Getting Malaysia Right: Presidential Prerogative

  • photo courtesy of Wikipedia
    Mar 6, 2014

    The tone and substance of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Malaysia in late April will have lasting impact not only on an important bilateral relationship, but on U.S. relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and many countries across the Indo-Pacific. The visit, although short, is long overdue. Getting it right in Malaysia is essential to demonstrate to Asia that the U.S. leader’s head and heart are behind his stated intent to “rebalance” to the region. 

    The visit was scheduled as an opportunity to follow through on meetings and discussions that were planned for last November, before the budget battle with Congress diverted the president’s plans. It will take place as Asia seeks tangible reassurances that the United States is prepared to adapt traditional models to the new levels of engagement and involvement required to keep pace with the region’s political and economic dynamism.

    In addition to Kuala Lumpur, the trip will include stops in three of the United States’ five allies in the region: Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. The visit to Malaysia will be the first by a U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson went to Kuala Lumpur in 1966. The fact that no president has visited since then has not been for lack of trying, in both Washington and Kuala Lumpur. History, timing, and politics have been allowed to intervene, demonstrating the lack of a consistent, hard-core commitment by the United States to deepen its partnerships with like-minded countries in ASEAN. That era has come to an end, and President Obama needs to say so. 

    There are five things the White House should consider to make the Malaysia visit a success:

    1. Deliver two Asia speeches. First, at least a month before the president travels, he should talk directly to the American people about why he is making two major trips to Asia in 2014 and why Asia is fundamentally important to the U.S. economy and security. Second, he should deliver a speech in Malaysia explaining why the United States sees Asia as important to its future and outlining a new level of policy engagement. This engagement should include sending U.S. cabinet members to the region more frequently both to participate in ASEAN and East Asia Summit ministerial meetings and to make bilateral visits outside the ASEAN context. Malaysia will chair ASEAN in 2015, and the president’s remarks could help signal that its year at the helm will be an important one.
    2. Invite more Malaysians to study in the United States. The number of Malaysian students studying in the United States has ticked up to just under 7,000 in 2012–2013, from a low of barely 5,000 in 2006–2007. But it remains significantly below the more than 9,000 Malaysian students who studied in the United States in 1999–2000. Post-9/11 visa hurdles have been lowered and are no longer the primary reason for this situation, but doubts linger in the minds of Malaysian parents and students about whether the latter are truly welcome in the United States. An honest and heartfelt invitation from the president of the United States could help transform that mindset. Coupled with focused efforts by both governments to promote and support educational exchanges, the invitation could double the number of Malaysian students studying in the United States by 2020.

      In addition, the president should announce that the United States will work with ASEAN to launch a new initiative to reach a goal of 100,000 students from ASEAN studying in the United States by 2025, up from about 46,000 in 2011–2012.

    3. Bring strong TPP talking points. Asia wants to hear directly from President Obama that he is fully committed to completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations and getting that agreement through Congress. An indication that the White House is seeking trade promotion authority, or at least a clear articulation of its strategy for getting congressional approval for TPP, is vital for this trip.

      Prime Minister Najib Razak and his cabinet are under massive political pressure from the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, as well as from conservatives within their own party, led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, to pull out of the TPP. Najib knows the economic reforms included in the agreement are critical for Malaysia’s competitiveness and its economic future, but without momentum created by the United States and leadership from Obama, Najib is left twisting in the political wind. 

      It is important in this context to remember that the U.S.-Malaysia free trade agreement negotiations were cast aside in 2008 after two years of hard work due to political concerns in Malaysia about the agreement. This pattern, if repeated on the TPP, could leave Malaysia dangerously exposed and eventually divert U.S. trade and investment to other regional partners with which the United States is able to conclude trade agreements.

    4. Recognize the strength of diversity. President Obama and Prime Minister Najib could convey a powerful message about the inherent power of humanity by appearing together with Special Olympics athletes who will play together, regardless of religion, ethnicity, economic status, or disability, in the inaugural Unified Football Cup in Malaysia in October.

      The United States and Malaysia share much in common in terms of history and composition. Both were blessed with a diverse melting pot of peoples from different ethnicities and religions. Forging national consensus among a diverse population is a challenge for all political leaders representing such constituents. The effort to empower people through good governance, celebrate diversity, and encourage collaboration is one of common interest. A great way to address such a critical but sensitive issue is through this kind of compassionate diplomacy.

    5. Embrace the work of the private sector. Malaysia understands business, growth, and entrepreneurial spirit. So does most of Asia. The region would respond well to a signal from the president of pride in the best practices of U.S. companies and nongovernment organizations. There are hundreds of examples, ranging from creative corporate engagement in education, clean energy, and health to leadership in innovation, digital futures, anticorruption efforts, and crime fighting. This is a very important theme to emphasize while in Malaysia. It will send a message to the rest of Asia and help convince the United States’ partners that the United States is playing as a team, with the government supporting business and business engaging deeply in Malaysia and the region.

    The visit to Malaysia is special because it is so long overdue and because Malaysia lies at the heart of ASEAN. Its people are a testament to the blending of South and East Asia. Malaysia embodies the best hopes for Indo-Pacific collaboration and, at the same time, its quintessential challenges. Getting it right in Kuala Lumpur will require inspiration, a heartfelt and personal connection to what is important to Malaysians and their neighbors, and assurances, backed by action, that the United States is ready to kick off a new era of unambiguous partnership.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the March 6, 2014, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)

    Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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