IN a faint tap to the wrist of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, a high-ranking U.S. envoy said the premier’s recent comments against former colonists sounded “more like” his predecessor Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.
Daniel Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Najib’s tone written in a Chinese newspaper on Wednesday bears semblance to Dr. Mahathir, who had a reputation for his anti-West rhetoric.
“I read something attributed to the prime minister in the People’s Daily that sounded a little bit more like former Prime Minister Mahathir than current Prime Minister Najib, but OK, there may be some special circumstances,” Russel was quoted as saying during a media briefing on Thursday, as quoted by Reuters.
In his editorial piece run by state-owned China Daily, Najib, who is in China to bolster ties with Beijing, said former colonial powers should not lecture countries they once exploited on their internal affairs.
Russel’s comparison is particularly scathing for the embattled Najib, who has faced a barrage of criticisms by Mahathir over the multi-billion dollar scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund.
The prime minister opined that larger countries should treat smaller countries fairly.
“And this includes former colonial powers. It is not for them to lecture countries they once exploited on how to conduct their own internal affairs today,” Najib wrote.
Najib’s remark appears to run parallel to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent pivot to the Asian superpower following a fallout with the United States.
Observers say Najib is leaning towards China after the U.S. Justice Department implicated him in the 1MDB scandal, a claim he has repeatedly denied.
The department alleged that some US$3.5 billion was siphoned from 1MDB in one of the largest international money-laundering schemes it has seen in history. According to Reuters, the allegation has strained U.S.-Malaysia ties with Najib dismissing it as “foreign interference” in Malaysia’s affairs.
China is looking to leverage on Malaysia’s and the Philippines’ strained bilateral ties with the U.S. to counter its foremost rival’s influence in the region.
Among other deals, Malaysia has agreed to buy four Chinese naval vessels and signed 14 agreements totalling RM143.64 billion (US$34.25 billion), following a meeting Najib had with Premier Li Keqiang this week.
The observers also view the deals as Najib making a pivot to China, but Russel said there was no evidence that Malaysia was tilting towards the republic.
“As far as Malaysian purchases from China – that’s not tilting to China, that making a commercial deal. Everybody does it. The very idea that third-country cooperation with China is somehow a bad thing, is adverse to our interests, it’s ridiculous,” added Russel.
Despite Malaysia’s apparent fallout with Washington, Russel said U.S. ties with Malaysia had improved under President Barack Obama, Reuters reported. The envoy also pointed back to Obama’s visit to the Southeast Asian country in 2014, the first by a U.S. president in 50 years.
“We don’t want countries to have to choose between us … Strong, constructive, productive bilateral relations with China are an important part of our strategy. Why wouldn’t it be an important part of the strategy of China’s own neighbors?” Russel was quoted as saying.