- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Christopher J. LaFleur, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, summed it up succinctly: “The U.S.-Malaysian relationship is the best untold story in Southeast Asia.”

Malaysia has risen on Washington’s scale of priorities in recent years because its government has become a voice of moderation in the Islamic world, an ally in opposing terrorists and drug smugglers, and a valued partner in trade and investment.

Why untold? A good part of the reason seems to be a distinctive change of style in Malaysia’s foreign relations in recent years. Until 2003, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who dominated Malaysian politics for two decades, repeatedly grabbed international headlines with stinging anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Australian invective.

As a Malaysian diplomat said in the mid-1990s: “Malaysia is a small nation with a big mouth.”

Today, under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia has become quieter. Mr. Mahathir has faded from the political arena and Mr. Abdullah, whom Malaysians say is by nature a quiet man, has insisted that his government take a low profile in foreign affairs.

As a Malaysian military officer said privately: “We don’t like to attract attention, and we try to be friends with everybody.” Without much fanfare, Malaysia was the host of the East Asian Summit in which the heads of government from 16 nations gathered here in December. This year, Malaysia, a nation of 24 million, of whom half are Muslim, concurrently holds the chair of three organizations that give it a voice well beyond its size:

• The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which has 57 government members, from Morocco in the west to Brunei, which shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia, in the east.

• The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) the regional forum of 10 nations that permits them to deal with Europe, China, and the United States better than they could individually.

• The Non-Aligned Movement of 116 developing nations formed during the Cold War to fend off the Soviet Union and the United States; today it focuses on economic rather than political issues.

S. Thanarajasingam, a senior official of the Foreign Ministry here, suggested to a conference that while those positions have brought prestige to Malaysia, they have “presented several unique challenges to our foreign policy, as it means we have to sometimes leave our own comfort zone as a small country.”

Mr. LaFleur has encouraged Malaysia to do just that. In a speech last month, he said Malaysia is a political success story in Southeast Asia and in the Muslim world.

“I believe that the Malaysian example,” he said, “proves wrong those naysayers who would argue that Islam and democratic traditions and institutions can’t co-exist successfully.”

President Bush has said that democracy in Islamic nations is in the interest of the United States. That contention has been disputed by skeptics who argue that democracy is unsuited to Muslim culture and a political system cannot be imposed from outside.

Not everything is well between Kuala Lumpur and Washington. Mr. LaFleur said the U.S. wants Malaysia to undertake “stronger enforcement of laws protecting intellectual property rights,” which includes patents and copyrights.

The U.S. State Department’s annual survey of human rights has said that Malaysia restricts the press, among other things.

“In practice,” according to the report issued this month, “the government restricted freedom of expression, and journalists practiced self-censorship.” Kuala Lumpur contends that the restrictions preserve national security.

To enlist more help from Malaysia in the war on terrorism, Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, flew to Kuala Lumpur late last month to meet with the prime minister and senior defense officials and military officers. Making his first visit to Malaysia, the admiral said he sought to encourage Malaysians to play a greater role against terrorists.

As he had in Indonesia a few days earlier, Adm. Fallon flew to a distant corner of Malaysia — Kota Kinabalu, on the northwest coast of Borneo — and then across that island to a point where it faces the Celebes Sea. Terrorists from the southern Philippines have been moving men and material across that sea into Malaysia and Indonesia.

The admiral flew out to a Malaysian warship by helicopter and visited an army camp on a small island to see what Malaysian sailors and soldiers were doing to intercept terrorists.

“They’re doing something long-term out there to stop the bad guys from coming to Malaysia,” he said.

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