KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — “Did you say Elvis?” President Obama asked the young man. Actually, his name was Alfeus. But no matter.
“Okay, because I was thinking we had Elvis in the building!” the president joked, drawing laughs at a town-hall-style event before an enthusiastic crowd of young people at Taylor’s University here on Friday.
The quality of Obama’s joke notwithstanding, the charm offensive was emblematic of the president’s willingness to use his unique personal appeal to bolster a years-long effort by his administration to deepen U.S. ties with Southeast Asia.
Administration officials say the region is home to relatively small but fast-growing economies and turbulent political systems ripe for influence from the world’s leading democracy. Winning them over is part of Obama’s broader “pivot to Asia,” an effort to rebalance U.S. foreign-policy attention from the Middle East to Asia.
Last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, claimed by the Islamic State, were a stark reminder of the challenges the president faces in accomplishing his goals. But while few Americans pay close attention to Asia, administration officials fear a lack of engagement from the United States would cede the vibrant playing field to China, whose goal of building a new “Silk Road” of prosperity throughout Asia, bankrolled by billions of dollars in Chinese capital, has threatened U.S. supremacy.
That explains why Obama took off his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves and fielded questions for an hour, relating to the crowd — drawn from nearly a dozen countries, including Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and the Philippines — as intimately as he could. He bantered with two participants in Indonesian, having picked up the phrases as a young boy living in that country with his mother and stepfather.
“I like the people, and I really like the food,” Obama said, referring to the region. “This is part of who I am and how I see the world.”
The three-day visit, which concludes Sunday, marks Obama’s second trip to Malaysia in 20 months, after becoming the first U.S. president to visit the country in nearly four decades in April 2014. In the past seven years, he also has visited Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia, as well as Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines twice apiece. Next year, he is scheduled to visit Laos and is expected to stop in Vietnam.
The unprecedented presidential attention illustrates just how high a priority the region has become for the Obama White House.
As Obama prepares for his final year in office, he arrived here this week boasting of evidence of progress — the recent completion of a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade pact that includes Brunei, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia; the results of an election in Burma this month indicating a landslide victory for the democratic opposition party; and new military partnerships with the Philippines, where Obama this week announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in defense and security in the region.
Yet as Obama worked the room at Taylor’s University — a “twinning school,” where students study for two years before going abroad to study in the United States or elsewhere — his arrival in Malaysia also highlighted the risks of the president’s eagerness to spend personal capital on nations whose democracies are not fully formed.
“We’re very glad to have you here with us talking about democracy and freedom of speech,” Alfeus told Obama. “Malaysia is currently embroiled in a political scandal. And its failed justice system can bring no rights.”
He was referring to an unfolding corruption scandal involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars into the alleged private bank accounts of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak from an economic development fund, according to the Wall Street Journal. The scandal has set off international investigations and damaged confidence in the country’s economy.
Tens of thousands of Malaysians have demonstrated publicly and called for Najib’s ouster, and the prime minister has cracked down on dissent, jailing dissidents and shutting down newspapers.
That has presented an awkward situation for Obama, who invited Najib to play golf this past Christmas Eve in Hawaii, where they were both on vacation.
Now, Alfeus was asking Obama to raise the issue of corruption with Najib directly in their bilateral meeting later in the day to “encourage transparency and independence of operations.”
“Well, I will do it,” the president responded, to laughs. “Now, I admit that I was going to do it anyway, but now that I hear it from you, I’m definitely going to do it.”
Though he did not criticize Najib by name, Obama said that “there are basic values that we all share. And one of those values is that countries work best when everybody has a voice that can be respected, and that the press is able to report on what is happening in current affairs, and people can organize politically peacefully to try to bring about change, and that there’s transparency and accountability.”
Obama spent more than an hour with Najib on Friday afternoon, discussing cooperation on counterterrorism against the Islamic State, the Pacific Rim trade pact, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and climate-change initiatives. But on the matter of corruption, both were vague when talking to reporters.
Najib said he and Obama talked about the “current situation” and said his administration would “take into account some of his views and concerns.”
“Malaysia is committed to reforms, and we are committed to reassuring, at the same time, that there’s peace and stability,” the prime minister said.
Michael J. Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Obama’s success in the region will ultimately be won or lost based on whether the United States can export values such as democracy and freedom of expression.
“These are hard problems. They don’t lend themselves to an easy speech. But it’s not just Malaysia,” Green said, noting that a military coup in Thailand has set back democratic efforts there. He added that despite the results of the election in Burma, also known as Myanmar, there continues to be widespread persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
On Saturday, Obama is scheduled to visit a refugee center that provides aid to a large number of Rohingya, where he’ll highlight the worldwide refugee crisis, including the hundreds of thousands fleeing war-torn Syria.
For the president, the stop at Taylor’s University was another chance at winning over like-minded young people one by one. Those in attendance were part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, a program launched by the Obama administration several years ago.
But as he encouraged his charges to speak truth to power, he might have been ruing his own advice.
“So,” one man said, “the question I want to ask you is that since yourself is aging to a very senior life —”
“That’s pretty low!” the 54-year-old president interjected.
Yes, the man concluded, but “what do you want to see from young people like us when you get old? You get my question.”
“I got your question,” Obama concurred. “Sit down. Well, the first thing I want from young people is to stop calling me old.”