When President Trump hosts Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House next week, he may find he has quite a lot in common with the Southeast Asian leader, who is a nationalist with authoritarian tendencies. But that doesn’t mean rolling out the red carpet for him is a good idea.
The similarities between the two leaders are striking. Both Trump and Najib are wrapped up in major investigations that involve the U.S. Justice Department. Both have fired top law enforcement officials in their own governments to try to influence those investigations. Both play politically toward their rural, ethnically homogeneous base and use nationalist rhetoric to stir up anger against their more urban, ethnic opposition. Both men won their last election despite losing the popular vote. Both love golf, and they even played together once.
Of course, Najib's authoritarian power grab is worse than anything Trump has done. While Trump has only called for his political opposition to be jailed, in Malaysia critics of the government are routinely imprisoned. While Trump uses mere rhetoric to undermine the credibility of the free media, Najib uses criminal law to silence them. While Trump may wish for more compliant judicial and legislative branches, in Malaysia all checks and balances on executive power have been essentially stamped out.
“I suspect Trump wishes he had the tools that Najib has at his disposal,” said Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton. “President Trump I’m sure would enjoy having the capacity to shut down any newspaper he doesn’t like.”
Najib will have to stand for election sometime in the next few months, which is why this White House visit is so important to him. Engulfed by allegations he pilfered billions from his own country's sovereign wealth fund, he craves international legitimacy. As the Justice Department works to seize more than $1 billion in stolen funds they allege Najib, his stepson and one of his friends have stashed in the United States, his visit to Washington is meant to show the scandal is not harming his world standing.
Najib has cultivated good relations with the U.S. government for years. President Barack Obama golfed with him, too. Trump’s hospitality, including a White House visit, will send a clear signal to Malaysians that his administration, like its predecessors, won’t push back against the rollback of democracy, rule of law and human rights there.
National security officials in Washington always make the same argument when the uncomfortable subject of Najib’s authoritarianism and alleged criminality is raised: It’s certainly in America’s interest to partner with Malaysia on counterterrorism, build security ties to respond to an increasingly aggressive China, and deepen bilateral trade and investment. But those are arguments for dealing with Malaysia, not for working with Najib himself.
There’s no reason his opposition wouldn’t be interested in fighting terrorism and increasing security cooperation with the United States. For now, that opposition is on the defensive, but it very well could take power in the coming years.
"The message the White House is sending is that it pays to be a kleptocrat and that the largest asset seizure in the history of the Department of Justice doesn't seem to matter much in the great scheme of things," said Nurul Izzah Anwar, a member of Parliament and the daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who sits in prison on politically motivated charges.
Nurul's party has allied with her father's former political nemesis, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. They have little confidence Najib will face justice at home. Perhaps the only chance for accountability is if the United States and other countries keep up the pressure.
“In Malaysia, Najib is beyond legal reproach, so we are relying on institutions worldwide to ensure that the crimes against the Malaysian people will be punished,” Nurul said. “It’s not just about Najib alone. We need to ensure the culture of impunity doesn’t permeate throughout the world.”
Trump likes strong leaders and has said repeatedly he won’t lecture foreign countries on American values. Therefore it falls to Congress, the human rights community and others to make sure that both Najib and Malaysians know that America still cares about Malaysian democracy.
It’s smart policy to acknowledge the opposition’s grievances now, because after the next turn of the screw it may be too late to convince Malaysians that Washington is an honest broker. The needed balance between security imperatives and standing up for universal rights is currently far out of whack.
In the long term, Malaysia’s value as a reliable and stable ally depends on it being an open society that abides by international law and norms and tolerates dissent. Trump’s hosting of Najib represents a setback for that objective.
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