Malaysia, Truly Asia – the center of intrigue
Strange as it may seem, Malaysia, a modest, rather dull middle-income country near the tail end of Southeast Asia, is a hotspot for international intrigue and foreign covert activity. Although new anti-espionage laws are due to be presented to the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s parliament, it’s difficult to see how legislation would stem any covert activities on Malaysian soil, given the country’s sizeable diasporas many of them dissidents from countries like Turkey and other more deeply Islamic societies.
The plotters of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York held early meetings in Kuala Lumpur before the horrific events of September 2001 that kicked off the misguided global war on terror. In 2017, Kim Jong-Nam, the brother of North Korean dictator Kim ong-un, was assassinated by outsourced assailants, using a nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). Fadi Muhammad al-Batsch, a Palestinian engineer, academic and a member of Hamas, the radical Islamist terror group seeking to liberate Palestine from Israeli rule was assassinated gangland style outside a mosque in 2018 for unknown reasons.
Although it is Singapore, across the Singapore Strait, that has a decades-old reputation for espionage and skulduggery where international spies gather and to snoop and skulk, it is Malaysia where the action is. It has been going on for a long time as evidenced by the 1981 arrest of then-former deputy prime minister Mahathir Mohamed’s aide Siddiq Mohamed Ghouse, who was accused of spying for the KGB. Three officers from the Soviet embassy at the time were expelled on suspicion of being spies. The recent botched kidnapping attempt of a Palestinian by the Israeli Mossad, and the 2017 abductions, detentions and extraditions of three Turkish nationals by Turkey’s state security services, highlight that foreign security agencies are running covert operations through recruited locals and expatriates. There are volumes of espionage, intelligence activities, terrorism threats, criminal offenses, and influence and propaganda operations going on a continuous basis in Malaysia.
Terrorism expert Dr Mohd Nizam Aslam says Malaysia’s policy of openly supporting the Palestinian cause, and the Rohingya and Mindanao Muslim communities, may be contributing to the propensity of covert activities currently going on within Malaysia, generating a number concerns that currently threaten sovereignty.
Covert intelligence operations from embassies
Perhaps the most long-standing covert activities originate from foreign embassies, which usually have teams representing their respective intelligence organizations collecting commercial, economic, defense, technology, and government data. At another level, these embassy-based operatives talk to and monitor Malaysian government officials, bureaucrats, politicians, and even other embassies. They also monitor the activities of people of interest within their own diaspora. Arguably the biggest operations are by the Singaporeans, who have mistrusted Malaysia going clear back to the earliest days of the 11960s when the Federation of Malaya kicked the island republic out of the federation and left it to go on its own. Singapore, cognizant of the threat, has maintained a military presence that includes more combat aircraft than Indonesia and Malaysia combined.
Today, there is more emphasis on commercial intelligence gathering, and liaison with government and agencies. Foreign embassies are also interested in criminal activities and money laundering undertaken by their own nationals in Malaysia. Here, they may collaborate with Malaysian authorities. The extent their intelligence activities can be broadly determined by the relative size of their diplomatic delegations.
The Turkish government undertakes covert surveillance and operations against critics of the government among the 500-odd member Turkish diaspora in Malaysia. A number of Turks critical of the Erdogan regime have been abducted by Turkish security agents and handed over to the Malaysian government to deport back to Turkey.
Influence and propaganda operations
Various foreign organizations spread propaganda to influence positive public perceptions of their countries through various soft power methods.
The Chinese United Front is an organization aimed at influencing Malaysian institutions and general society, funding many cultural organizations. It previously had a very strong relationship with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and still does with various Chinese business organizations and Chambers of Commerce. The United Front develops political relationships, and was a strong supporter of the former Najib Razak government. A number of Confucius Institutes in local universities and media organizations are supported by the United Front. China Global Television is a major tool of the United Front to promote the Chinese language, culture, and China’s view of the world.
The United States has the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) playing a similar role to the Chinese United Front. The NED provides grants and funding to particular projects, think tanks, and media. For example, the NED provides grants to organizations like the C4 Centre, Merdeka Centre, IDEAS, and KOMAS. The NED also provides scholarships to Malaysians ‘who have potential’ to travel and attend conferences and courses. The NED also funds political parties. Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute (IRI) revealed in 2018, that the NED has been funding the opposition since 2002.
Influence and propaganda activities are not restricted to China and the US. Saudi Arabia, through its embassy and foundations, directly funds a number of Islamic organizations and schools.
Southern Thailand Insurgency
Northern Malaysia, in particular Kelantan is used as a safe haven for the Thai Deep South insurgents. Many illegally hold dual nationalities and skip covertly across the porous Thai-Malaysian border and back to carry out terrorist attacks, or smuggling operations.
In an effort to combat the problem, clandestine Thai military and police units covertly cross into Malaysia to seek and find insurgents and their safe houses. If insurgents are found they are covertly taken back across to Thailand. It is believed some of these units operate together with rogue Malaysian police. These groups are reported to have travelled south to Kuala Lumpur to seek out and forcibly repatriate critics of the Thai government. This is why the PDRM supplied former Thai prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra last October.
Routes along the northern borders of Malaysia are used by organized crime syndicates to smuggle rice, cigarettes, wildlife, cooking oil, petrol, narcotics, and arms across the border. This is also the main crossing points for human trafficking, usually Rohingya. One of the holding camps was found at Wang Kelian in 2013. To date, no one on the Malaysian side has been brought to justice. However, sixty-three Thai police, miliary, and businessmen were convicted in a Thai court.
Malaysia basically relies upon the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM), Special Branch, and special military units to combat the above activities. This is supplemented by the Research Division within the Prime Minister’s Department. There is also evidence the Malaysian government is involved with foreign intelligence agencies on matters the government is sympathetic towards. During the Cold War days of the 1980s, the United States quietly trained combat troops in Malaysian jungles at the same time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad carried on a virulent anti-west campaign.
Originally published in Asia Sentinel 11th January 2023