As election season enters full swing in Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak appears to be running low on foreign friends.
There has been a distinct lack of VIPs from the region, or the rest of the world, who have pledged to visit Malaysia and give Najib a boost as he prepares his United Malays Nationalist Organisation (Umno) party and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition for an election that could be called in a matter of weeks or in August at the latest.
Many analysts predict this will be the toughest election yet for Najib and Barisan Nasional to hold on to its stout majority in parliament as scandals have seemed to follow since his re-election in 2013.
They include: the 1MDB fiasco, which involved international investigations over money-laundering allegations regarding a state-controlled fund; the exposure of corruption at the Federal Land Development Authority; and a last-ditch attempt to introduce a “fake news” bill that critics say is nothing more than an attempt to silence Najib’s detractors, including the opposition.
There has also been speculation that Najib’s government engaged the tainted analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, the company ensnared in global controversy for skewing votes in the US election, Brexit and Kenyan presidential election, although the prime minister has vehemently denied this.
The scandals certainly haven’t endeared Najib to his foreign counterparts. The governments of Singapore and Indonesia have collaborated with the US justice department on 1MDB, including when Jakarta allowed the FBI to seize Malaysian businessman Jho Law’s US$250 million yacht, The Equanimity, off the waters of Bali as part of the investigation.
Amid these scandals, the usual beeline of VIPs coming to Malaysia has come to a crawl.
Najib’s late father, Abdul Razak Hussein, made a dramatic visit to China when he was prime minister in 1974 to galvanise the country, especially its ethnic Chinese – but such a watershed moment doesn’t appear in store for his son.
Chinese leaders have been quiet – if not downright distancing themselves from the Najib administration – even as Malaysia goes out of its way to define its relationship with Beijing as strategic. Not since President Xi Jinping’s visit in October 2013 has a member of China’s Politburo set foot on Malaysian soil – and there are no visits scheduled in the coming months.
Despite claims by the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur that China-Malaysia ties are marked by regular ministerial exchanges, there are signs that Najib’s China policy, which has been focused on enlisting Chinese companies to invest in Malaysia, is not perfect. For example, while the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian, said China would support Malaysian palm oil exports, Beijing has yet to back Malaysia’s protest against the EU’s decision to join a ban of the oil in biofuels from 2021.
Beijing’s silence on the matter is a concern for the palm oil industry in Malaysia, the world’s second-biggest producer after Indonesia. China could soften the blow of the ban by increasing imports, but its reluctance to weigh in on the matter is glaring.
Umno’s recent attack on billionaire Robert Kuok, a Malaysian of Chinese descent, and its overtones of Chinese meddling hasn’t helped Najib’s reputation with Beijing either.
China isn’t alone in giving Malaysia the cold shoulder. Saudi Arabia’s powerful young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has yet to visit despite numerous promises. Prince Mohammed’s snub comes after a pledge to create the King Salman Centre of International Peace (named after the prince’s father) in Kuala Lumpur’s administrative district, Putrajaya.
Even Joko Widodo, the president of the country’s next door neighbour, Indonesia, made no indication he would visit at a recent Australian-Asean summit in Sydney in early March.
In fact, rumours have it that Malaysia’s relationship with Widodo is on thin ice because of the unwillingness of Putrajaya to raise the minimum wage of Indonesia labourers from US$200 to US$430 – an issue that has dragged on for a decade.
Meanwhile, the Sultan of Brunei, one of the most respected figures in the region, has also not shown up on Malaysia’s doorstep despite his third wife being from there.
If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs keeps shooting blanks, not only will Najib’s international standing take a hit but also his standing with the electorate. After all, when foreign leaders stop visiting Malaysia, its citizens begin to question whether their country has lost importance on the international stage.
Opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad has seized on the opportunity to paint Najib as a shameless publicity hound. Mahathir, the leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, has claimed that “Najib is scrambling to have his pictures taken with other world leaders”.
To be fair, there is at least one world leader who has been seen embracing Najib in recent months. Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, pledged to tackle regional terrorism with Najib at the Australian-Asean summit. An obligatory grip-and-grin photograph was taken, but that was the extent of their chemistry.
There is no word out of the Prime Minister’s Office if any major political figures were expected to visit Najib to give him a quick boost before the election.
Unless Najib can showcase a big name VIP in Malaysia, and soon, he will be open to criticism that Malaysia’s international standing has fallen under his watch.
Of course, being ensnared by characters like Jho Low doesn’t help matters. With associates like that, it’s understandable that Najib would have trouble grabbing a photo with other leaders, let alone convincing them to invest in Malaysia.