Dennis Ignatius: Military intelligence – much ado about nothing

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Raising doubts about opposition links with foreign groups with no evidence of actual or specific wrongdoing.

Former director-general of military intelligence Mohd Salleh Ismail recently made headlines when he revealed that Malaysia’s military intelligence had been monitoring opposition politicians and their connections with foreign governments and groups. Though he did not say so directly, he appeared to suggest that some of these connections were inconsistent with national security.

A closer reading of his remarks, however, left me puzzled. Salleh appears to have said just enough to smear the reputation of opposition politicians without actually offering any specific evidence of collusion or wrongdoing. By his own admission, (based on media reports), his organization had no evidence that the opposition directly received any funding from abroad and neither did they know what was discussed during the alleged meetings that took place. In other words, there was no evidence of actual or specific wrongdoing. So, what, pray tell, is this all about?

He also appeared to have made much about the moral support that opposition politicians had received from abroad. Moral support? Really? Since when has that been a crime? It is no secret that democratic parties offer moral support to other democratic groups in the same manner that Islamic parties tend to offer moral support to each other. Something is terribly wrong if such moral support is considered a threat to national security; it makes me wonder if military intelligence is perhaps an oxymoron.

Beyond that, Salleh’s revelations raise a number of important issues. First, why was military intelligence spying on our politicians who travel abroad? Was monitoring opposition politicians part of their mandate? Were the armed forces roped in by UMNO-BN to monitor and undermine the opposition? Is this still going on? If what he says is true, then we have to conclude that the impartiality of our armed forces has been compromised.

The jaundiced nature of the allegations against opposition politicians also becomes quickly evident when you consider more recent events about foreign involvement in our internal affairs. Former prime minister Najib Tun Razak, for example, openly claimed that the Saudi government channelled RM3.2 billion into his account for political purposes. Was military intelligence monitoring that? Did they see that as a security threat or are they only concerned when it involves the opposition?

Did they go public on their concerns when the MCA decided to send its members to attend training courses at the Communist Party of China’s Executive Leadership Academy in Shanghai? Were they worried when the former Chinese ambassador went around the country encouraging Malaysian Chinese voters to support Barisan Nasional in the run-up to GE14? And what about the blatant attempt by the MCA to ride on President Xi Jinping’s popularity by putting up huge election posters of the MCA president standing beside the Chinese president?

And then there was the infamous case of the head of the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization writing to the head of the CIA, pleading for US support for the Najib administration just days before the election. I don’t recall anyone in military intelligence, serving or retired, going public with their concerns over that.

It makes you wonder what Salleh’s motives were when he suddenly raised doubts about opposition links with foreign groups. Patriot president General (Rtd) Arshad Raji is right to demand a full explanation from Salleh.

Instead of wasting time chasing shadows, the national interests would better be served if military intelligence focused their attention on the job they were created to do – gathering intelligence on real security threats to Malaysia. Perhaps if they are more focused, we might be better able to avoid armed incursions like the one we experienced in 2013 in Lahad Datu.