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Obama’s Malaysia Test

KUALA LUMPUR – When Barack Obama lands in Malaysia this weekend, his two-day stopover will be the first visit by a US president since 1966. Unfortunately, human rights will probably not be on the agenda. Even as Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s government pursues yet another politically motivated case against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the United States, by refusing to schedule a meeting with Anwar, has signaled that it will not stand up for justice in Malaysia.

In fact, the Obama administration has refused to treat Malaysia like a normal country and engage leaders from all sides – a stance that has emboldened Najib to move against Anwar, whose coalition received a higher proportion of the popular vote in the May 2013 election than Obama did in the 2012 US election. And the many serious challenges to human rights and governance in Malaysia do not end with politicized convictions of opposition leaders. Just days after Obama declared last October that Malaysia was a model of “diversity and tolerance,” Malaysian authorities denied non-Muslims the right to use the word “Allah” in the practice of their own faiths – a decision condemned throughout the Muslim world for its negative portrayal of Islam.

Moreover, members of Najib’s government endorse hudud, a class of penalties within sharia law that could imply strict limitations on Muslims’ right to choose how they practice their faith. According to the US State Department’s own human-rights reports, curbs on religious freedoms have included demolition of Hindu temples, bombings of Christian churches, and a ban on the practice of Shia Islam, to which some 15% of the world’s Muslims adhere. Likewise, according to the Pew Research Center, Najib’s government has “very high” restrictions on religious freedom.

International measures of press freedom and corruption reveal persistent deficits as well. Malaysia’s mainstream media, owned and controlled by the ruling coalition in power since 1957, regularly fabricate stories. Most recently, coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has blamed the US, effectively belittling the support of American personnel and other resources in the search effort. And, in its latest report, Global Financial Integrity ranked Malaysia second in the world for illicit capital movements, reflecting years of outflows from a massive informal economy tied to corruption.

Malaysia’s institutional problems extend to elections. The Electoral Integrity Project ranked the 2013 election 66th for polls held worldwide last year – placing it firmly in the lowest tier, below Pakistan and Iran. Indeed, the government lost the popular vote and took power with a margin of parliamentary seats that was lower than the number of constituencies where serious irregularities were reported. And, given the country’s politicized judiciary, most electoral petitions were summarily dismissed on technical grounds, with many candidates denied even the right to present their cases. (The Najib government promised to address the irregularities; a year later, no investigation has begun.)

Rather than strengthening democracy, Najib has chosen to increase cash handouts, straining government finances with a $10 billion expansion of a race-based affirmative-action program that favors Malays. And he is accommodating his party’s chauvinist elements, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Racist discourse – tinged with anti-Western rhetoric that Najib has ignored – has reached fever pitch, with right-wing groups openly advocating intolerance and racial hatred. Not surprisingly, this has compromised much-needed economic reforms and is causing deterioration in the business environment.

Malaysia’s economy is caught, moreover, in the middle-income trap, unable to “graduate” to advanced-country status. In an effort to attract much-needed foreign capital, Najib has introduced the Goods and Service Tax (GST) and cut back on subsidies; but this has not been accompanied by fiscal prudence or effective measures to stanch the leakages from corruption and cronyism.

Citizens have been hard hit by rising inflation and record-high household debt, which now stands at 80.5% of GDP. The government is failing to provide an adequate supply of even basic necessities, with water rationing now in effect.

As a result, the government’s popularity has plummeted, contributing to the Najib government’s inability to muster public support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed mega-regional trade agreement with the US and ten other Pacific Rim countries. The government has already issued a statement that Obama’s visit will not yield progress on the TPP, indicative of the prevailing lack of confidence in the measure.

America’s role in Malaysia is highly polarizing. The Malaysian government has already interpreted Obama’s visit as an endorsement of Najib’s leadership, while opposition activists accuse the US of abandoning its democratic principles and whitewashing the government’s growing authoritarianism.

This does not serve America’s long-term interests in Asia, where it is viewed increasingly negatively – particularly in Malaysia. According to the latest Asia Barometer Survey, only 30% of Malaysians – the lowest share in Southeast Asia – view the US favorably, with negative sentiment most highly concentrated among young people and Muslims. A visit by Obama that fails to address Malaysia’s fundamental political and economic challenges will erode America’s standing further.

Such a visit will also raise further questions about what Obama actually stands for. From Egypt to Ukraine and beyond, there is a deepening global perception that America’s commitment to fighting racism and intolerance, defending human rights, upholding good governance, and promoting free and fair elections has faltered under Obama. This week’s long-overdue trip will carry enormous symbolism. That is why it could haunt America for years to come.