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 to 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 conferences despite the ban.
The unit has even been involved in royal household politics, choosing sides in a power struggle within the Kelantan Royal household in 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.
The SB also operates in Thailand, especially the southern provinces. Another SB officer who also wished to remain anonymous told me the main focus in Thailand was to monitor Malaysian criminals and Islamic sects with Malaysian connections. The officer also said that if the SB wanted to capture their targets, they would abduct and take them straight across the border. These extrajudicial renditions are usually carried out on those wanted in Malaysia and using Thailand as a safe haven.
The Malaysian and Singaporean special branches have very close relationships. A Malaysian officer once told me the Singapore SB are “their brothers,” which allows Malaysian SB influence to flow down into Singapore. Time Magazine reported that the Malaysian special branch knew Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle Brown had planned to visit Singapore and had arranged for their Singapore counterparts to arrest her upon arrival.
The SB uses the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) which replaced the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) as a platform to arrest and interrogate people of interest. Although hundreds of suspected terrorists have been arrested and held under SOSMA, the Act has also been used to arrest and hold civil rights activists, including Maria Chin Abdullah of Bersih.
This is purely political. Other detainees under SOSMA/ISA have included politicians Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Jeffrey Kittingan, Karpal Singh, Michael Jayakumar, Lim Guan Eng, Mohamed Sabu, and Teresa Koh.
According to ex-detainees the special branch methods to interrogate suspects include stripping them, forcing them to stand for long periods of time in the cold, intimidation, threats against families, isolation in spotlights or darkness, sleep, food and water deprivation, ‘good cop, bad cop’ routines, and truth drugs. The aim is to make the detainees completely dependent on their captures to break them down mentally.
Detainees have no right to lawyers, no right to judicial review, or other legal recourse. The SB itself has no known system of checks and balances, which leads to abuse. The 2005 Dzaiddin Royal Commission into Police Reform found that many SB actions fall outside the law. Interrogations also contravene the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, a treaty which the Malaysian government has refused to ratify.
Mahathir as Prime Minister has always been close to the Special Branch. In 1987 he cracked down on his critics in what was known as Operation Lalang, rounding up more than 100 politicians, social activists, academics, students, artists, and people seen as being critical of the government. The prime minister’s hold over the unit is just as strong today with his staunch ally Abdul Hamid Bador, the newly appointed IGP. Mahathir in support of the SB was dismissive of Suhakam’s findings about the abduction of Pastor Koh.
This is in stark contrast to former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s experience. Suspicious of the SB is that it built its own security apparatus from the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization, known as ME10. Building ME10 up to more than 1,000 operatives, Najib bypassed the SB. The charges against the former Director-General of ME10 Hasanah Abdul Hamid for misappropriation of election funds can be seen as payback for the letter she wrote to the CIA before Najib lost the federal election last year.
Today, the SB has a budget of more than RM500 million, which doesn’t include the slush funds it has to run secret and sensitive operations. Over the last decade SB staff have more than doubled to over 10,000. This doesn’t include 10-15,000 informers that the SB is handling across the country. This represents about one SB operative to 1,500 citizens, a ratio not unlike the old East German secret police, the Stasi.
Rather than use sodomy to destroy an adversary of Mahathir, ironically the SB is now using misinformation dissemination, aka ‘deepfake’ to protect a Mahathir ally. Many more clandestine operations to handle the transition are certain to follow.
The SB is now in the hands of a person who has used it before to blackmail, silence, incarcerate, and detain his critics. If Malaysia aspires to be a true democracy, then the SB is totally out of control. Who is a subversive or terrorist is left for the SB to decide. Extra-judicial abductions are unconstitutional. Many detainees have been prisoners of conscience or prisoners for their religious beliefs.
Under Mahathir the SB is even more powerful now than it was under the last BN Government.