Obama’s Visit: Any Value and Is Anyone Listening?

President Obama has come and gone. His visit to KL has generated much feedback. Analysts concerned with the political direction of the country have been especially disappointed with his refusal to meet the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. It was like him visiting Myanmar and refusing to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.

One commentator, Dennis Ignatius, has called this decision “an astonishing betrayal by a country that has often portrayed itself as a world champion of democracy and human rights. It sends an unmistakable signal to corrupt and abusive governments everywhere that disrespect for human rights and the curtailing of democratic governance will be overlooked in exchange for pro-American policies.”

The critic noted that surely the US leader is not “unaware of what is going on in Malaysia – the corruption and abuse of power, the tainted elections, the harassment and jailing of opposition leaders, the racial and religious incitement, the intolerance of dissent, the narrowing of our democratic space.”

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In one sense, I share the above view of the critic who incidentally is not any ordinary Malaysia. He is a retired high ranking diplomat whose profession calls for him to weigh words carefully. In my opinion, if President Obama was truly concerned about human rights and civil liberties in Malaysia, he should have met with Anwar himself rather than send his security adviser, Susan Rice in his place. Such a meeting would have served to remind Najib and other BN leaders that the US takes a serious view of the political persecution of the country’s foremost opposition leader. It would also reassure that the US is prepared to use its clout to ensure that the cause of justice and freedom is not hijacked by the present occupants of Putrajaya which is clear in the way the current case against Anwar has been trumped up and pursued.

If Malaysians are disappointed by the failure of Obama to meet for a one to one with Anwar, his meeting with civil society leaders seems to be a proxy for Obama to listen to civil society on the democratic and human rights issues presently in play – religious and racial polarisation, divisive politics, free and fair elections, political persecution, rule of law, and media control by the government. This was a meeting which appears to have been scheduled for public relation reasons but the fact that it ran to over an hour shows that Obama must have realized that it is necessary for him to listen to other voices than Najib’s to arrive at the truth on developments in Malaysia..

Two Issues on Human Rights:

Two issues in the human rights area appear to stand out for Obama. The first which he personally spoke out against is the discrimination against the non-Muslim part of the population. His statement to his youth audience from the region that Malaysia will not be a successful country if non-Muslims are discriminated against is good advice to Najib and his UMNO colleagues who are trying to bluff the rest of the world that there is no discrimination against non-Muslims or that this discrimination is still necessary despite nearly 50 years of the NEP. Utusan Malaysia would be doing its civil service readers and other Malay readers a great service if they can reproduce just this statement for their attention.

The second issue is Islam’s increasingly political role in the country and the use of the religion to censure human rights activists and silence constructive criticism. I am sure Obama will have paid special attention to the assertion by Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa, chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Front, that ”there is a concerted effort by the government to silence the dissident and persecute minorities; and religious persecution remains rife and targets not only Christians but also minority groups within Islam including Shiahs and Ahmadis.” I am sure Obama knows that the way in which Islam in Malaysia is manipulated by UMNO to advance its political and religious agenda reveals the hypocrisy behind Malaysia’s so-called “moderate Islamic democracy”.

In the final analysis though, let us not pin too much hopes on Obama’s visit or the visit of any other foreign dignitary if there is to be change in the country. Let us recognize that President Obama has lacked resolve and commitment in keeping to the high principles and values that he claims to stand for. His compromises on many key issues in American domestic politics – health reform, carbon emission caps, Wall Street regulation, financial reform, immigration and a host of others – have led to disappointment among his Democrat supporters. His foreign policy has been a continuation rather than rejection of Bush’s disastrous and bloody US empire building programme which has alienated the rest of the world including American allies..  

Obama’s visit to Malaysia is a part of his larger East Asian trip whose main priority is outflank China in this part of the world and to advance US commercial and strategic interests. Let us have no doubts that his position in Malaysia’s domestic affairs will ultimately be determined by American political expediency and the advancement of American political interests.

We have to fight for these Noble Principles:

Although the official final communique from the visit reiterates that “respect for diversity, respect for the freedom to express different views and practice different faiths, respect for all religions and respect for the rights of all in the populations are essential to healthy and prosperous democracies”, at the end of the day, it is up to us to fight for these noble principles.

Any movement for change in Malaysia – whether it is against discrimination of non-Malay minorities or for religious freedom – will have to come from within. The forces of change have to be home-grown; and the struggle for freedom and human rights will have to be fought by Malaysians determined to defeat the extremists and opportunists in our midst.

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