US President Barack Obama continues to shy away from criticising the Malaysian government for the jailing of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Responding during the question-and-answer session with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Fellows at the White House yesterday, Obama said he could not comment on specific cases.
He then went on to regurgitate general concepts about democracy, adding, "as a general rule, I do not comment on even individual cases in this country, much less in another country, because I think it is important for the legal system to work."
Obama was responding to the question from Damansara Utama assemblyperson Yeo Bee Yin, who asked what he thought about the jailing of Anwar ( photo ) and the government's crackdown on opposition in Malaysia.
The US president did not mention Anwar by name even once, and instead provided a general comment on an "if" situation when asked about the matter.
"I do know that it is important if an opposition leader who is well known has been charged with a crime, that process of how that is adjudicated and how open it is and how clear the evidence is, that is all subject to scrutiny.
"Because what you don't want is a situation which is the legitimacy of the process is questioned.
"That has an adverse impact on the democracy as a whole and I think we all have to guard against making sure there is not a chilling effect on potential opposition (being) in government," Obama said.
Earlier in his speech, Obama said Malaysia has a history of democracy that has to be "preserved" but also noted the country's cordial relations with the US.
"I have a very good relationship with Prime Minister Najib (Abdul Razak) ( photo ) and we are close partners in cooperating on a whole host of issues," he said.
Obama added that he will speak up about issues of democracy even when it came to friends.
"Maybe sometimes, we are even more willing to say something because we know they can do better," he said.
Anwar was sentenced to five years in jail in February for sodomy, a charge the opposition claims to be politically motivated.
A crackdown followed on politicians and activists who protested or criticised the ruling under the Sedition Act 1948.
According to the International Commission of Jurists, there were 36 sedition cases for the first quarter of this year, already on track to exceed the number of cases for the whole of last year which was 42.
Journalists, radio presenters, lecturers, preachers and a cartoonist are among those who have been arrested or probed under the Sedition Act in the last year.
Najib who in 2012 had promised to repeal the colonial era law, reneged on his promise and strengthened it in April this year, taking away the court's discretion in sentencing and introducing a mandatory minimum jail term of three years.
Obama given rosy picture of M'sia
In March, former US ambassador to Malaysia John Malott, in an Asia Sentinel opinion piece, criticised Obama for "drinking Najib's kool-aid" despite the gap between Najib's rhetoric and actions.
"I am very sure that the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur is reporting the situation accurately.
"The problem is that few people at the senior levels in Washington pay attention to Malaysia, and lower-level officers no doubt find it hard to counter the ideas about Najib and Malaysia that seem to be well-entrenched in Obama's mind," Malott ( photo ) had said.
The question and answer session at the White House yesterday was the first time Obama was personally asked to weigh into Anwar's jailing and the crackdown in Malaysia.
Previously, this was left to lower ranked US officials who had issued more critical statements.
O the day of Anwar's jailing, The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur had said the trial raised serious concerns about rule of law and independence of the judiciary and was disappointed by the outcome.
This was reiterated in a statement by the White House in response to a petition on the manner garnering 100,000 signatures, which also expressed concern about impending plans to expand the Sedition Act at that time.
Obama's stance is a far cry to the Clinton's administration's response to Anwar's first jailing in 1999, where the then US vice president El Gore had openly praised the reformasi movement in a speech in Kuala Lumpur.
The US president's cautious remarks come amid his push for Malaysia to accept the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
Obama had visited Malaysia in April last year where he pitched the importance of the free trade agreement.