By Murray Hiebert
The death of Jamaluddin Jarjis, 63, in a helicopter crash in Malaysia today, April 4, is a critical loss for U.S.-Malaysia relations. JJ, as he was known to his friends, had served as ambassador to the United States from 2009 until 2012 and then as special envoy to Washington until his death for his personal friend, Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Najib sent JJ to Washington shortly after he took over as prime minister in 2009 in an effort to improve relations with the United States that had often been strained during the earlier rule of Mahathir Mohamad. JJ worked to ensure that Najib had a one-on-one meeting with the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, at the nuclear nonproliferation summit in April 2010.
Before Najib arrived, JJ lobbied Malaysia’s parliament, of which he was a sitting member, to pass export control legislation to prevent proliferation, something Washington had long sought. JJ also negotiated a deal with Washington that Malaysia, a Muslim majority country opposed to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, would send noncombatant military engineers to help that long suffering country rebuild.
JJ played a key role with Najib in getting Malaysia to join the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2010. I once asked JJ why he had opposed the free trade agreement between Washington and Kuala Lumpur launched in 2006, but supported Malaysia’s participation in the TPP. “Because I wasn’t ambassador then,” he said with his characteristic wry smile, implying that as ambassador he had gained new insights into the importance to Malaysia of strong ties with the United States.
The last time I saw JJ was at the end of February when he brought Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail to CSIS for an off the record conversation with Malaysia experts and human rights activists in Washington. JJ knew no one in the room would agree with the government’s increased use of sedition to silence opposition politicians and journalists and with the sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in prison for alleged sodomy.
As the meeting ended, no one had raised Anwar’s imprisonment, so JJ came and whispered in my ear that I needed to ask about Anwar. “That’s why the AG is here.” JJ knew no one would accept the attorney general’s explanation, but he wanted to begin the conversation with people in Washington. JJ did not shy away from a good debate because he knew this was the beginning of dialogue between people who differed.
When he was ambassador to Washington, he would often hold dinner parties and when I was present he would tell those present with a chuckle in his voice that they should talk to me before getting into trouble with Malaysia’s legal system. He would leave it to guests at my table who did not know my background in Malaysia to ask me what had happened. (I had served 30 days in a Malaysian prison in 1999 after I was found guilty of contempt of court for an article I wrote as a journalist about an appeal’s court judge’s wife suing the International School of Kuala Lumpur for $2.4 million because her son was thrown off a school debating team).
After JJ had done this about half a dozen times I asked him why he always told the same story at my expense. “It’s a good ice breaker,” he said, suggesting that he was letting his dinner guests know that he was open to talking about topics in Malaysia with which they and he might not agree.
JJ’s death is a blow for U.S.-Malaysia relations. Malaysia has no replacement who knows so many key people in Washington and has the ear of the Malaysian prime minister. For not only his friends, but everyone working on or following U.S.-Malaysia relations, JJ will be sorely missed.
JJ, may God hold you in his care.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.