Do we need a Malaysian CIA?

Opinion  |  Nathaniel Tan
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | One of the more interesting things to come under public scrutiny after GE 14 was the existence of the Malaysian External Intelligence Operation (MEIO), which appears to be the Malaysian version of the America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Recently, we learned that the MEIO now has a new boss, which presumably means the agency is alive and well.

We are fresh off Mission Impossible fever and our understanding of intelligence agencies is likely more informed by popular media than anything else.

When it comes to actual facts, one of the most recent surveys of Malaysia’s intelligence agencies appears to have been done by Cilisos. It identifies four agencies in Malaysia that appear to be involved with foreign intelligence - the MEIO, the Special Branch of PDRM, the Royal Intelligence Corps of the military, and the Chief Government Security Office which is also under the Prime Minister’s Department.

It appears not much is known about these agencies and what they do.

The MEIO wanted to be such a secret that they even assumed what was in essence a false public identity - the “Research Division” of the Prime Minister’s Department.

It’s former director-general, Hasanah Abdul Hamid courted controversy when it was discovered that she had written a letter to the boss of the CIA, Gina Haspel, requesting support should the results of GE14 be a close call.

Another recent controversy involving foreign elements were the comments made by the president of the International Republican Institute (IRI), Daniel Twining in July, essentially boasting (in a roundabout way) of having played a significant role in bringing about the results of GE14.

Let’s take a deeper look into these cases, along with how we are handling relations with countries like China and Singapore, and think about how a country like Malaysia should play the intelligence/counter-intelligence game.

Is IRI foreign meddling?

The IRI and Haspel controversies, being revealed around the same time, courted a number of comparisons, with each side accusing the other of the bigger betrayal and treason.

Certainly, if I were Twining, I would have been much more careful in dispensing self-aggrandising comments that compromise the neutrality of his organisation.

That said, I hesitate to consider the IRI case to be serious foreign meddling.

Organisations like the IRI are certainly no angels. I do believe it is indeed their raison d’etre to network and build relationships with any and all politicians of note in a given country - getting their fingers in every pie they can I suppose.

Linked to the Republican party in America, the IRI has a sister organisation called the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is linked to the Democratic Party.

Organisations like these obviously seek to pursue their own interests in the countries they operate in, often under the rubric of very vague, general terms such as ‘promoting democracy’, ‘capacity building’ and so on.

My impression however, is that they are not particularly malicious or insidious. I could be wrong, but while they obviously try to build networks and peddle influence, these aren’t the types of people who are involved in installing puppet regimes or Manchurian candidates - though some of course may also work for the CIA, who has done exactly that kind of thing.

Sorbet diplomacy

I think in my past life as a political worker, I may have attended one of these IRI trainings before, many years ago.

I don’t remember much about it, except that it was led by someone who had worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign in California, if memory serves.

It was a pretty harmless workshop, and fairly basic as I recall. I remember us going through one of those 4 quadrant diagrams on a mahjong paper (a Swot analysis perhaps). Not exactly cutting edge, revolutionary stuff.

To a degree, I had a small impression that these types of workshops were also a way to feed (in this case, American) political operatives by giving them international work - a form of patronage not unfamiliar to us here in Malaysia.

Not long after GE14, I remember seeing pictures of foreign embassies hosting various Harapan and Harapan-aligned luminaries at very fancy dinners (I imagine Rafizi Ramli’s PKR campaign will be to appeal to those who feel left out from such luxury) - which I suppose were activities held in the same vein: foreign operatives trying to get feet in the door and fingers in the pie.

Perhaps it is naive, but I don’t think these kinds of activities will result in a lot of undue influence. Chocolate mousse and strawberry sorbets will only get one so far I suppose.

Treasonous letter

Hasanah seems to give off an air that says less ‘Judi Dench’ and more ‘bomoh’.

I think the Haspel letter was a very bad thing to do on behalf of Hasanah and the MEIO. It was an action in bad faith, and almost certainly an improper abuse of what should be a non-partisan position.

In a country like America, which is much more sensitive to these things, it would have courted incredible scandal.

A police investigation into Hasanah’s actions are thus likely warranted.

If we consider the nett effect of the action however, I doubt that such a letter could have possibly had any significant effect on our domestic politics.

Honestly, if I were the director of the CIA, I’d be liable to laugh at such a request.

Not that the CIA is above such meddling; they have proven time and again that they are perfectly willing to meddle in a highly unethical manner in the domestic politics of countries when they feel enough of their interests is at stake.

That said, it was probably delusion-level hubris to think that the CIA could be so invested in the previous government that they would consider intervening on a scale big enough to warrant serious concern.

China looming large

So, if neither of these controversies were likely to have limited actual impact on us, what cases are likely to have a bigger impact?

The first country that comes to mind is China.

In saying so, I think we should all be conscious not to fall into the media-fuelled trap of thinking West is good and East is bad.

That said, I think China is the superpower that has taken a much more active, recent interest in countries like ours.

To a degree probably unparalleled in recent times, China is actively looking to expand its influence overseas and more aggressively establish footholds on foreign soil - the Belt and Road Initiative being a primary focus of this strategy.

In executing this vision, China is not relying on little workshops conducted at the headquarters of our local political parties or on dinner soirees.

Instead, it is focusing on billions of ringgit worth of investment.

The RM55 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is China’s biggest project in Malaysia, which was to be funded by a loan from a Chinese bank.

It may or may not be an exaggeration to call projects like these a form of new economic imperialism, but what we do know was that there was enough fishy about the deal for our new prime minister to go so far as to outright cancel the project, right in Beijing’s face.

Cyberwarfare

This decision will be debated at length no doubt, as well it should, though not here.

Suffice to say, I suppose many are worried that there will be a backlash from China.

Recent reports highlight growing cybersecurity threats that might be headed our way from China.

I believe these to be serious causes for concern.

In America, the Robert Mueller’s grip on Donald Trump in the Russia collusion case is tightening, and cyberwarfare has been a huge part of this very significant case.

I remember thinking not long after Gmail started getting really popular, that access to all the information that is stored on Google’s servers alone is probably enough to be one of the biggest manipulators of global power dynamics at the highest level.

Should China now feel that they have some sort of justification or interest in meddling in Malaysian affairs, subtle cyber espionage may easily be their first weapon of choice, and the resources they could bring to bear on such an operation would surely be staggering.

Malaysia does not have a particularly strong reputation for cybersecurity or being tech savvy in general, so this is something we should definitely keep our eye on.

Singapore’s game

The other country with whom we appear to be renegotiating megaprojects is of course Singapore, notably for the RM20 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) project.

I wrote recently about the very negative impressions the Singaporean press has been cultivating towards Malaysia’s new government, likely fueled by a fear of Singapore’s authoritarian PAP meeting the same fate as BN.

The HSR and ECRL may feature a similar theme: foreign governments taking advantage of a weak, kleptocrat leader who had already robbed his country dry, and was in need of more money.

That need effectively compromised the sovereignty of our country, and led to y number of unfavourable deals.

Speaking of Singapore, China and foreign intelligence, we note the case where Singapore once threw a professor out of the country on suspicion of being a Chinese agent.

This case was listed on a Wikipedia page that documents dozens of instances of suspected Chinese intelligence activity abroad.

With quite a bit of stake here in Malaysia, and with so many vulnerable individuals to prey on (in a culture already quite used to corruption), one must wonder how active the Chinese intelligence might already be in Malaysia.

Intelligence needs

This brings us back to the question of what Malaysia’s intelligence needs are.

Given the nature of international politics in this day and age, I suppose it would not be logical for the Malaysian government to not have any intelligence agency whatsoever.

That said, I imagine we would have a long way to go before we could produce the type of agency that both meets international professional standards and abides by sound ethical principles.

The latter is a challenge for any country, what more a country with a reputation like ours for corruption and abuse of government power.

First and foremost, any intelligence agency must be professional, and clearly be forbidden to be used to further domestic political interests of the government of the day. This is the most obvious, wasteful abuse of power and resources.

Secondly, we must not give any such agency the power or authority to conduct unnecessary surveillance on Malaysians or perpetrate unnecessary breaches of privacy - that is another road we must assiduously avoid going down.

Thirdly, it is high time we develop a strong, world standard cybersecurity arm - staffed by people who actually know what they’re doing.

If we can abide by these principles to start with, perhaps we can lay a good foundation for an agency that can at the very least protect Malaysia from foreign espionage and the exertion of undue influence, as well as ensure that our top officials operate on the basis of sound data and intelligence.


NATHANIEL TAN can recommend a patriotic Malaysian cybersecurity expert - a Q to his James Bond.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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