised eyebrows. It also caused further dismay over the direction of US foreign policy under Trump who appears to have a particular affinity for dictators and authoritarian rulers.
The invitation to Najib, whose reputation in Washington as a moderate Islamic democrat has plunged in recent years, comes on the heels of similar invitations to men like President el-Sisi of Egypt, President Erdogan of Turkey, President Duterte of the Philippines and Thai junta leader, General Prayut and, of course, Trump’s open admiration for President Putin.
Trump seems to find it easier to deal with dictators who are ready to play to his ego in exchange for support than to deal with democratic leaders who have little in common with him politically.
Dismay in Kuala Lumpur
In Kuala Lumpur, the announcement of the visit was met with stunned disbelief, widespread anger and deep frustration. It is not hard to understand why.
With pliant officials dead-ending and obfuscating investigations at home, the DOJ investigation into the 1MDB scandal represented perhaps the last hope of bringing those involved in the theft of billions of ringgit of public money to justice.
The worry is now that Najib might somehow persuade Trump to either discontinue the investigations or delay it until after the next Malaysian elections. There is also concern that Najib might use a successful White House visit, together with previous meetings with President Xi Jiping of China and King Salman of Saudi Arabia to deflate opposition charges that Malaysia is isolated internationally.
Umno spin-doctors are already exploiting the invitation to the hilt suggesting that the US president would never have invited Najib to Washington if they suspected him of involvement in any wrong doing.
Voices of despair and dismay
Dr Mahathir, who had been openly supportive of the DOJ investigations, immediately accused the US of interfering in local politics and taking sides in the upcoming elections.
Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang, went so far as to call Trump a “dungu” (idiot), undiplomatic language for a politician who has long courted American investments.
Lim Kit Siang, the DAP’s parliamentary leader, issued a rather absurd open letter urging Najib’s cabinet to veto the visit, while Rais Hussain of PPBM lamented that both Trump and Najib had been badly advised.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that no other foreign visit has generated as much resentment and criticism.
Clearly, the opposition, as well as many ordinary Malaysians, are flabbergasted that Najib might outfox them by pulling off yet another great escape.
Their fears are not entirely unfounded. US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who heads the DOJ, is already in Trump’s doghouse and may not want to stand up to him yet again, especially on a matter that is only of marginal importance domestically. Besides, there’s too much going on in Washington right now for them to worry about a scandal in a distant land.
Whatever one might say or think about Najib, he is certainly proving to be quite adroit at political manoeuvring. A small country like Malaysia, after all, does not easily gain access to arguably the most powerful office in the world; that he has been able to do so first with Obama and now with Trump must surely say something of his ability to manipulate the levers of power in some of the most important capitals of the world.
Quid pro quo
But what does Trump want from Najib?
Spin doctors on both sides are already dressing up the agenda to make it look respectable by suggesting that important international issues like North Korea and the fight against terrorism will figure significantly.
Malaysia has, however, zero influence or leverage with the regime in Pyongyang though it can do more to stop North Korea from using Malaysia to circumvent UN sanctions. On the terrorism file Malaysia is only a minor player that is struggling to cope with its own home-grown terrorist problems.
The real reason for the invitation might have more to do with Najib’s growing infatuation with China than anything else.
Both the US military and the US military-industrial complex are thought to be unhappy with Malaysia’s increasing tilt towards China and its purchase of Chinese military hardware.
The US navy is also uneasy over the prospect of Chinese-made rockets, radar and even intelligence facilities being installed in Johor right next to sensitive US naval installations in Singapore. It also worries about growing Chinese access to Malaysian naval bases and Malaysia’s weakening resolve to resist China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Washington is, therefore, hoping to press Najib into at least a more balanced relationship between the US and China.
Najib, however, is already too much in China’s debt to easily pull away; about the only thing he can do to appease Trump is to purchase US arms, possibly American fighter planes to replace the aging fleet of Russian fighter jets, (so Trump can boast about saving American jobs and promoting US exports), as well as offer the Americans greater accesses to our navy, air force and army facilities.
When small countries get caught up in big power rivalry, the outcome is usually diplomatic harlotry of sorts.
Between a rock and a hard place
Trump’s America is now an amoral place where issues like democracy, human rights and justice are not at all a priority. With Trump, it is not even about making America great again but making him look great. And he’ll take his applause and praise wherever he can get it, even from a controversial leader like Najib.
Malaysia’s beleaguered opposition and its civil society campaigners are now caught between a rock and a hard place – between Trump’s America and Xi Jiping’s China, neither of whom give a hoot about democracy and human rights.
For Malaysia’s long-suffering electorate, the invitation to Washington is an unpleasant reminder of the futility of looking to the so-called democracies for moral support; change will only come when the electorate decides that enough is enough.
Are we there yet? Only time will tell.
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.