Critics noted that Obama’s message downplayed Malaysia’s political repression and curbs on free speech. The president has no plans to meet with Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who leads the political opposition. Anwar’s supporters say the pro-democracy figure has been repeatedly jailed on dubious charges to keep him from running for office.
Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, is scheduled to meet with Anwar and other government opponents during the overnight visit, while Obama holds a town hall forum with students, visits the national mosque and meets civic leaders.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said Obama had raised Ibrahim’s case in private meetings with Malaysian leaders.
“We support deepening of democratic practices in Malaysia,” Rhodes said. “And we’ve been concerned when we’ve seen any restrictions on political space or any effort to limit the activities of civil society.”
Malaysia is among the 12 nations eyeing participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious free trade deal that undergirds Obama’s promised reapportionment of U.S. strategic assets and interests toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Malaysia is also among the nations engaged in maritime disputes with China over resource-rich islands or shoals in the South China Sea, an issue that has come up at every stop on Obama’s trip.
The president had hoped to arrive in Kuala Lumpur with a key piece of the complex trade deal, an agreement between Japan and the U.S. But negotiators failed to overcome differences about agricultural tariffs during Obama’s stop in Tokyo earlier in the week.
Obama is due to fly to the Philippines on Monday for the last leg of the weeklong trip. U.S. officials hope he will be able to announce a deal with Manila for American troops and warships to use Philippine military bases, but the accord was not complete Saturday, Rhodes said.
“We have been negotiating this very actively with the Philippines,” Rhodes said. “We believe that there would be significant benefit from deepening our security cooperation in this manner . . . . So we are focused on seeking to finalize that agreement.”
Kathleen Hennessey in the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.