WikiLeaks' Asian Field Day

In Indonesia, the national police are discovered to be using a hard-line Islamic group as its hidden “attack dog.” In Singapore, octogenarian founder Lee Kuan Yew calls Islam a “venomous religion." In Malaysia, UMNO leaders are “willing to blacken Malaysia's reputation to ensure the end to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's political challenge.”

The latest flock of US diplomatic cables made available by the WikiLeaks Web site is setting off firecrackers all over Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. A total of 251,000 cables were released by Wikileaks from diplomatic missions across the world last week, this time with no names removed to hide the identities of the confidential sources used by US embassies. The cables can be found at www.wikileaks.org. Here is a small sample.

One of the most explosive quotes Indonesian State Intelligence Agency (BIN) official Yahya Asagaf, who said the National Police Chief, Sutanto, was providing funds to the thuggish Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI as it is known by its Indonesian acronym, which has specialized in harassing what they consider improperly dressed women, closing nightclubs and beating members of the Ahmadiyah offshoot of Islam.

“When we questioned Yahya's allegation that Sutanto funded FPI, Yahya said Sutanto found it useful to have FPI available to him as an ‘attack dog.’ When pressed further on the usefulness of FPI playing this role, noting that the police should be sufficiently capable of intimidation, Yahya characterized FPI as a useful tool that could spare the security forces from criticism for human rights violations, and he said funding FPI was a "tradition" of the Police and BIN. The principal BIN figure who provided funds to FPI was BIN Deputy Chief Said Ali As'at, Yahya claimed.) Yahya said the FPI had obtained a majority of its funds from the security forces, and, after mid-February, FPI faced a budget crunch.”

In Malaysia, a 2008 cable about the rise of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition as a viable opposition stated that “it appears the ruling party finds this situation intolerable. UMNO leaders, united behind but also in a sense using Prime Minister (PM) Abdullah, have made it clear that they are willing to blacken Malaysia's reputation to ensure the end to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's political challenge. The coming Parliamentary session in the latter half of August is the next likely setting for a showdown, and could precipitate another arrest of Anwar if he is deemed to be doing too well politically between now and then. Conversely, if the ruling party concludes it has him boxed in UMNO may be content to use short-term measures such as judicial restraining orders and the like to prevent him from addressing and attracting a national audience.”

Anwar was arrested shortly after that, in July 2008, on sodomy charges that are widely viewed as trumped up to thwart his political career.

“The ruling party wants to stay in power indefinitely, and that means Anwar and the multi-racial opposition front he is leading must fail,” the cable states. “ At least so far, there is scant evidence of a more thoughtful and forward-looking analysis within UMNO. In fact, the ruling party could find some common ground with the opposition if it were willing to countenance gradual development of a two-party system of checks and balances. Instead, the ruling party defines national security primarily as a matter of protecting UMNO's superiority and ensuring that "people power," or a level electoral playing field, cannot become the opposition's means of toppling the ruling party.

Another June 6, 2011 cable from Malaysia says economists believe Najib Tun Razak is sincere in his attempt to address economic problems through his New Economic Model, which was unveiled last year. “However, they question his ability to make major changes in the government's long-standing discriminatory Bumiputera preference policies which have discouraged domestic investment and new business formation and are driving the "brain drain" of young professional Malaysians frustrated with limited opportunities under this system. Economists here expect Najib's effort to establish a policy framework that will foster a more gradual move away from ethnic preferences to a merit-based economy, but believe that may be insufficient.

If PM Najib is unable to deliver on NEM reforms, they expect the opposition will seize the reform agenda as an issue for possible 2012 elections. Executing a robust NEM, however, will be even more difficult as the PM will undoubtedly face steady opposition from within his own political party (UMNO), particularly from members who fear their parliamentary seats may be lost if the current patronage system is dismantled.”

The octogenarian Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, is denying he called Islam a “venomous religion” after one of hundreds of cables had him describing Islam that way in a 2005 meeting with then- US Sen. Hillary Clinton.

“This is false,” the 87-year-old Lee, Singapore’s founding prime minister and elder statesman, said in a statement. He did, he said, “talk about extremist terrorists like the [Southeast Asian] Jemaah Islamiyah group, and the jihadist preachers who brainwashed them. They are implacable in wanting to put down all who do not agree with them,” he said.

In an October 16 2007 conversation with Ambassador Patricia Herbold, Lee said Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam should never have been allowed into the Association of Southeast Asian nations. “Expressing his scorn for Burma's leaders, MM Lee called them ‘dense’ and "stupid." After discussing China's influence over Burma, he suggested that Indonesian President Yudhoyono, as a former general, could potentially be an interlocutor with the regime. Turning to cross-Strait relations, MM Lee characterized President Chen Shui-bian as a "gambler" who was ready to "go for broke" on independence. He thought that Japan might be willing to speak out publicly to constrain Taiwan now that Yasuo Fukuda was prime minister. China's strategy for Southeast Asia was simple -- "come grow with me" because China's rise is inevitable. MM Lee urged the United States to pursue more Free Trade Agreements to give the region options besides China.

Another cable has Singapore journalists saying they are increasingly frustrated with government-imposed limits on their domestic reporting, with political leaders putting pressure on the Straits Times staff to ensure that the paper's domestic coverage follows the government line. Reporters say they are eager to produce more investigative and critical reporting, but they are stifled by editors who have been groomed to toe the line. Others told US diplomats they are so frustrated that they are considering leaving the country.

“Reporters have to be careful in their coverage of local news, as Singapore's leaders will likely come down hard on anyone who reports negative stories about the government or its leadership, Chua Chin Hon (strictly protect), the new Straits Times U.S. Bureau Chief (former China Bureau Chief) told Poloff (Political officer)….Chua lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line. Chua said that unless one of the editors is a "Trojan Horse," someone that for years has successfully concealed any non pro-government leanings, none of them has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government.”

The government “exerts significant pressure on ST editors to ensure that published articles follow the government's line, Chua said. In the past, the editors had to contend only with the opinions of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) and former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister). However, a younger generation of government ministers is now vying for future leadership positions and one way for them to burnish their credentials with the old guard is to show they can be tough with the media, Chua said.

“As a result, several current ministers and second ministers (Chua did not say which ones) routinely call ST editors to ensure that media coverage of an issue comes out the way they want it. While Chua admitted that he knew of no editors who had been fired or otherwise punished for printing articles critical of the government, he said that is because all of the them have been vetted to ensure their pro-government leanings.”

“Chua admitted that domestically focused ST articles often read like Public Service Announcements. Chua noted that how the government intends to push a certain policy is often foreshadowed by extensive media coverage (published before the official policy announcements). As an example, Chua pointed to the government's recent decision to assist retirees who lost investments in "mini-bonds" following the collapse of Lehman Brothers (ref A). That decision followed a spate of media coverage casting the retirees, plight in sympathetic terms.”

Another cable contains serious concerns about ethnic Malays and their mistrust of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, established in 1968. The government, according to the cable, “does not even have a good understanding of ethnic Malays in the country, let alone how and why some ethnic Malay Singaporeans have turned to religious extremism. The cable described ‘growing discontentment among Malay youth that could provide fertile ground for the recruitment of extremists in the future.”

Of 250 Malay youth aged 13-28, “240 expressed a strong dissatisfaction with life in Singapore and told (the researcher) they would emigrate if they could. Many Malays feel marginalized in Singapore, and extremist attitudes appear to be intensifying. (The researcher) noted with alarm that ethnic Malays are increasingly involved in criminal activities that one does not usually associate with Muslims, such as loan sharking. Citing Singapore Police Force (SPF) sources, (the researcher told political officer that 19 out of 54 syndicate organizations found to be involved in loan sharking over the last two years were Malay. While he admitted he has no proof, (he) believes the Malays’ involvement in loan sharking could be an indicator of a fund-raising attempt by extremists, most likely those living outside of Singapore, he said.

In Indonesia, one cable has presidential Senior Advisor T.B. Silalahi telling US diplomats that officials “had sufficient evidence of the corruption of former First Gentleman Taufik Kiemas (the husband of then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri to warrant Taufik's arrest. However, T.B. said that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had personally instructed Hendarman not to pursue a case against Taufik. “

In another discussion of campaign finance, the source “also claimed that Aburizal Bakrie's contributions to Yudhoyono's presidential campaign totaled 200 billion Rupiah (approximately 20 million USD). (Comment: We believe the 200 billion figure is credible.)