Elected in the same year, PM Najib and Obama share close ties

United States president Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak have two things in common.

Both were elected to lead their countries in the same year.

Obama won the American presidential election on Jan 20, 2009, while Najib took office as Prime Minister less than three months later on April 3.

Both also took office pledging to make a positive change in their respective countries.

The similarities are a plus point for both leaders as they aim to develop closer personal ties with the presidential visit.

The visit offers an opportunity for the two countries to strengthen bilateral relations which have steadily developed over the years and moved into high gear since Obama and Najib came to power.

The first contact between the two leaders took place on June 26, 2009, two months after Najib became Prime Minister.

In a 20-minute telephone conversation, the two leaders discussed several issues including the economy, Iran and North Korea.

They met again the following year in Washington at a Nuclear Security Summit of 48 world leaders to discuss Obama's initiative to confront the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Najib was one of two Asian leaders who held discussions with Obama before the start of the summit, and the American president asked Najib about the New Economic Model.

The Prime Minister said he informed Obama of the Government's goal of transforming Malaysia into a high-income economy and its liberalising policy.

"I explained that although Malaysia has been successful in its development approach in the past, it does not mean we will continue to be successful unless we look at a package that is more in tune with the new environment and can spur further development," Najib said.

In that meeting, the two leaders also explored the possibility of further developing economic and security ties. Najib then extended an invitation to Obama to visit Malaysia, noting that the first and last president to set foot in the country was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.

Obama and Najib held a bilateral meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2011 on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit.

On the meeting, Obama said: "I appreciate the extraordinary cooperation that we've received on a whole range of issues.

"We want to be a strong partner with Malaysia, and Prime Minister Najib, I think, has shown great leadership not only in continuing to boost Malaysia's economy, but also in showing leadership on a wide range of multilateral issues."

In November 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Kuala Lumpur where she reiterated the Obama administration's priority to re-engage with the Asian Pacific countries, including Malaysia.

"We know that much of the history of the 21st century will be written in this region because it is the centre of so many of the world's greatest opportunities and challenges."

In December 2011, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns visited Kuala Lumpur where he highlighted Malaysia's important role in the region.

"We believe that, as a Muslim majority, multi-ethnic democracy, Malaysia has a unique role to play in East Asia and in the world," said Burns.

"I come with the good wishes of the American people, who see Malaysia as a bridge between East and South-East Asia and an influential voice of moderation; and as a success story, strategic partner, and friend," he added.

While Najib has led efforts to foster stronger bilateral ties with the United States, he has also been fortunate to be able to develop upon a strong foundation of engagement built by Malaysia's previous administrations even during times when relations between the United States and the Muslim world became strained following the Sept 11 terror attacks.

In 2006, Najib's predecessor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi met then US President George W. Bush to discuss a broad range of subjects ranging from Palestine to a free trade agreement.

Abdullah's predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad met both Bush (in 2002) and President Bill Clinton (in 1994).

This was in keeping with a tradition of the Prime Minister of the country meeting the American President which started during the time of the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.