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When Obama went to Kuala Lumpur

Publication Date : 06-05-2014


In the Asia-Pacific, diplomatic power play is elegant with commercial and political interests intertwining effortlessly.

I watched Barack Obama’s visit to Malaysia last week from my sick-bed in Jakarta.

I wasn’t the only one a little worse for wear.

Malaysians are still enduring the terrible, unresolved tragedy of MH370.

The unprecedented global media scrutiny and whiplash-like anger of the Chinese public left much of Putrajaya worried about how future bilateral relations could develop.

I suspect our American guest was also feeling a little delicate.

Having spent weeks dealing with Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and the European Union over Ukraine, Kuala Lumpur must have seemed refreshingly simple: zero serious issues, lots of food and pomp – everything Malaysia is good at.

Since American Presidents don’t come here often, Obama’s reception was definitely warm, if not rapturous. Sadly, the “Boy from Menteng” has lost a lot of his lustre since the heady days of 2008.

Still, “pivoting” to Asia permitted Obama a few days of quiet down-time.

In the Asia-Pacific, diplomatic power play is elegant with commercial and political interests intertwining effortlessly, especially when you’re in KL and not one of the more important regional capitals.

Ties between America and Malaysia are certainly better than they were compared to when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in office, though there’s no denying that catty rhetoric of the 80s and 90s was more form than substance.

Dr Mahathir always understood the importance of the trade and investment that powered our economy.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel that the visit on the whole seemed rather hollow.

Indeed, last weekend’s main takeaway seemed more about Malaysia’s own internal divisions.

Obama’s praise for Malaysia as a model Muslim nation was greeted with outright scepticism by some quarters.

Certain civil society leaders who met Obama did not mince words on “sensitive” issues: including growing ethno-religious polarisation and authoritarianism.

Obama’s visit has ironically exposed the divergence between the image that Malaysia projects abroad and the reality on the ground.

On the one hand, we are, as noted, perceived as a success story of nation-building with diverse communities.

And yet political bickering and blatant sectarianism reveal a much different reality, one which the world is increasingly aware of.

Some would argue that Malaysians should always present a united front and never criticise the country abroad or in the presence of foreigners.

The default mode should be that we’re a perfect, “Malaysia Truly Asia” dreamland.

But the reality of modern Malaysia is too complex to be sanitised. Anyway, most nations face competing identities: consider the US’ own internal tensions.

Disagreement and conflict is part and parcel of political life. It’s how we manage these differences that matter.

The fact that some Malaysians see Obama’s sensible call for equality of opportunity as a threat or an insult does not bode well for us.

But the real point is that Obama’s trip wasn’t really about Malaysia.

Our country is just one piece in the wider pivot to Asia, a cog in the “Obama doctrine” of cautious and incremental action with military intervention as the absolute last resort.

It was all about China: a show of power – hard and soft – against the restless Asian giant.

It’s an open secret that China is trying to establish a stronger presence in the region, as the world’s soon-to-be largest economy currently finds itself locked in multiple territorial disputes across the South China Sea.

Obama’s visit, which included giving assurances to Japan and strengthening military cooperation with the Philippines, was a clear message to China: “Watch it!”

As reassuring as this may seem however, it may not necessarily be good for Southeast Asia.

Weren’t we supposed to be a “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality”?

As exciting as the dawn of the Asean Economic Community next year is, the region has clearly neglected political cooperation, meaning that we are still a mere chessboard for Great Power rivalry.

We have failed to speak with one voice on difficult issues, which by default are the ones that matter most.

If anything, Obama’s visit has exposed divisions inherent in Malaysia and Southeast Asia.


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