Malaysian Prime Minister talks ASEAN ways at Gaston, asked why he leads a one-party state
On Tuesday night, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke at a Lecture Fund event at Gaston Hall as part of his visit to the U.S. this month. Now in his fifth year as head of state, he has a daughter, Nooryana Najwa Najib (SFS ’11), who happens to be an undergraduate alumnus.
In his remarks, Razak spoke on Asia’s future dynamics as the region grows in economic power. “It is a privilege to address you this evening and speak about a subject that will be part of your professional lives, for you are one of the first generations in many years who will live in a multipolar world,” he said. He predicts that by 2025, India and China’s combined GDP will be greater than the G7 group of nations.
He cited the proliferation of democracies and political reform as one of the reasons for the economic transformation. “A few decades ago, there were only a handful of free societies in Asia,” he said. “Today, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, amongst others … 400 million people have joined … Asian democracies.”
Razak emphasized the importance of rules-based solutions to solving territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which has remained a source of tension in the region. “A divided sea will affect our common prosperity … A good starting point is the [ASEAN] code of conduct, our best hope for ensuring that disagreements do not escalate,” he said. “Constructive engagement, or the so-called ASEAN way, can bring positive results.”
US-ASEAN Business Council vice-president of policy Marc Mealy then engaged Razak in a conversation about his remarks. When asked about extremist conflicts in the Middle East, Razak emphasized the importance of Islam’s peaceful and moderate principles. “You can see the forty years of peace and stability in Malaysia. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve been able to enjoy religious freedom,” he said. “At the same time, we are committed to the fundamental tenets of Islam. […] Those people who are committing these horrific acts today: they don’t speak for us. Whatever they are, and whatever actions they’ve done, they are against Islam, they are against God, and they are against humanity.”
The Lecture Fund opened a questions and answers session towards the end of the event. None of the audience members, however, seemed interested in Razak’s “ASEAN ways.” While some wanted his advice to young Asians or for his opinion on United Nations reform, a prickly undergraduate asked, “I was wondering how you consider Malaysia to be a free society when there’s still preferential treatment given to ethnic Malay people over other populations, and when it’s been ruled by one party since the start, and also … [there is] heavy media censorship.”
Vox noticed that the question drew some sly smiles from the audience. Razak stressed his belief in the rule of law and cited Malaysia’s abolition of colonial-era security laws and civil liberties reforms as it tried to manage what he calls its “ethnic governance.”
“I’m not apologetic about one party being in power, because there is democracy in Malaysia,” he said. “You just have to have access to social media. I can assure you that it’s a much more open society than you think.”
Photo: Anna Runova/Georgetown Voice