KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 20 ― US President Barack Obama meets Malaysia's leader today and is expected to strike a delicate balance between criticising alleged democratic abuses while maintaining a relationship Washington considers strategically important.
Obama has courted Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak as a key partner as he seeks to shore up regional alliances amid worries over China's rise.
The pair even bonded privately as golf buddies last December in Hawaii.
But the relationship has come under the microscope as Malaysia cracks down on critics and with Najib embroiled in a massive corruption scandal, raising accusations Washington was putting geopolitics ahead of core US principles.
Obama arrives in Kuala Lumpur this afternoon for the Asean regional summit.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said yesterday that Obama intended to be “very candid” about government pressure on Malaysia's opposition and media when they meet this evening.
Domestic and international critics have accused Najib of an escalating crackdown on dissent and free expression after his longtime ruling coalition suffered an election setback in 2013.
Opponents say the situation has worsened after it was revealed in July that nearly $700 million in mysterious deposits were made to Najib's personal bank accounts.
He denies wrongdoing but has stayed silent on the source and purpose of the money while clamping down on critics over the affair, including firing the attorney general and his deputy premier.
Najib's government has also placed pressure on the anti-corruption agency investigating the matter, and has detained whistle-blowers or threatened them with various charges.
Domestic investigations appear to be stalled but financial regulators in several countries have launched probes.
Opposition leader Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail said yesterday that Malaysia was becoming an “intolerant autocracy” with Najib presiding over rampant corruption, racial and religious extremism, and rights abuses.
“Obama must not allow trade interests to undermine our inalienable struggle for justice and basic rights,” she said, calling for US pressure.
John Malott, a former US ambassador to Malaysia, said Obama is “on a tightrope” over his Malaysia ties, needing to keep Najib in the fold over China's rise, the US-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, and other issues.
“He is going to have to distance himself somewhat because Najib is tainted goods, but he still needs to maintain relations,” Malott said.
“This gives a chance for him to raise human rights, and the Anwar case.”
Dr Wan Azizah took over as opposition leader earlier this year, replacing her husband Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim after he was jailed in February for five years on a charge that he sodomised a former male aide.
Anwar denies the charge, and the US State Department has said his jailing raised questions about the rule of law and judicial independence.
Earlier in November, his family released a report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that said Anwar, 68, was denied a fair trial and was jailed for political reasons, urging his immediate release.
Najib's government has rejected the group's conclusions. ― AFP