On December 10, the Malaysian foreign ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador Joseph Yun to explain America’s position on human rights. The move comes after both Yun and U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden criticized Malaysia’s human rights record just weeks before the country officially assumes its position as both the chair of ASEAN and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council on January 1, 2015.
On December 6, Yun said in an interview with an online news portal that the United States was “puzzled” over why Malaysia had gone from wanting to repeal the Sedition Act – a British colonial-era law that has been used overwhelmingly against opposition politicians and critics of the country’s ruling party – to reinforcing it. His comments came after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced at his party’s annual general assembly that he would retain and even broaden the Act, bowing to pressure from party conservatives and reversing his earlier promise to ban it in 2012.
“We were a little bit puzzled why the government announced recently that actually it would not be repealed, rather it probably should be strengthened. So what has changed between 2012 and now?” Yun said in that interview.
On December 5, in two tweets U.S. Vice President Joe Biden raised similar concerns about the rule of law in Malaysia and the ongoing prosecution of former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. First, Biden posted that “amid growing U.S.-Malaysia ties, [the] Malaysian government’s use of the legal system and Sedition Act to stifle opposition raises rule of law concerns.” Then, he followed this with another tweet a minute later saying that “Anwar Ibrahim’s appeal gives Malaysia a vital chance to make things right and promote confidence in its democracy and judiciary.”
Biden’s statements came on the heels of Anwar’s visit to the United States in late November, which included official speeches at Georgetown University and Stanford University as well as a number of unofficial meetings. Anwar made the trip following a delay by Malaysia’s top court in issuing a verdict on his sodomy conviction, which many view as being trumped up and politically motivated to neutralize his threat to the ruling party, which lost the popular vote in elections in 2013. Anwar is battling a five-year sentence handed down against him earlier this year, which would result in him being banned from Malaysian politics.
Some Malaysian officials bristled at the criticism coming from the United States and hit back at Washington. Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz said the United States should first resolve its own problems with racial discrimination against African-Americans, adding that Malaysia “will not hesitate to sever ties” with Washington if it continues to meddle in its internal affairs. Meanwhile, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin drew attention to America’s record of torture in Guantanamo Bay.
Yun was also summoned directly to the Foreign Ministry on December 10 to explain the U.S. position on the matter. In a statement, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the Sedition Act did not “hinder a vibrant democracy” and that “any unwarranted comments on the decisions of the government would be regarded as interference in the country’s internal affairs.”
Malaysia and the United States have often traded barbs on rights issues over the years. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore infamously rebuked the Malaysian government publicly during a November 1998 visit for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, months after Anwar was deposed as deputy prime minister and arrested after a falling out with then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The Obama administration has traditionally taken a more “balanced approach” to the issue, preferring to express its concerns cautiously while expanding cooperation with Malaysia, with which it signed a comprehensive partnership last year.
This round of sparring comes at a particularly critical juncture, however, as Malaysia is about to enter the international spotlight in 2015, assuming both the ASEAN chairmanship for the year as well as the UN Security Council non-permanent seat for two years.