KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The last time a top U.S. official visited this Southeast Asian nation was in 1998, when Vice President Al Gore rebuked its leaders for suppressing freedom and embraced "reformasi," the rallying cry of a student-led protest movement.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama visited Malaysia to underscore how much has changed in the past 16 years -- not least in the country's attitude toward the United States, which has evolved from deep suspicion, verging on contempt, to a cautious desire for cooperation.
Citing negotiations for a trans-Pacific trade accord, a formal agreement to cooperate in halting the spread of nuclear parts, and the desperate search for the missing Malaysian jetliner, Mr. Obama said, "we're working more closely together than ever before."
White House officials liken Malaysia to a "swing state" among Southeast Asian nations, falling somewhere between the free-wheeling democracy of the Philippines and the one-party authoritarianism of Laos.
Encouraging Malaysia's evolution into a more pluralistic society, officials said, could make it a model for the rest of the region.
In some ways, though, Malaysia remains the same work in progress it was in 1998, blessed with an industrious, multiethnic population but an often corrupt political system, ruled by an entrenched Malay elite that does not hesitate to deal with its detractors through what the opposition considers trumped-up charges.
Speaking at a news conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak, Mr. Obama treaded politely into these issues. He said he pressed Mr. Najib during their meeting about Malaysia's civil liberties and human rights record, which has come under fresh scrutiny in recent weeks because of the legal travails of an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
"The prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia has still got some work to do on these issues, just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do," Mr. Obama said.
But Mr. Obama did not meet Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister whose January 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges was thrown out by an appeals court last month, putting his political comeback in jeopardy. Mr. Anwar's first trial in 1999, which ended in a conviction and six years in jail, was widely condemned as politically motivated.
As a consolation prize, Mr. Anwar will get a meeting with the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, today. Some human rights activists said that was not enough.
"Anwar, to Malaysia, is almost as important a figure as Aung San Suu Kyi is in Burma," said Andrew Khoo, a human rights lawyer here, referring to the country also known as Myanmar. "If President Obama took the time to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, it is a little odd that he wouldn't meet with Anwar."
Mr. Obama, however, was keen to keep the spotlight on Malaysia's future. He presided over a town-hall-style meeting with young people from around Southeast Asia, where he shared stories about his own political development and offered advice on how countries emerging from repression, like Myanmar, should deal with ethnic and religious strife.
As societies open up, Mr. Obama said, these conflicts often bubble to the surface. He cited both the legacy of ethnic strife in Malaysia, with its Muslim majority and Chinese and Indian minorities, and Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya minority faces persecution.
"Malaysia won't succeed if non-Muslims don't have opportunity," he said.
Mr. Obama also said the Malaysian government is working "tirelessly" to investigate the disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370 and has been "fully forthcoming" with U.S. officials and "eager" for help.
The search widened Sunday after an unmanned submarine failed to find any wreckage.
The Bluefin-21 submersible was set to scour beyond a circle that was centered on signals detected earlier this month, Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Centre said in a statement. The subsea search of the southern Indian Ocean has so far yielded no leads, JACC said.
Bloomberg News contributed.