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"Najib-Trump meeting: A Boon or Bane for Malaysia’s Domestic Audience?" by Norshahril Saat

2017/56, 13 September 2017

All eyes are set on the meeting between Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak and US President Donald Trump. The meeting, to mark 60 years of bilateral relations, mainly centres on security and investment ties between the two countries.

However, the meeting between the two leaders will be held against the backdrop of the 1MDB (1 Malaysia Development Berhad) probe by the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The US department is investigating accusations of money laundering relating to 1MDB, with many indications pointing to high-level involvement in the affair.

Analysts have pointed out that Najib’s visit to the White House may appease the Malaysian domestic audience. Nevertheless, the US may have its own agenda when inviting Mr Najib to the White House: it is worried that Malaysia is fostering too close economic ties with China at the expense of its strategic partnership with the US; is hoping to gather Malaysia’s alliance in the North Korea nuclear crisis; and is getting help from Malaysia on combating terrorism, particularly ISIS threat. Najib has made several proposals to strengthen economic ties with the US: he requested the Malaysian Airlines (MAS) to buy aeroplanes from the US; and he also made other investment pledges.

But the picture of Najib’s meeting with the US President could be a boon for the former: the Malaysian government can portray the country’s strong relations with the US, and Americans endorsement of the Prime Minister. However, the meeting is unlikely to change the perception of some in Malaysia whose minds are already set about the 1MDB issue. Moreover, Muslims in Malaysia are unhappy with Donald Trump, especially his strong views against Muslim countries during his election campaigns, and the short-lived attempt to ban citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries. In fact, Najib’s visit could further marginalise conservative Muslim groups in Malaysia who are already anti-Trump. This will dampen his attempts to win over their support.

Dr Norshahril is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a member of the Malaysian Studies Programme and Co-coordinator of Indonesian Studies Programme.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.