President Barack Obama on Sunday pressed the Malaysian government to improve its human rights record and appealed to Southeast Asia's teeming youth population to stand up for the rights of minorities and the rule of law.
Yet Obama skipped a golden chance to promote that human rights agenda, declining to meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Instead, he directed national security adviser Susan Rice to see Anwar on Monday.
Obama said his decision was "not indicative of our lack of concern" about the former deputy prime minister who recently was convicted for the second time on sodomy charges, which the U.S. and international human rights groups contend are politically motivated.
Obama said he had raised his concerns about Malaysia's restrictions on political freedoms during meetings with Prime Minister Najib Razak.
"Those values are at the core of who the U.S. is, but also I think are a pretty good gauge of whether a society is going to be successful in the 21st century or not," Obama said during a news conference with Najib.
Obama called the prime minister a "reformer" committed to addressing human rights issues.
To his critics, Najib said, "Don't underestimate or diminish whatever we have done."
Obama wrapped up his stay in Malaysia, the third stop on a four-country swing through Asia, with a business-related event Monday morning. Executives from three American companies — General Electric Co., Verdezyne Inc. and MetLife Inc. — signed agreements with Malaysian companies as Obama and Najib looked on. Obama said the deals are worth nearly $2 billion.
"It means these companies will be doing more business in Malaysia and selling more exports marked 'Made in America,'" he said. "These deals support American jobs in places like Ohio and North Carolina, and companies that export often pay better wages, so it's a good day for American workers as well."
Obama said more needs to be done to promote trade, such as finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement among the U.S., Malaysia and 10 other countries.
The president then left for the Philippines, where he was expected to announce a 10-year security agreement that would allow for a larger U.S. military presence there amid the Philippines' increasingly tense territorial disputes with China.