Malaysia’s Special Branch, a secretive division within the Royal Malaysian Police force (PDRM), has functioned as one of the country’s most covert units, or did until earlier this year, when the human rights NGO Suhakam accused it of being behind the disappearance of two social activists, Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh.
The new Director General of Police, Absul Hamid Bador, denies the accusation, claiming that the unit has no operational capabilities. Nonetheless, the accusation shines a light on a shadowy organization that had its beginnings as an intelligence unit established by the British after WWII to primarily gather human intelligence (HUMINT) on the communist insurgency throughout North Borneo and Malaya as well as spying to counter the growing Communist influence as well as watching the Singaporean trade union and political movements. A third important task was to undertake surveillance and infiltrate the Chinese triads operating in the towns throughout Malaya.
As a colonial creation, it has never been legitimized by act of Parliament, It has, no public charter, and reports neither to the National Parliament or the executive. It became an arm of the police organizational structure with a director who reported to the Director General of Police (IGP). The only indication of its mission and objectives are on the police website, stating that it is“responsible for collecting and processing security intelligence to preserve the law and order of the public and maintain Malaysia's peace and security.”
Today it conducts surveillance, intelligence gathering, and infiltrations that span all aspects of Malaysian society including religious organizations, mosques, churches, and temples, Chinese schools, universities, the state and federal civil services, government agencies, local government, trade unions, NGOs, media organizations, social activists, and even Royal households.
Special Branch attends many public gatherings, press conferences, and events where there are people of interest. Both opposition and government members of parliament are kept under surveillance. It has expanded from just utilising HUMINT gathering and now utilizes all the tools of modern electronic intelligence gathering, with sophisticated cyber abilities.
A former officer who wants to remain anonymous told Asia Sentinel writer that during the first Mahathir era in the 1990s, his responsibility was to film and photograph cabinet ministers and state chief ministers in compromising situations which could be utilized as a lever against them if necessary at some future point. The ex-officer went on to say that a number of guest rooms in hotels around Malaysia have been set up for this specific purpose, making it intriguing that recently Mohamed Azmin Ali, the former Selangor chief minister and current minister of economics, was allegedly surreptitiously filmed in a homosexual liaison by unknown actors.
Politicians from Sabah and Sarawak are of particular interest due the sensitivities about succession from the Federation. Just recently Parti Warisan Sabah, a member of the Pakatan Harapan government, announced publicly that they would ban SB officers from their press conferences. However, Abdul Hamid Bador, formerly the agency’s director, said it is the SB’s prerogative to send in their people to press conferencesdespite the ban.
The unit has even been involved in royal household politics, choosing sides in a power struggle within the Kelantan Royal householdin 2010 by reportedly ambushing the then-Sultan Ismail Petra on the road to prevent him from travelling to Singapore for medical treatment and restrained him in hospital.
The SB’s Political Division monitors the political climate and regularly undertakes its own polling. Its officers actually knew that the Najib government would most likely lose GE14 when that was by no means clear to political analysts. However, we will never know what role it played during the election and transition.
However the warning that Abdul Hamid Bador gave to Najib when he was dismissed as deputy director and mothballed within the Prime Ministers Department before the election may in retrospect be very telling. The Political Division conducts propaganda and misinformation campaigns.
During the first trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, the then director Mohamed Said Awang told the court the Special Branch had conducted ‘turning over operations’ to change the political views of targets. Wikileaks revealed correspondence between Australian and Singapore security agencies in which the Singapore agency told the Australian agency that the allegations against Anwar were true and result of a ‘honey trap’ set up.
Activities are not restricted to Malaysia. Officers are found in countries where Malaysians are studying including Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany, Ireland, the United States, and Egypt. SB officers monitor the activities of Malaysian students and also use the opportunity to groom and recruit potential informants, where those students on scholarships will be future civil servants. Officers usually work independently of Malaysian consular missions, although some officers may either work within the consulates or are the consul in charge of student affairs.
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