As a person who spent parts of his formative years in the United States and, more importantly, shared the ideals which the US is founded on, I cannot deny that I have a certain inclination towards the Land of the Free. And so I cannot help having a sense of joy after seeing the Foreign Minister Anifah Aman having a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Department of State. Finally, here is a chance for Malaysia to have good relations with the US.
I believe it does not take much convincing to say that our relations with the US have been dysfunctional for the longest time. The Mahathir administration was intent in demonizing the US, and the US in return kept criticizing Malaysia’s admittedly unenviable records on human rights. Under the Abdullah administration, Malaysia apparently relegated ties with the US down its priority list. The US meanwhile increasingly looked at Malaysia with a lackadaisical attitude at best or at worst ignored the country altogether with an occasional customary criticism just to keep its educated local audience who can spot where Malaysia actually is on the globe happy.
This happened despite the US being one of Malaysia’s major trading partners and the world’s only superpower. The US has its military all over the world and its political pressure can be felt everywhere. And until recently, its economic influence was unrivalled. The signs insist that Malaysia cannot abuse the US too much and yet we had two consecutive administrations which went against the signs: one was unabashedly anti-US to become a hero of Third World countries like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the other appeared not to care.
The source of rocky relations between Malaysia and the US is none other than the former Deputy Prime Minister Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The US came out to criticize the Mahathir administration against the unjust treatment Anwar received beginning in the late 1990s. Former Vice-President Al Gore later openly declared support for the Reformasi movement, in Kuala Lumpur no less. That was the final straw for former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
And then, of course, there was George W. Bush. The Bush administration’s foreign policy after the Sept 11 attacks made the world environment not conducive for any significant improvement to Malaysia-US ties.
As a person who wishes to see more fulfilling relationship between the two countries, I find this unfortunate because our country was initially close to western countries and by extension the US. At one time, former US President Lyndon Johnson visited Malaysia. That visit in the 1960s remains the one and only time a sitting US President has ever set foot in this rich but problematic country. It was that long ago.
Oh my, how far we have gone in the wrong direction: from pro-western to neutrality and from neutrality to anti-western. In the process, due to prevailing liberal ideas in the West, liberals were victimized as Western countries were demonized. Liberals and the West were equated. It was an unfair equation but far too easy to make because the same ideals were shared by both.
Whereas in the beginning the idea of liberty was imbedded in the constitution of this country, we gradually saw illiberal ideas finding their way into the fabric of our society to usurp liberal ideas. What was supposed to be ingrained in our constitution later was considered as foreign and almost treasonous at times. The equation between liberals and the West was used to cast local liberals as traitors. It was a hurtful experience for liberals, and it still is.
But to borrow John Kerry’s lines used during the US presidential election in 2004, hope is on the way.
Regardless of misgivings I may have towards the Najib administration as well as the Obama administration, signs suggest that ties are changing for the better. The Najib administration so far appears to be less provocative and more engaging in dealing with the US. The invitation the Foreign Minister received from the US Department of State is perhaps a reciprocal sign.
The quick submission of a new name for ambassadorship to the US is another. Notwithstanding the reputation of the person, this may show how the Najib administration is out to repair relations with the US. The submission of a new name is no little matter given that the US has refused to confirm Malaysia’s previous choice to head its embassy in Washington DC due to the candidate’s connection to the disgraced Jack Abramoff.
Despite an implicit request by the US for a new name, the Abdullah administration did not offer a new one. The result? Malaysia has not had an ambassador to the US for more than half a year now. A quick confirmation by the US may lay the path to more cordial bilateral relations between the two countries whose flags likely trace their common origin back to the flag of the British East India Company.
Furthermore, US President Barack Obama appears very sincere in undoing the damage the Bush administration had brought to the reputation of the US in the international arena. To add to that, while Southeast Asia and Malaysia were ignored by the Bush administration as it focused on China, the Obama administration seems intent on bringing Southeast Asia up in its priority list. Malaysia has always been central to Southeast Asian politics and I find it impossible for the US to ignore Malaysia if it plans to again take Southeast Asia seriously.
Improved relations however do present Malaysian liberals with a conundrum.
On one hand, better relations with the US present an opportunity to push for liberal reforms like protection of individual rights, creation of a right egalitarian society and a real democratic society in Malaysia. On top of that, better ties could see less vilification of liberals by the Malaysian government by virtue that liberals more or less share the same ideals as espoused by the US constitution; vilification of liberals may lead to vilification of the US and inevitably hurting ties with the US at a time when good relations are sought. Not too long ago, Barisan Nasional went as far as to accuse liberal ideas as dangerous foreign ideas and collectively an antithesis to Malaysian society and the so-called social contract. A genuine interest to forge closer ties with the US could prevent that from happening again, rhetorically and in terms of policies.
On the other hand, in the interest of improving ties with multiple important countries which lack enough reverence for human rights, the Obama administration may decide to tone down its criticism. There is a precedent for this: in her first visit to China in her capacity as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was quiet on issues of human rights in China.
My fear is that the Obama administration may adopt the same stance with Malaysia. The danger is that it may embolden the Najib administration to test the boundary of individual liberty in this country knowing full well that the US may be unwilling to criticize the Malaysian government too harshly. A US that is less willing to criticize means one less big international pressure off the back of the Najib administration.
During the joint press conference at Foggy Bottom, Clinton was asked about the charge of sodomy — believed by the US as being politically motivated — made against Anwar. Her answer was most diplomatic, content to say that she raised the issues of rule of law and that “that speaks for itself.”
The trade-off between good relations and criticism is real on government-to-government basis but for me as a liberal, I want good relations as well as that criticism too to help prod Malaysia farther towards the goal of liberal democracy. I would not be able to fully appreciate good relations with the US where the US keeps mum on violations of individual liberty that may happen in Malaysia in the future.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on May 20 2009.