Najib’s meeting with President Donald Trump next month carries lots of messages on foreign policy as well as the home political front, and it has also drawn strong reaction from Pakatan Harapan leaders.
THERE has not been a single visit by a Malaysian Prime Minister to the White House that has not been controversial in some way.
The United States is one country that Malaysians love and hate at the same time.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s meeting with George W. Bush in 2006 was dogged by claims that a well-known US lobbyist was paid RM5mil to set up the White House visit.
The meeting was also preceded by rumours that Bush would not be a warm host and would tell off Dr Mahathir who was a fierce US critic.
Of course, nothing like that happened and photographs of the meeting showed the two leaders grinning ear-to-ear as they shook hands in front of that famous fireplace.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s date with President Donald Trump on Sept 12 has already invited international headlines – of the real kind as well as the fake news type – in connection to the 1MDB controversy.
On the home front, Pakatan Harapan leaders have been trying to diminish the visit and downplay its significance.
Perhaps the most contentious were the “dungu” remarks by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng when speaking at a public event. Calling Trump a “dungu” or moron, he said that he would not want to meet the US leader even if he had the chance because “when we meet this type of people, we also become stupid”.
The remarks did not sit well with many and the DAP leader was lampooned on social media with many reminding him that this was not how a chief minister should speak, especially in a state where there are big American companies.
Dr Mahathir, who has met three US presidents in his time and who used White House visits for political mileage, knew better than to rubbish the meeting outright. Instead he likened it to Trump endorsing Najib even though the US Department of Justice is investigating the 1MDB issue.
The hype, good and bad, will escalate as the date approaches but why are Pakatan leaders in such a flap over this?
According to Gerakan Youth politician Ivanpal S. Grewal, the White House meeting has the potential to punch a hole in the opposition’s allegations about Najib.
“They claimed the PM was persona non grata in the United States, that US officials did not want to engage with us because of the DOJ investigation.
“They said he would be arrested if he goes to the United States and they even claimed that his plane was not allowed to fly over the United States and had to go via Morocco – stupid things like that,” said Ivanpal.
Najib is the second Asean leader headed to the White House. To date, Trump has only met two Asian leaders – his superpower counterpart from China and the Japanese Prime Minister.
However one looks at it, there is a lot of prestige and significance involved. The United States is one of Malaysia’s largest trading partners and foreign investors.
“We have never been seen as a close ally of the United States but I see the invitation as an acknowledgement of our reputation as a moderate Muslim country with a complex ethnic make-up,” said former ambassador to the Philippines Datuk Seri Dr Ibrahim Saad.
Trump, said social commentator Khaw Veon Szu, is controversial but he is still the most powerful man in the world and the United States is still the most powerful superpower.
“On Najib’s part, it is a way to downplay the 1MDB issue, a way of saying that no matter how social media or the US mainstream media plays it up, there he is with the US president.
“The opposition knows that and they are worried because 1MDB has been their main ammunition, their so-called weapon of mass destruction,” he said.
Najib, Khaw added, is also playing a balancing game given concerns among the Malays that he is too close to China.
The visit will signal that Najib intends to play a balancing role in relations between the two superpowers.
Global opinion polls show that Malaysians’ approval of the United States has often hovered around 35% although it went up to about 50% during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Malaysia-US ties were at their warmest when Obama visited Malaysia in April 2014. It was the first by a sitting president since 1966 and it was a big deal that Obama kicked off his Asian tour from Malaysia.
Najib’s foreign policy direction, said Ivanpal, is centred on constructive engagement.
“We are seen as a constructive player in the community of nations. He is not into pitting east against west or lecturing to other countries. If you watch the way he is going, he believes in building on our strength as a multi-ethnic and Muslim state and on our strategic location,” he said.
The two leaders have met at international meetings and have also played golf together. The Prime Minister was attending the United Nations General Assembly several years ago when a group of them decided to play golf at the upscale Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, about an hour out of New York.
Trump had joined his Malaysian guest, partnering Najib in the golf game, and that was how the Prime Minister ended up with that photograph of himself, Trump and the late ambassador to the US Tan Sri Jamaluddin Jarjis.
The flamboyant Trump had signed the photograph: “To my favourite Prime Minister. Great win!”
As such, the White House date will not be between strangers but two leaders who, among other things, love golf.