After the long journey from Washington, DC, I approached the immigration officer at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It was Friday, May 16, 2014, and the moment of truth was at hand. Would they let me, a former US Ambassador to Malaysia, into the country? Or was I – someone who Asia Sentinel calls one of the Malaysian Government’s severest foreign critics – going to be barred from entering, when all I wanted to do was attend a wedding?
In February 2011, I wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal-Asia. The basic theme was that the international image of Malaysia as a harmonious, multi-racial, multi-religious society was no longer valid. Instead, the Malaysian government was condoning and sometimes even provoking racial and religious tensions in order to shore up its political base among the Malay population.
I explained that many Malaysians, and especially the Chinese minority, were tired of being treated like second-class citizens in their own country and were leaving for better opportunities abroad. In fact, according to government statistics I cited, almost 500,000 Malaysians left the country between 2007 and 2009, more than doubling the number of Malaysian professionals who live overseas.
I thought it was important to tell the world to wake up and pay attention. Things were changing in Malaysia, and not necessarily for the better. The Journal editors attached the headline, “The Price of Malaysia’s Racism.” I knew that the article would be controversial, because it ran counter to the government’s carefully cultivated image promoted by a multi-million dollar public relations campaign in America and Europe. So the op-ed was well-documented.
Then all hell broke loose. While I was accustomed to being attacked by the so-called UMNO cybertroopers who stalk the internet, this time the comments were especially vile and even obscene. A few days later I read that Nazri Aziz, then a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, said he would propose to the cabinet that I be banned from entering Malaysia. Nazri said that because I had not visited Malaysia in years (actually I had been there just a few months before), I did not know the true situation. So his cure for my ignorance was to prevent me from ever visiting Malaysia again.
Two months later, the World Bank published a major 150-page report on Malaysia’s brain drain. It confirmed in great detail what I had said about Malaysian migration and its consequences. The Bank said that one million Malaysians (over 3 percent of the country’s population) were living overseas, including two out of every ten college graduates.
These people had the skills that Malaysia needs to escape the so-called middle income trap and take their country to a new level of development. The World Bank survey showed that the migrants still felt a strong personal attachment to their country, but their talents were no longer available to Malaysia.
When the Bank asked members of the Malaysian diaspora why they were working overseas, 66 percent cited career prospects and 54 percent said compensation. But the second most cited reason was social injustice (60 percent). When asked what might entice them to return to Malaysia, the No. 1 answer, cited by 87 percent of the respondents, was there would have to be a change in Malaysia’s affirmative action policies from a race-based to a needs-based approach.
Three years later, racial and religious tensions continue to rise in Malaysia. If I were to update my Wall Street Journal op-ed today, there would be even more examples, which the Asia Sentinel has reported so well. There is the ban on the word “Allah” and the confiscation of Bibles. There is Prime Minsiter Najib Tun Razak’sreference to the “Chinese Tsunami” that voted against his party in the last general elections, and his party newspaper’s screaming headline, “What More Do the Chinese Want?”
The government has admitted that it has provided funds to the Malay chauvinist group Perkasa. While it has charged a Chinese-Malaysian Member of Parliament with sedition over a satirical video, the government has done nothing about the far more serious (and dangerous) anti-Chinese, anti-Indian, and anti-Christian remarks of ISMA, a Malay Muslim organization.
After Nazri said in 2011 that I should be barred from Malaysia, I sometimes wondered whether he carried through on his threat. But because I had no intention to travel there, it did not matter.
But a month ago Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, emailed me to say that one of her daughters would be getting married, and that I was invited to the wedding. Over the past 15 years, after I retired from the US Department of State, my wife Hiroko and I grew close to Anwar, Azizah, and their family, especially during the time that they lived here in Washington, DC. Their six children called us Uncle and Auntie, and they were frequent visitors at our home. Hiroko wrote a biography of Wan Azizah, and the two women – a Malaysian and a Japanese – grew very fond of each other. When Hiroko died in 2012, Azizah flew to Washington to speak at her funeral.
I knew it was a long way to go for a wedding, but Azizah had travelled those thousands of miles for Hiroko. I thought of Nurul Iman, the beautiful bride-to-be, and how she had studied Japanese in high school here, due to Hiroko’s influence. I thought it might be my last chance to see Anwar before the government locked him up again, this time for five years. There were many things going through my mind, but overriding everything was one basic concern: if I travel halfway around the world to Kuala Lumpur, will the government let me in the door?
I called the Malaysian Embassy in Washington and informed them that I was going and why. In the interest of total transparency, I gave them my flight details and told them where I would be staying. I said I would do “nothing political” during my time in KL. The officer said he would check with KL to see if there was a problem. I then made a comment for the record: “I hope they understand that if they bar a former American Ambassador, who only wants to go to a wedding and visit with friends, it will be very bad publicity for Malaysia around the world.”
Meanwhile, American friends in Malaysia also were making inquiries, but they never got a straight answer whether I was on a blacklist or would be admitted. They were told, however, that if the decision were made to bar me, “We will not put him in a cell. We will put him in a nice room until we can arrange for a flight to take him out of the country.” I thought what a remarkable commentary that was – they would not lock up a former US Ambassador in a jail cell.
I told my children and friends about my decision to go, and the risk that the trip involved. I explained that this was not some paranoid fantasy on my part; in 2013, the Malaysian government had banned an Australian senator, Nick Xenophon, from entering, detaining him for eight hours at the airport. Later that same year the Sarawak government deported Clare Rewcastle Brown, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and an environmental activist, who had come to Malaysia to defend herself in a lawsuit.
Nevertheless, a common reaction among friends was that the Malaysian government would not be so foolish as to prohibit the entry of a former American Ambassador, especially just two weeks after the visit of US President Barcak Obama. In reply, I quoted a Malay proverb, katak bawah tempurong, about the frog who lives under a coconut shell and comes to believe that that his coconut shell is the entire world. There have been so many cases where the UMNO government gets a black eye internationally but doesn’t seem to care (although in reality they do). The most important thing for them is to assert their power and authority inside their own little world, their own coconut shell.
So on Friday, May 16, I approached the immigration officer and waited, looking like any other elderly foreign tourist. He scanned my passport, and then his eyes got big as something appeared on the computer screen. He started reading, and reading more, and then went to get his supervisor. So yes, I was in the system. After 5 or 10 minutes, the supervisor told his officer to write down my passport number, and then they stamped me into the country.
When I left Malaysia four days later, a similar incident took place at the immigration departure counter. After five minutes, I was permitted to leave the country.
I am grateful to the Malaysian government for letting me do what I said I wanted to do – go to a wedding and visit with friends. I was happy to see KL again and be reminded what a beautiful country Malaysia is, and how wonderful its people are.
But at the same time, to stand before a Malaysian immigration officer and realize that the UMNO regime has placed a red flag next to my name has only strengthened my resolve to carry on. If this is the kind of government it is, then the world needs to hear more about it.
John R. Malott was the US Ambassador to Malaysia from 1995 to 1998.