Monday, October 10, 2016

Will Malaysia burn with new president? US envoy weighs in

Anisah Shukry     Published     Updated

INTERVIEW Critics have declared that a Donald Trump victory at next month's United States presidential elections would usher “the end of the world”.

His foreign policies, which include “extreme vetting” of Muslims coming to the US, are ever-changing – raising the question of how Malaysia, as a key Islamic ally, would be impacted.

But Malaysia has little to worry about, according to outgoing US ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Y Yun, who steps down on Friday after three years in the post.

In US politics, Congress will keep a hypothetical “President Trump” in check - and Yun said the Congress is very clear about their stand towards Asia.

“You've seen congressional delegates who come here, they're both Republicans and Democrats, all very, very loudly endorsing the administration's (present) Asia policy.

“So, unlike some other parts of the world where there may be partisan views, (when it comes to) Asia in general, Southeast Asia in particular, (the views) have been bi-partisan.

“So I'm quite confident. Whoever is elected, whether a Democrat or a Republican, our fundamental policy towards Asia will not change,” Yun told Malaysiakini in an interview at his office in Kuala Lumpur.

This includes the 'Rebalance to Asia' policy of the US, which is about committing more resources to the region, military and civilian, he said.

The killing of the TPPA

But what about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), of which Malaysia is a signatory?
Both Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton are against the trade pact - Clinton, often viewed as the safer option of the two, even said she would 'kill' the deal if elected president.

However, Yun said he was very confident that the TPPA would not be called off.

President Barack Obama had often said he would like to work on the ratification of the TTPA by the US Congress before he leaves office in January next year, said Yun.

And there will be big push for the TPPA's ratification when the US congress convenes again early next month, explained Yun.

“If it goes beyond that period, we'll see. I don't think it's a foregone conclusion, at all, that either Mr Trump, or Secretary Clinton, will ultimately kill it,” he said.

“Certainly, 12 countries have negotiated a very, very good agreement... So, certainly, I would like to see the agreement go through.

“It would create more jobs, more exports, more opportunity for, really, all the 12 countries in the region.”

Below are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity:

One of your predecessors, John R Mallot, has been critical of the Malaysian government. Has that put you in a difficult position, and has Putrajaya expressed concern?
We all have views, and once we retire, generally you're free to express your views, and John is a good friend, but he has strong views about Malaysia, and he makes it known.

There are NGOs that also make their views very clear, for example, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. So I would say they belong to the same group - a bit of a watchdog, and wanting to make sure that what you call the moral standard is applied and criticised.

Not just Malaysian governments, but they are big critics of the governments in Thailand, Cambodia, China. That's their job. My job is to build relationships, their job is to criticise.

Has it been tough for you?
No. I think when you have an honest dialogue with them, they understand. And it's not been tough at all.

How has human rights in Malaysia fared in your three years of service?
This is an issue that happened in every country I worked at. Of course, US is a big upholder of human rights, but at the same time I'm very mindful that we also have our own issues.

One example being the Guantanamo facilities. So, I do very much believe personally that people who live in glass houses shouldn't be throwing stones.

Each country must deal with their problems on freedom issues, human rights issues within their own capacity and constraints. And as long as I lived here, I understand those constraints. And so of course we want to see this democratic space increase. There's no question. However, we have to be very mindful that we don't blindly criticise. That's not helpful either.

So we try our best, working with Malaysia, to do what we can. One example is trafficking in people. To work with them, both on the legal side and getting a policy framework done, as well as on the implementation side, working with NGOs that are working there, as well as on the law enforcement side.

We realise this huge challenge here - this is a country whose economy is much better than its neighbours, so its a magnet. So you cannot just blindly say 'treat them all well' otherwise you will be inundated. So how do you work in that space? For me, half my job is explaining to my government what's going on, the other half is getting the two governments together to work productively.

What do you think about Bersih, and how do you think a government should handle it?
Each country has their own constraints, their own systems, their own laws. And so on the one part, those who are willing to make protests, make their voices heard, must be consistent in that framework. It must be legal, they must have permission if that's what's required.
So, within that, of course, as the American government, as a US official, we would support freedom of expression. That's a fundamental freedom of expression and so I have no problems saying that in any place, anywhere in the world, freedom of expression is one of the fundamental freedoms that people should have.

In Malaysia, there are caveats to that. We have the Peaceful Assembly Act, where you have to give notice before that (assembly). Do you think we need such restrictions?
Well, that's your law. And if you need to change it, you need to change it legally.

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