Updated: 04/27/2014 12:48 | By Agence France-Presse

Obama navigates tricky political path in Malaysia

US President Barack Obama paid homage to Malaysia's moderate brand of Islam and picked his way through his hosts' contentious politics Sunday on the latest leg of his Asian tour.

Obama navigates tricky political path in Malaysia

US President Barack Obama (2nd L) receives a tour from Grand Imam (2nd R) and Abdul Rashid Bin Md Isa (L) of the National Mosque of Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, on April 27, 2014 - by Jim Watson

Obama started his first full day in Kuala Lumpur at the marble-colonnaded National Mosque before heading into talks on security, intelligence-sharing, tense regional issues and trade with Prime Minister Najib Razak.

At a press conference with Najib, Obama was expected to again weigh in on the deepening crisis in Ukraine following the seizure of foreign observers there by pro-Moscow rebels as the decision by G7 nations to slap new sanctions on Russia reverberated.

Washington sees Malaysia as increasingly open to US influence and an important cog in its policy of "rebalancing" resources towards Asia, following decades in which Malaysia was a vocal anti-Western member of the non-aligned movement.

It views Najib as a reformer at heart but has been troubled by recent efforts by his government to squeeze free expression and opposition parties.

- Opportune moment -

Najib's chief opposition antagonist Anwar Ibrahim was at the centre of a new political storm after being left off Obama's list of appointments.

The White House, however, said the fact that Anwar will get to meet Obama's top White House foreign policy adviser Susan Rice underlines the importance it attaches to democratic development in Malaysia.

Anwar said in an opinion article in the Washington Post on Saturday that Obama's Malaysia visit was an "opportune" moment to live up to the ideals of his 2008 presidential campaign and warned founding American values should not be put to one side for political imperatives.

"Jeffersonian ideals still resonate with people in this part of the world," he said.

A one-time ruling party star, Anwar was tossed out and jailed in a sensational 1990s party power struggle, going on to revitalise a once-hapless opposition that has capitalised on growing anger over corruption and power abuses to put the long-ruling regime on its heels.

But Anwar was sentenced to five years in jail on a March 7 sodomy conviction that he calls politically motivated and which the US government has criticised.

- LBJ's footsteps -

During Obama's visit to the National Mosque, with its modern design featuring an aqua-blue roof shaped like a 16-pointed star, guides gave the president a tour of fountain pools, an ornate prayer room and Malaysia's Warrior Mausoleum.

Around 60 percent of Malaysians are Muslim ethnic Malays, but the country also has large Christian, Hindu, Confucian, and other communities.

Najib has touted Malaysia's image abroad as a moderate Islamic nation.

But non-Muslims says his government is playing dangerous religious politics to shore up Malay votes, taking steps to restrict how other faiths are practised and standing by as Islamic conservatives stoke tension.

Obama was expected Sunday to stress his administration's effort to forge closer ties with Southeast Asian nations at a time when maritime territorial tensions have rocked the region's decades of geopolitical calm.

Malaysia is among several nations with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing's assertiveness has sparked alarm. 

In Japan, Obama made clear that the US was treaty-bound to side with Tokyo in any dispute over islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both Japan and China and have emerged as a potential flashpoint for conflict.

Obama will convene a "town hall" meeting in Malaysia, with young participants from around Southeast Asia, on the third leg of a tour that started in Japan and South Korea and will end in the Philippines on Tuesday.

Obama often appears most at home with idealistic young people and will launch an Asian Young Leaders project modelled on a similar initiative in Africa. 

Obama on Saturday became the first sitting US president in nearly a half-century to visit Malaysia, following Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

Shortly after arrival he expressed solidarity with his hosts over the mystery of missing flight MH370.

Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Obama told him he knows "it is a tough, long, road ahead", over the missing airliner which vanished with 239 people aboard in March.

"We'll work together. There is always support," Hishammuddin said the US leader told him.

A small crowd gathered outside the National Mosque in hope of catching a glimpse of Obama or his famed armoured "Beast" limousine.

Tan Ming Heng, 36, an IT worker, said "it's a once in a lifetime experience" and that the visit would build a good relationship between Malaysia and the United States.

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