Of spies and spooks


Spying is for real and it should be everybody’s concern.

IN 1989, seven people were detained under the ISA for spying. Their detention was made known by the Malaysian Govern-ment only a year later.

No other details but the announcement came amid reports of alleged encroachment by Singapore military personnel into Johor.

Tun Ghafar Baba, who was then deputy prime minister, said the Government was aware of the encroachment incident and was resolving the matter in a friendly manner.

In his book Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007, lecturer Chandran Jeshurun writes that then Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia SR Nathan had his tenure cut short to a little more than two years (April 1988-July 1990).

His departure, according to the book, raised all sorts of questions.

Jeshurun wrote that it was during Nathan’s tenure that an espionage case, in which Singapore was believed to have been involved, had surfaced.

Jeshurun wrote that then Deputy Home Minister Datuk Megat Junid Megat Ayob said eight individuals were detained for seeking secret national information for a foreign country. No country was named. One detainee was later released.

Fast forward and Malaysia is again in the news. Now, there are reports that the Australian High Commission office in Malaysia was used as part of a US-led global spying network.

Top-secret documents leaked by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that there were 90 electronic surveillance facilities worldwide, including in the US embassies in Jakarta, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Yangon.

No such facilities were detected in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Japan, which are the United States’ closest allies.

It was no surprise then that Australia said it would not comment on intelligence matters while the United States said surveillance activities carried out was to identify potential leads on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

In this high-tech era, spying is done mainly via electronic means and remote sensing by spy satellites and other types of eyes in the sky.

They are hardly any cloak-and-dagger spies operating in the dark of the night who you can tail and catch.

Wisma Putra’s initial reaction has been described by an observer as having no intellectual punch at all. The press release on the protest note used very polite language.

“If you have a good command of the English language, you can be polite and cutting at the same time,” said the observer.

Another noted that the Prime Minister’s response was equally lame. Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has questioned the extent of the clandestine ops carried out on the Malaysian Government.

But what the Prime Minister should have focused on is whether telephone conversations of leaders have been tapped.

That kind of spying is certainly objectionable because it means the spies have no respect even for leaders of other countries who are so friendly to them.

It is like stabbing us in the back.

Take the case of Brazil and Germany. They formally presented a resolution to the UN General Assembly urging all countries to extend internationally guaranteed rights to privacy to the Internet and other electronic communications.

The draft resolution follows reports of United States eavesdropping on foreign leaders, including Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington after classified documents leaked by Snowden showed that the National Security Agency hacked the computer network of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras and scooped up data on emails and telephone calls flowing through the country.

Merkel and other European leaders expressed anger after reports that the NSA allegedly monitored Merkel’s cell phone and swept up millions of French telephone records.

As usual, US officials declined to comment on the draft resolution.

Malaysian Opposition MPs have last week called on the Government to suspend the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, a proposed free trade pact involving the Americans.

So far, the Government has not responded and a trade officer said it was the Prime Minister’s call.

Malaysia must know more and understand the technologies used by spies. We must also have the technologies that can help us prevent spying, especially in this time of digital communications and information storage.

It is not just about taking care of passwords or being wary when updating Facebook.

It is time for Malaysia to possess technological capabilities to scramble electronic communications or blind any electronic eye or ear that may be pointed at us.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek rightly said the Goverment should not accept at face value the clarification by the US ambassador.

Spying is for real and it should be everybody’s concern.

> The writer can be reached at merga@thestar.com.my.

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