Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak kicked off the year for the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, participating in an event concerning the global “pivot to the Pacific” on Tuesday. The event featured remarks from Razak, a conversation with Marc Mealy, the Vice President-Policy for the United States Association of Southeast Asian Nations Business Council; and a concluding question and answer period, in which students pressed the leader on societal tensions and freedoms in Southeast Asia.
The prime minister, whose trip to Georgetown was on the heels of a discussion on climate change at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York, spoke in Gaston Hall on the impact of increasing global multipolarity, as well as the significant development and economic growth in East and Southeast Asia.
“Fifty years ago, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, was not even classed as a city. Today, in population alone, it would rank as the fifth largest city in the United States,” Razak said. Additionally, the political and economic changes in the region have led to increased influence and involvement in international affairs.
Michelle Yaw (COL ’15), who introduced the prime minister at the event, said the decision to bring Razak to Georgetown was based on a desire for increased conversation about the changing region of Southeast Asia.
“A lot of the past geopolitical events that have been happening over the summer have very much centered around him, so he’s been very involved and Malaysia’s been getting a lot of attention,” she said. “We felt that it would be really great to engage students in sort of a dialogue and to allow them to learn more about Malaysia, behind everything that is going on.”
It doesn’t hurt that one of Razak’s daughters, Nooryana Najwa Najib (SFS ‘11), is a Georgetown undergraduate alumna.
Among the topics students brought up during the question and answer period was a concern about Razak’s description of Malaysia as one of the many “free societies in Asia.” One student questioned the validity of Razak’s claim, citing media censorship and “preferential treatment given to ethnic Malay people.”
In his response, Razak remarked that he sees work done during his time in office as a “huge leap forward,” though the nation has not yet “fully matured,” and also referred to the freedom of social media as evidence of open society.
Undergraduate student Medha Chandorkar (COL ’15), who attended the event, was impressed by Razak’s candor during the question and answer session, remarking that the prime minister took risks and opened up in response to each of the student’s questions.
“He became more human during the Q-and-A,” she said, specifically referring to Razak’s comments on the need for reform in the United Nations, which he hopes will include a place for Malaysia on the Security Council. “Not a lot of people are willing to say that.”