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Azlan Ibrahim Headshot

A Pungent Fruit Holds Secret to Success for Obama's Malaysia Trip

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Dear President Obama,

As a Malaysian-American, I am excited about your upcoming visit to my former homeland. Vicariously, I am honored and humbled that the president of my nation as an adult is stopping by the nation of my childhood as you re-orient American foreign policy toward Asia, which mercifully for all of us does not include Ukraine, Crimea or horseback-riding bear-wrestling presidents named Putin.

The last U.S. president to visit Malaysia was Lyndon Johnson, in June 1966. His visit was a pleasant surprise to Malaysians at the time. A tin-and-rubber colony, Malaysia had just won independence from Britain. It was finding its way and its place in the world. Malays, Chinese and Indians were learning to live with each other, mostly in peace until deadly riots erupted in 1969, that year of social conflagration around the world, and fitfully ever since.

Under normal circumstances, your visit to Malaysia would be historic, providing ample opportunity for great images, soaring rhetoric, narratives of your own shaping. Your pre-planned visit, however, comes at an abnormal time.

Before March 8, when a Boeing 777 with 239 lives aboard vanished, many of our fellow Americans, including fans of that Ben Stiller classic Zoolander, couldn't pick Malaysia out of a lineup of Asian nations. Now, they know its politics, its conspiracies, its coconut-wielding crocodile-slappers.

Suddenly, what would have been a fuss-free photo op in a warm place could be a landmine. The loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has unleashed raw emotions. China is demanding, as China always does, things that belong to other people, including some newfangled satellite technology you may or may not know about. Only the NSA can tell. Nearly everyone is by now convinced that the Malaysian government can't think beyond lunch or find its way out of an empty soccer field. And, inflamed by nationalist propaganda and conspiracy theories on both sides, China wants answers Malaysia can't give and Malaysia wants China to grieve quietly like everyone else so please stop asking too many questions.

Meanwhile, you should remember that many Malaysians are convinced "Westerners" and "Zionists" are against them. Many also believe 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy to scapegoat Muslims, including a former prime minister. Thankfully, this coda to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is confined mostly to the Malays or Muslims, interchangeable ethnic and religious terms that defy science and anthropology, but not the Malaysian Constitution. Malaysia's Christians have bigger problems, in light of recent government raids on churches and the confiscation of Bibles that blaspheme Islam because they contain the word "Allah," the Arabic word for God that Christians in the Middle East use regularly. Malaysia's Shiite's have similar grievances: Most of them are at risk of being arrested, including women and infants, and incarcerated for deviating from orthodox Islam.

As you can guess, Mr. President, Fox News will demand you do something to protect the Christians of Malaysia before you can say "wheels up." If you demur, you can expect the New Yorker cover of you fist-bumping the First Lady to resurface -- as might questions about your religion and (for good measure) the veracity of your long-form birth certificate.

Iran might not be far behind in demanding that you stand up for their Shiite brothers and sisters, should you be serious about rapprochement. Putin will be watching. And with Malaysia's history of anti-Semitism, so might Bibi and Chuck Schumer.

You'll also be landing not long after Malaysia's leading opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, was sent back to jail on what most people believe were fabrications. Though you are a Nobel Peace laureate, be wary, Mr. President. The last time an American leader waded into Malaysian politics and endorsed Anwar's "reformation" in the 1990s, he stumbled badly, oblivious to fundamental Asian ideals of honoring your host and saving face. Then-Vice President Al Gore's credibility in the region has never recovered. And despite what your experts may have told you about Anwar, he's more Hamid Karzai -- departing president of southwest Kabul -- than Nelson Mandela.

Oh, and China's not going to waste the opportunity to ask you about that Inmarsat technology, the Fifth and Pacific Fleets, control of the South China Sea, the Japanese Constitution and its military, etc. etc.

You're on the legacy stretch of your presidency, sir, so I humbly submit a few ideas that can help you seize the narrative and sidestep the figurative buffalo droppings before you.

Number One, say as many things in Malay as possible. Your Bahasa Indonesia is commendable, and it's a close cousin to Bahasa Malaysia. Start each public address with, "Terima kasih" (thank you) and "Malaysia boleh" (Malaysia can), and you're off to a good start. If you're feeling especially adventurous, say: "Saya memang suka makan durian." Which brings us to Number Two.

Eat a durian. You may have sampled some during your childhood in Indonesia and wished you hadn't. You may remember its gag-inducing aroma of warm Camembert, feet and compost. You may have passed out after one whiff. Lots of people have. But if you manage to choke one down and cameras are around, it'll be front page news for days. The durian season starts in June, but the good news is you don't need Congress to score a few lobes of the fruit early.

Recognize the distinction between the Malaysian government and the Malaysian people, 53 percent of whom did not vote for this prime minister or his cronies, a patrimony of grey, homogenous conservatives held captive by a small but vocal fringe lunatic. Sound familiar? (Ironic how 47 percent can mean different things to different people.)

Control all public appearances. The Malaysian government has lobbied for generations to have its moment on the world stage. When MH370 vanished, it got that wish, unexpectedly and under the most awful circumstances. Did the Malaysian government rise to the occasion, with competence, compassion and grace? Unfortunately, no. Faced with a professional international media that demanded answers, not the compliant local press that hasn't asked a follow-up question since independence in 1957, it bumbled spectacularly. The government trotted out a dozen spokespeople and twice as many inconsistent, contradictory talking points. It looked for the plane in the wrong body of water for days, wasting precious time. When challenged to elaborate on facts and speculations, its spokespeople threw tantrums. And it announced the plane's doom by, among other methods, SMS.

Imagine doing a joint news conference on some of the most critical issues facing your presidency, our nation and the future of the planet with the people behind this debacle.

If all else fails, remember the durian option, Mr. President.