White House meetings with Malaysian prime ministers seldom attract any interest in the US press.
But the Sept 12 meeting between President Donald Trump and you, Prime Minister Najib Razak, is very different. The White House announcement of your meeting with Trump led to articles in all of America’s major newspapers – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. The get-together next Tuesday was also reported around the world by AP, Reuters, and AFP, the world’s three most important news services.
There is no precedent for this much attention to a US-Malaysia summit.
Here is the key point – and the reason why there is so much attention.
All of these important news outlets focused on you, Prime Minister Najib, in their headlines and stories. The Wall Street Journal headline said, “Scandal-struck Malaysian prime minister to visit President Trump in Washington.” The New York Times said, “Malaysian leader in billion-dollar scandal is invited to White House.” The Washington Post website has a video that says “Prime Minister Najib, one of Asia’s most controversial leaders, is up to his neck, deep in a massive corruption scandal.”
We know who MO1 is
Welcome to Washington, prime minister. We know who you are, and we know what you and your family members and cronies are alleged to have done. All of the foreign policy experts in our nation’s capital know who “Malaysian Official 1” is.
As a result, there will be intense US press interest in your visit. As I noted before, that is very unusual. You have put Malaysia on the map in the US, but for all the wrong reasons.
If you think this visit is going to help you, at least in the US and the world, you are very wrong.
Why? First, because everyone who counts here is aware of the scandals in Malaysia and your involvement in them. The headlines prove that.
Second, because the foreign policy establishment here in Washington is very aware that despite your “liberal” rhetoric and British accent, you have turned Malaysia politically into an authoritarian state, and economically into a kleptocracy. They know that Malaysia is no longer the “go-go” economy that it was in the days of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
They read that Malaysians themselves now debate whether their beloved country is becoming a “failed state” under your so-called leadership. They know that your government jails opposition leaders, starting with Anwar Ibrahim, charges them with sedition, and revokes their passports.
Third – and this is a point about US politics – the American press is watching Trump like a hawk. They know that he is totally ignorant about foreign affairs. So already the question is being raised – why is Trump meeting with this guy, meaning, you? They are ready to pounce on any comment that Trump makes during your visit.
So your trip to Washington has great potential to backfire not only for Trump, but also for you personally.
Don’t count on Trump
There are many Malaysians who say that the White House meeting means that Trump will tell the Department of Justice ((DOJ) to call off the investigation into 1MDB and the corruption that surrounds it.
Baloney. Don’t count on it. Trump cannot even call off the DOJ investigation into himself! So forget that idea.
Second, why would Trump want to do anything for you, Najib? What’s in it for Trump? After all these months, we have learned that the only thing Trump thinks about and cares about, is himself, 24/7. He will never do anything to help you, or anyone else, except mouth some platitudes like, “he is a good guy” and praise your golf score – as long as you lose to him.
Trump is likely to raise some issues with you that you are not prepared for. You thought that you were coming to Washington to raise your stature in Malaysia and internationally, and show that all is good before the next general elections. But you are walking into a minefield.
Trump is focused right now on North Korea and the threat it poses to the US, South Korea, and Japan. He is considering secondary sanctions, meaning that countries that trade with North Korea can no longer trade with the US. Think about how much you export to the US.
Malaysia has an economic connection with North Korea that is relatively small, compared to China’s North Korea connection. But there also are “illegal” or “illicit” connections. The United Nations, the Wall Street Journal, and a Washington foreign affairs website called “The Diplomat” all have reported on Malaysia’s economic ties – legal and illegal – to North Korea.
So Najib, be prepared to explain why Malaysian companies continue to bust UN sanctions, and why companies like Glocom, an arms dealer that fronts for the North Koreans, are allowed to operate in Malaysia.
Trump is mad at China, too. He thinks they are not helping the US on North Korea. He thinks that they are cheating us on trade and manipulating their currency. When he finds out that you have been “snuggling up” to China to help get you out of the 1MDB mess, he might not be happy.
Trump hates trade deficits. His business background is real estate, so he doesn’t understand international trade and investment. So be prepared when he asks about the US trade deficit with Malaysia.
In 2016, Malaysia’s trade surplus with the US – our deficit – was US$25 billion, which basically represents a US$830, or RM3,544, transfer from the people of the United States to every man, woman, and child in Malaysia. Just be ready to explain why you aren’t buying more from us. And why shouldn’t all those American factories and jobs in Penang and Selangor move back to the US?
My conclusion – you thought the White House invitation was something great. You thought it would make everything right for you before the next general elections.
But you really are walking into a minefield. There will be more focus on this visit than on any other US-Malaysia visit in history.
No matter what the US and foreign press have to say, I am sure that Bernama and the sycophantic press in Malaysia that you control will declare your visit here a success.
Keep on living in your bubble, and your dream world, prime minister.
Meanwhile, DOJ and the FBI will keep on investigating.
JOHN R MALOTT is former United States ambassador to Malaysia (1996-98)..