As the first U.S. president to visit this Muslim-majority nation in nearly five decades, President Obama will talk trade and security issues with Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom the White House considers a political reformer in a country with a spotty human rights record.
But U.S. officials also hope to strengthen “people-to-people” ties, diplomatic speak for trying to spread goodwill and burnish the U.S. image.
Obama, who spent several years living in neighboring Indonesia as a boy, relied on his family history to perform those tasks Saturday after he was welcomed at a state banquet by King Abdul Halim of Kedah, accompanied by dancers dressed in brightly hued brocade.
Giving a formal toast, Obama recalled his late mother's fascination with batik, the cloth wraps and shirts traditionally dyed by hand, that are popular across Malaysia and Indonesia.
An anthropologist and teacher, Stanley Ann Dunham would come home from markets in Jakarta in the 1970s with her arms full of the intricately patterned fabrics, the president said.
"For my mother, batik wasn't about fashion," Obama said. "It was representative of the work and the livelihood of mothers and young women who had painstakingly crafted them. It was a window into the lives of others -- their cultures, and their traditions, and their hopes."
Dunham started micro-financing projects to help the artisans sell batik, according to a catalog written by the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, which exhibited Dunham's batik collection in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.
Lyndon B. Johnson was the last U.S. president to visit Malaysia. He came in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. wanted to bolster the country's resistance to the militant communism then sweeping much of Southeast Asia.
Obama aims to highlight Malaysia's religious diversity and democratic reforms. Roughly two-thirds of Malaysians are Muslim, but the country also has substantial populations of Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.
Critics noted that Obama's message downplayed Malaysia's political repression and curbs on free speech. The president has no plans to meet with Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who leads the political opposition. Anwar's supporters say the pro-democracy figure has been repeatedly jailed on dubious charges to keep him from running for office.
Obama's national security advisor, Susan Rice, is scheduled to meet with Anwar and other government opponents during the visit, while Obama holds a town hall forum with students, visits the national mosque and meets civic leaders.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said Obama had raised Ibrahim's case in private meetings with Malaysian leaders.
"We support deepening of democratic practices in Malaysia," Rhodes said. "And we've been concerned when we've seen any restrictions on political space or any effort to limit the activities of civil society."
Malaysia is among the 12 nations eyeing participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious free trade deal that undergirds Obama's promised reapportionment of U.S. strategic assets and interests toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Malaysia is also among the nations engaged in maritime disputes with China over resource-rich islands or shoals in the South China Sea, an issue that has come up at every stop on Obama's trip.
The president had hoped to arrive in Kuala Lumpur with a key piece of the complex trade deal, an agreement between Japan and the U.S. But negotiators failed to overcome differences about agricultural tariffs during Obama's earlier stop in Tokyo.
Obama is due to fly to the Philippines on Monday for the last leg of the weeklong trip. U.S. officials hope he will be able to announce a deal with Manila for American troops and warships to use Philippine military bases, but the accord was not complete Saturday, Rhodes said.
"We have been negotiating this very actively with the Philippines," Rhodes said. "We believe that there would be significant benefit from deepening our security cooperation in this manner .... So we are focused on seeking to finalize that agreement."
Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times