Speaking at a joint press conference in Kuala Lumpur, United States President Barack Obama made all the right moves, speaking openly about issues ranging from the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 to trade, regional security and hostility against non-Muslims.
Sharing the podium was Najib Razak – a prime minister who won a majority of seats but not the overall vote at the last election – whose government has been vilified for the handling of the missing jet and the 239 people on board, Obama was, predictably, also gushing.
The government compliant press then thrilled readers with its inability to read anything more into Obama’s visit other than to say relations between Malaysia and the U.S. have improved dramatically and entered another phase with the U.S. leader praising their “comprehensive partnership.”
“A Greater Friendship,” “Ushering in a New Era” and “The Answer Is Obama” were among the headlines deployed by editors to shore-up the stocks of a much troubled and equally maligned government and in the process conveniently missing several important points.
Obama’s chief priority is China’s improved economic standing and its overwhelming desire to raise its stature as a global heavyweight, a subject that dominated talks in the Philippines where overlapping claims in the South China Sea is undermining relations with Beijing.
In Malaysia, however, many scribes were earnest in not mentioning the never ending concerns Beijing shares with its ethnic Chinese Malaysians over Malaysian laws, which favor bumiputeras mainly from West Malaysia in education, business, politics, the military and religious affairs. The push to ban non-Muslims from using the word “Allah” has not abated.
Feelings over such issues have become increasingly sensitive since March 8 when MH370 was reported missing with 152 Chinese on board. The unfortunate and unprofessional handling of events amid allegations of withholding information and the dissemination of misinformation that followed plumbed relations with China to unrecognizable depths and opened a Malaysian Pandora’s box on how this country does things.
Relations were not helped by yet another kidnapping, this time of a Chinese national, on the routinely troubled east coast of Sabah in East Malaysia, where pirates and Islamic militants have upset the tourist trade for more than a decade.
Pressure on Malaysia to repeal outdated and racist laws have never been greater. On the same day as Obama’s memorable press conference, medical authorities were forced to speak out saying their doctors will not have to perform amputations on thieves under Sharia laws being sought by Malaysia’s religious hardliners.
The religious and ethnic schism is worsening, even if the Malay-dominated leadership and their scribes in the local press wish otherwise. The politicians in Putrajaya and those who report on them should be a little more mindful of their place on the world stage.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt