After eight years with an influential friend in the White House, Malaysian civil society groups are bracing for the worst when Donald Trump takes over on January 20.
During outgoing President Barack Obama’s two terms, human rights advocates, democracy groups and anti-corruption activists had cultivated warm relations with US officials in Kuala Lumpur, even meeting the 44th US president on his visit to the capital last year – the first by any sitting US president.
In that time, Washington’s tacit support for their causes had been a crucial morale booster during a period of regular clampdowns by the administration of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who himself was eager to curry favour with the US leader.
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But now they fear a shift in US priorities by a Trump administration that is likely to view Malaysian civil liberties as of relatively low diplomatic priority. Or even worse, that a US, which no longer champions democracy and human rights, might provide moral cover for Najib to further suppress freedoms.
Friendlier relations with Malaysia had been prized by Obama, who saw them as playing into his “pivot to Asia” strategy and aggressive promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But Trump has indicated he will scrap both policies, throwing the relationship into question.
Under Obama, the US had taken a nuanced approach to Malaysia, with Washington engaging with Malaysian activists critical of Najib even as the two heads of state cultivated a personal relationship. Najib even boasted of playing golf with Obama in 2014 and of riding in his limousine, ‘the Beast’, in 2015.
Indeed, it was the personal connection between Obama and Najib that made Washington’s support of Malaysian activists and opposition parties so significant, said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Penang Institute.
“Obama’s emphasis on democracy and human rights boosted the morale of civil society because it gave them the sense they were not alone,” Wong said.
Meanwhile, Obama’s support also helped to highlight the work of activists, said Cynthia Gabriel, of the Coalition to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4).
During Obama’s time in office, two prominent activists and government critics – the lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan and the transgender rights advocate Nisha Ayub – received the US International Women of Courage award in 2009 and 2015 respectively.
A spokesperson for transgender rights group Justice for Sisters said Nisha’s award had increased the visibility of transgender persons.
“It was very encouraging for activists and LGBT persons to see our colleague and the collective advocacy being recognised by different countries, including the US. You have to celebrate the little victories to keep you going,” the spokesperson said.
The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur had also repeatedly noted its concern at the trial of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – a trial Anwar’s supporters said was motivated by political reasons. Anwar was charged in 2008 with sodomising a male aide and, after his original acquittal was overturned by higher courts, is now serving a five-year prison term.
The US administration’s statements regarding the case along with its informal meetings with his family did not keep Anwar out of jail, but its actions did help to keep “the case alive in the international spotlight”, according to one of Anwar’s lawyers, Sivarasa Rasiah.
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But whether a Trump-led administration would go to as much trouble is unclear. Activists fear Trump will turn a blind eye to Najib’s domestic transgressions in order to secure Malaysian support for his anti-China strategy.
“If Trump backs Najib all the way in order to isolate China, then Najib can be doubly safe,” Wong, of the Penang Institute, said.
Najib has been accused of links to a corruption scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund where, according to a civil suit by the US Department of Justice, US$1 billion was siphoned off to buy luxury properties and artwork. While Najib has denied any wrongdoing, his former associate Low Teck Jhow and stepson Riza Aziz are named in the suit.
Najib responded to the suit by intensifying Malaysia’s ties to China, leading a major investment mission to Beijing where he secured infrastructure deals worth 143.64 billion ringgit (HK$249 billion).
Although the US justice system is considered more independent than Malaysia’s, Wong said there was a suspicion that Trump’s administration could delay the suit if doing so was politically expedient.
“Although Obama prioritised geopolitical considerations, he still paid attention to human rights and democracy, and Najib would still be pressured. This is unlikely with Trump,” Wong said.
C4’s Gabriel said Trump’s divisive election campaign, which was criticised for preying on fears of foreigners and Muslims, did not bode well for Malaysia.
“If Trump rolls back civil liberties and stops talking about them on the international stage, then this will be bad for civil society,” Gabriel said. “If he does that, Malaysian leaders will say ‘look, now the US is following our example and limiting civil liberties, so we were right’. I hope Trump proves me wrong, but this is my fear.” ■■