Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will meet U.S. President Donald Trump for talks next week amid criticism that the White House would host a tainted leader linked to a multi-million dollar corruption scandal that’s being investigated in Washington and half a dozen nations.
The visit would mark the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Malaysia bilateral relations and include discussions on ways "to strengthen and broaden" the ties and expand regional cooperation with one of America’s closest partners in Southeast Asia, the White House said ahead of the Sept. 12 meeting.
Najib, meanwhile, has highlighted trade and security as among topics of discussions during his first White House visit since taking office in 2009, saying that the two countries, which are key allies in the fight against terrorism, were eyeing an elusive bilateral trade agreement.
"I hope that the United States will regard Malaysia as a reliable partner in the question of trade, investment, security partnership and combating terrorism,” he told the Malaysian media on Friday.
But the run-up to the Najib-Trump talks has been dominated by criticism from groups in Malaysia and the United States against the White House for hosting Najib, whose international standing has been hit by his alleged role in a multi-billion dollar scandal at a state development fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The U.S. Justice Department is among crime-busting agencies in six countries, including Singapore and Switzerland, probing the scandal at 1MDB from which a total of more than $4.5 billion have been allegedly siphoned off.
Najib is alleged to have received nearly $700 million originating from 1MDB, based on lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department, which said last month that it has launched a criminal probe into the issue.
Last year, it had filed more than two dozen lawsuits in a bid to recover assets allegedly stolen by businessmen associated with 1MDB. Those assets include a diamond necklace for Najib’s wife, Rosmah.
The U.S.-based Wall Street Journal in a stinging editorial questioned the White House decision to have a meeting with Najib when he had jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and “is a suspect in a corruption scandal that spans the globe.”
It asked the White House to find a “diplomatic excuse” to cancel the visit. “Any embarrassment is better than giving a scandal-tainted leader a White House photo-op,” the newspaper said.
Opposition: Publish auditor-general’s report
In Malaysia, opposition leaders on Friday urged the government to make public a report by the country’s auditor-general on the 1MDB scandal before Najib’s departure for the United States.
“Various speculations have been hovering the minds of Malaysians on why this meeting was made, including whether it is an attempt to close the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) case,” said Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the opposition leader in parliament and wife of the jailed Anwar.
“If the report is not published, the meeting … could be seen as an attempt to ‘clean-up’ Najib’s name,” she said in a statement.
An opposition lawmaker has been ordered jailed for 18 months for violating the Official Secrets Act (OSA) by disclosing a page from the auditor-general’s report on the 1MDB issue.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said Najib’s government was resorting to laws such as the OSA and Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) to go after people who had criticized him over the 1MDB affair,
Still, Trump may find the meeting fruitful as he could discuss issues critical to the United States, such as North Korea and counterterrorism with Najib, some analysts say.
“Yes, no doubt, North Korea will be on the agenda,” said Azmi Hassan, a geopolitical professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia amid reports that Trump is courting Southeast Asian leaders to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang over its illicit nuclear weapons program.
Malaysia is among many Southeast Asian nations that maintain economic and diplomatic ties with North Korea.
It downgraded relations with Pyongyang after suspected North Korean spies assassinated Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at a Kuala Lumpur airport in February.
Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.