By Mick Krever and Claire Calzonetti, CNN
The cancellation of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia earlier this month because of the government shutdown was a “missed opportunity,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
“It was a missed opportunity for Obama to assert his leadership, particularly in the context of his policy pivot towards Asia,” Najib told Amanpour in London. “I know he regrets it.”
“When he called me he said, ‘By hook or by crook, I will visit Malaysia next year,’” the prime minister said. “So we’re looking forward to receiving him.”
Najib leads a nation of nearly 30 million – a diverse, majority-Muslim country that wants to be viewed as a modern Islamic democracy.
It is an appealing destination for tourists and investors alike – though the global recession did take its toll, and with tension between various ethnic groups and allegations of election fraud, it is not without controversy.
“My priority is to ensure peace and harmony in Malaysia. That is uppermost in my mind,” Najib said.
Najib drew attention last month when, at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he said that the greatest threat to Muslims now “comes not from the outside world, but from within.”
“It’s very alarming to see what’s happening in the Muslim world,” Najib told Amanpour. “And it’s about time we come to our senses and realize that moderation is the only path that will ensure peace and stability for the Muslim world, and for the wider world.”
That conflict is stark in Egypt, where tumult has reigned since Hosni Mubarak was deposed two and a half years ago. At times violent divisions continued following the election of Mohamed Morsy as president and through his being pushed from power this past July, after just one year in office.
“I know what I would have done,” Najib said, referring to the situation in Egypt. “I would have waited until the next election, because they were elected and deserve a chance to perform and to show their worth.”
“But that’s water under the bridge, now,” he told Amanpour. “It’s not going to be easy, because there are strong positions on both sides. But there must be a form of national reconciliation.”
Najib himself, though, faces strong criticism of corruption in his own country. The coalition of which his party is a member has ruled the country for nearly 60 years, and rights groups have accused him of fraud in the last election.
“By and large the allegations are totally unfounded,” he protested. “For example, they allege that we brought in 40,000 people from Bangladesh to vote in the last election. And since the last election they’ve not been able to produce any evidence of that.”
Najib said that he had a “very positive record,” having “disbanded the Internal Security Act, which is detention without trial.”
He told Amanpour that he is trying to achieve his long-term goals and vision for the country, and in reaching stability, “you must make sure that the majority of the people are not marginalized.”
“We do cater as well, in a very inclusive way, for the small minorities,” he said. “We are not racist at all.”
The prime minister was in London for the World Islamic Economic Forum, the first time the gathering was hosted by a non-Muslim country.
It was a sign, he told Amanpour, that “the Western world has accepted and embraced Islamic finance.”
Sharia law forbids the use of standard interest rates; Islamic finance is in effect a parallel banking system.
“Islamic finance is based on sharing risk, and it’s more asset-based,” he said. “Therefore it’s due to be fairer and more equitable.”
“If we can increase the share of Islamic finance for the world,” he told Amanpour, “countries can benefit – and certainly Malaysia can benefit from that.”