By M Santhananaban
In a rather perverse sense, perhaps the ‘best’ and most successful saboteurs, sharks, spies and swindlers are those who are never known, suspected, investigated, caught, prosecuted or convicted.
Better still, because they were so professional and ‘perfect’ and had a high profile in their public service careers, they will never be found out, identified or brought to account.
Highly successful undetected spies or saboteurs holding high positions of trust with access to the highest levels and authority could, in the normal course, easily derive benefits from their own government or a foreign entity or government.
Smooth and superbly successful operators of this sort would be a rarity, but the possible existence of such adept but despicable, traitorous characters cannot be ruled out entirely. Their whole aim is to obtain a purely private or anti-national advantage at the expense of their own country.
If it was an overly ambitious or egocentric prime minister who had been taken for a ride that cost the nation dearly, those spies, saboteurs, silent functionaries or swindlers would not feel particularly insecure or threatened.
Knowing that prime minister’s character well, they would have heard the prime minister confide that an admission of an egregious blunder that had cost the country’s exchequer billions of ringgit would amount to ‘political suicide’.
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Insights into humongous losses of public funds, failed major projects and other risky ‘pet projects’ of powerful leaders are often hidden from public disclosure by threats of punishment under rigorously enforced and severe official secrets laws.
To cast aspersions on a highly placed government official is a highly risky business and often a non-starter because that person would have the influence, power and authority to crush and obliterate any pesky upstart harbouring dutiful notions of loyalty and patriotism.
The usual method for an authoritarian leader to discredit a serious rival or opponent may be to suggest vaguely that the rival is a suspected stooge or a tool of a foreign government.
That sly, vague hint does not have to be made by the actual leader. What normally happens is the goons in the country’s espionage and counter-espionage service feed or plant such disinformation through various channels, including social media.
That disinformation clothed or packaged as a secret is spread by word of mouth and acquires the status of truth or half-truth and would then generate its own dynamic. That is enough to destroy or hurt the credibility of a ruling leader’s opponent.
Can these unsavoury things happen or are they the exclusive preserve of the nebulous ‘deep state’ in a country? Or are they just rare, abnormal occurrences?
Loyalists of powerful leaders are often perceived as squeaky clean and of strong character, with their secure and respected place in the shadow or the inner circle of the country’s national leader. Mainstream media, over which the state has some control through annual licensing requirements, can create this helpfully favourable impression of officialdom.
No spy scandal since July 1981
In the second week of July 1981, three members of a foreign diplomatic mission in Kuala Lumpur were expelled. An official of the Prime Minister’s Department, Siddiq Mohamed Ghouse, who was suspected of having had some association with them, was arrested.
After that we became, it would seem, a ‘perfect’ nation. Yet, generally Malaysia has not had a known, exposed or sensational espionage scandal in some six decades of its ‘independent’ existence.
It would seem, partly on account of that clean record, that some of our top security personnel often qualify for recognition and rewards, including the higher decorations awarded by our rulers and governors.
An air of much quiet satisfaction and self-congratulation seems to prevail, that the country has not had a Mata Hari (the Dutch dancer and courtesan Margaretha Gertrude Zella who was convicted of being a spy) or a Kim Philby (a British intelligence officer who betrayed his nation as a double agent for the Soviet Union). Instead, some quarters in the country relish using the already deceased Malayan Communist Party leader Chin Peng as a punching bag.
Yet we cannot deny that we have had horrid, humongous financial scandals such as the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance Ltd scandal in the 1980s (involving RM4bn in two botched loan deals) and the more recent 1MDB scandal, which cost the nation tens of billions of ringgit.
Other classic colossal failures have also haunted us. Think of the well-publicised ones such as Perwaja Steel, the Port Klang free trade zone scandal, the debt-ridden hajj pilgrims board businesses, and Felda, which organises smallholders’ growing cash crops.
All the while, well-observed taboos about speaking up on failed or long-delayed ventures with huge cost overruns have deterred many woud-be whistleblowers.
Not criminal, not correct, but unfair
Those issues relating to poor policy decisions do not seem to concern our regulatory and security authorities, although they erode the overall wellbeing of the nation.
Fraud, grand larceny and massive tax evasion involving billions of ringgit would naturally harm the nation.
These white-collar irregularities, actively or passively sanctioned, may be classified as administrative, banking, business or commercial fraud. They can sometimes happen with the naive acquiescence or participation of top leaders – both political and bureaucratic – or technocrats, as well as well-meaning but slumbering senior officials.
There is no known antidote for such lapses because they go beyond and transcend ordinary acts of corruption. They operate in concealed, highly controlled and inaccessible environments.
Only the supreme elite of the political, bureaucratic, business and high finance worlds would be privy to what goes on in these remote regions of power play.
The failure can be couched in such a way that it escapes the scrutiny of the nation’s top auditor.
There is an elitist clubbable element to such wrongdoings. They can only happen in places that are beyond the reach of the ordinary people.
Imagine the first-class compartment of an airline. Whoever travels first class would have the money to pay for that facility and would enjoy sometimes seemingly chance meetings with those of such great influence, authority and power.
In Malaysia, exclusive private clubs provide excellent dining, golf, riding and other facilities. They are the haunt of some upper middle-class families.
Imagine a highly successful drug dealer wanting respectability and craving for the acquaintance of the most powerful and prestigious people. He sets up a social NGO called the RollBen Club. To be a member of this club, one must own at least one Rolls Royce and one Bentley.
Of course, no civil servant would be able to join this club. But politicians, business people and those with inherited wealth could become members. The attraction is that once a year there is a lucky draw, where the winner gets a cash gift of, say, RM3m.
There is a fascinating feature about such high net value individuals and their remote, largely confidential and concealed world, where key players of government, politics, business and finance interact. It can often involve both nationals of a particular country and foreigners.
Interestingly, when the British ruled Malaya, they too kept these kinds of clubs exclusive and excluded the locals. The locals were employed as guards, waiters, bellboys, caddies, clerks, gardeners, drivers and domestic servants. With their spotless white uniforms and hats, they looked after their “tuans” (sirs) and “mems” (madams) and kept them remote, respectable and sometimes revered.
However, those clubs were run on a modest scale with generators and starched linen but now the standards are loftier and more loud, with newfound or ill-gotten wealth.
Undoubtedly, corruption, high crime, abuse of power, tax evasion and treason would take place in a widespread and systemic way if government leaders and high officials are not above board, alert and alive to such transgressions.
A culture of investigative journalism with foolproof protection for whistleblowers and unusually upright citizens has to be encouraged.
Parliament must also set up a special subcommittee comprising MPs to periodically review outward flows of illicit funds and inbound immigration to Malaysia.
The central bank, the audit authorities, the National Registration Department, the Department of Statistics and forensic experts in finance and other specialists should be coopted to assist this parliamentary subcommittee.
For a start, the government should come up with an inventory of those territorial assets and huge land transactions involving non-Malaysians over the past five decades.
Monopolies, mining, timber concessions, oil and gas exploration and exploitation contracts and fishing rights granted to foreigners should be listed.
A white paper on all these arrangements, bilateral or multilateral agreements, joint stock or duopolies must be presented in Parliament.
While the country welcomes foreign investment, the government, the state authorities or its agencies cannot become complicit in surrendering or diluting the country’s sovereignty over its territorial possessions.
The country must ensure it has adequate safeguards to secure its core security and sovereign interests.
There should be no controversy or dispute about protecting Malaysia’s national interests
The nation’s inheritance should be protected.
M Santhananaban is a former ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. He has no political affiliations