Foreign influence and covert activities within Malaysian politics and society

Murray Hunter

Most will remember the dramatic assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Um’s half-brother Kim Jong-Nam at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport back in 2017. The assassination was just like something out of a James Bond or Mission Impossible script. It’s very rare Malaysians are made aware of clandestine intelligence operations going on in Malaysia.

Malaysia, just as in the rest of ASEAN are targets for foreign soft power and intelligence operations. These activities are undertaken by agents of various countries, focused upon collecting intelligence, seeking political influence, assisting their nationals’ commercial activities, and disseminating information and propaganda.

These activities centre around the nation’s corridors of power, the defence establishment, the commercial arena, academic circles, and the public at large.

The objectives of undertaking intelligence, and utilizing various forms of soft power include;

· Influencing Malaysia’s defence and foreign policies,

· Undertaking political, economic, and commercial information gathering,

· Gaining commercial advantages, and furthering commercial interests,

· Influencing Malaysian citizens both culturally, and religiously, and

· Observing their own diaspora.

Clandestine operations, as was seen with the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam do occur, but the public rarely becomes aware.

Just as the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization (MEIO) has more than 1,000 operatives overseas, foreign agencies have their own operatives, where many are housed at foreign embassy complexes. In addition, there are sponsored or paid operatives, who operate freelance within Malaysia, usually on an ad hoc basis. Some of these foreign agents are clearly identifiable, and here on an official basis, while others can be fairly easily spotted and identified.

The rest of this article looks at some of the major examples of influence and operations within Malaysia.

The United States

The International Republican Institute (IRI) President Daniel Twining claimed the US played a role in the victory over UMNO in 2018, a political party that held power for 61 years.

The United States has long been involved in attempting to influence politics and society within Malaysia. The US has a large intelligence capability housed within its embassy in Jalan Ampang. There are also a number of unofficial satellite offices around the country.

The US embassy in Bangkok has been recently accused of meddling in the affairs of Thai politics through its support for Move Forward, which won the popular vote in the May general election. From Twining’s omission, it can be assumed similar operations occur in Malaysia.

Most US funding into Malaysia comes through USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and its affiliates.

The US long considered Malaysia a strategic partner in the fight against communist expansion during the Cold War. However, over the last decade Malaysia has sought to improve bilateral relations with Beijing, abandoning its Cold War stance. This has concerned the US State Department, in its pivot to Asia.

During the lead up to the 2018 general election, the NED directly and indirectly funded a number of pro-democracy, human rights, anti-corruption NGOs, and liberal leaning news portals. In 2022, the NED through INVOKE Taiwan, funded the expansion of Rafizi Ramli’s election analytics firm INVOKE. This was the primary reason the MACC raided the INVOKE offices in 2022.

In a 2022 NED country report, the organization had directly spend USD 1.6 million in operations in Malaysia. The NED had financed local academics and journalists. Through affiliates like the Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), a number of local think tanks have been financed.