Exposed secret letter sent by then premier's office to US spy agency painted soon-to-be election winner Mahathir Mohamad as a threat to US interests
Malaysia’s previous Najib Razak-led government appealed to the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seeking American support to form his country’s next government ahead of a closely fought election on May 9, according to a recent expose published by local news portal Malaysiakini.
Five days before the historic general election, an intelligence unit in the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Department penned an official letter to then-CIA director-designate Gina Haspel acknowledging the competitiveness of the contest, while noting that Najib was expected to “win the election adequately to form the next government.”
Najib’s long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was roundly defeated at the May 9 polls after garnering just over one-third of the national vote. Pakatan Harapan, Malaysia’s former opposition coalition, now leads the federal government under the premiership of Mahathir Mohamad, who was previously prime minister from 1981 to 2003.
US-Malaysia relations had improved significantly during Najib’s tenure, but bilateral ties notably cooled in 2015 when the premier became implicated in a massive corruption scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state development fund that launched in 2009 with Najib as its advisory board chairman.
Dealings at the fund, now considered among the world’s largest ever embezzlement schemes, have been the subject of a global corruption probe involving investigators from at least six countries including Singapore, Switzerland and the United States. Malaysia’s former first family is widely cited as the scheme’s major beneficiary.
Despite being investigated by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) for his role in the scam, Najib controversially visited the White House last September in an attempt to boost ties with US President Donald Trump. Investigators believe as much as US$4.5 billion was pilfered from the fund between 2009 to 2014. Najib maintains his innocence and has staunchly denied any wrongdoing.
The letter to the CIA director alleged that the now 93-year-old Mahathir had “joined the opposition for his own self-interest” and that he was “not a reformer that could enhance Malaysia’s national interest.” In the past, Mahathir has been “anti-West, anti-Semite, autocratic, silenced dissent through force, totally disregarded human rights and the rule of law,” the exposed secret letter said.
“Unlike Mahathir, Najib is known to be a strong US ally and would continue to support [a] US presence in the region,” according to the letter, which heaped praise on the “sound and progressive foreign policies” undertaken during Najib’s nine-year tenure, which the letter said sought to promote peace and stability in the region.
“Without Najib in charge of the country,” the letter said, “the US stands to lose a reliable partner in Southeast Asia, given that the Philippines have broken away from Washington, Singapore and Brunei being too small to make an impact and Thailand as well as Indonesia immersed in their own domestic problems.”
“Meanwhile, the Indo-China countries, except for Vietnam, are too inclined towards China,” the letter said.
Following accusations of corruption stemming from 1MDB, Najib deepened economic and security ties with Beijing. Critics widely accuse him of entangling Malaysia in costly infrastructure projects that could potentially undermine national sovereignty.
Najib’s government, according to the letter, welcomed America’s presence in the region, especially the South China Sea, to hedge against China’s maritime assertiveness. Malaysia, a claimant to territorial disputes in the contested maritime area, had largely soft-pedaled its claims to avoid confrontation with Beijing during Najib’s tenure.
In 2016, Malaysia took part in the largest ever naval drills between China and a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) regional grouping. A state visit to Beijing saw Najib’s government clinch US$34 billion worth of deals, including Malaysia’s first significant defense deal with China, an agreement to buy four Chinese naval vessels.
Since the publication of the three-page letter by Malaysiakini, Najib has denied having given instructions to write it and also claimed he had no knowledge of the document. He said that agencies related to intelligence matters have the autonomy to perform their duties for reasons they think would benefit them, according to Malaysiakini.
Malaysiakini has claimed that “well-placed sources” linked to the Harapan government have confirmed the authenticity of the letter. (Asia Times could not independently confirm its authenticity in time for publication.) Najib, who some now accuse of treason, claimed the letter appeared to be written “with the best of intention” in order to “preserve the stability of the government after the election in the event of a narrow win.”
It is unclear whether the letter was ever sent to the CIA or if the American intelligence agency ever issued a response. The US State Department issued a statement following the May 9 election congratulating “the people of Malaysia” for their participation and calling for the results to be implemented in accordance with the federal constitution.
Malaysiakini launched in 1999 as country’s first independent news portal and is today regarded as one of Asia’s most influential news sites. Despite attempts to levy criminal charges against the portal’s founders over its critical coverage of 1MDB, ex-premier Najib recently sat for an extensive interview with the portal after his electoral defeat.
Najib was arrested and charged earlier this month with abuse of power and criminal breach of trust for dealings at SRC International, a former 1MDB unit. He has since been released on bail but still faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence if convicted when his case goes to trial in February. He has been barred from foreign travel since Mahathir took office.
Veteran opposition parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang has demanded the former premier explain the letter to parliament and said that descriptions of Mahathir as being “anti-West” should have never been sent “by any self-respecting government or official.” Mahathir was often postured in opposition to the West during his earlier 22-year tenure.
Though he initially reached out to the George W Bush administration following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, he soon became a vociferous critic of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and regarded the “war on terrorism” as a pretext for reasserting Western geopolitical dominance.
He was accused of anti-Semitism in 2003 when he claimed “Jews rule the world by proxy,” referring to Israel’s alleged influence over the US political system, causing an international furor. Mahathir has never retracted the remark and has also in the past been critical of social liberalism and Western cultural values.
While Mahathir’s return may have been regarded with some skepticism in the West, the fact that he now leads a reform-oriented government alongside veteran opposition activists and pro-democracy figures has at least initially sent a reassuring signal.
Since returning to power, Mahathir has attempted to portray Malaysia as a neutral actor amid looming fears of a US-China trade war. Striking a different tone from his predecessor, the nonagenarian premier has called the presence of warships the biggest threat to peace in the South China Sea’s disputed waters.
Mahathir recently proposed that warships be kept out of the region in favor of joint small-boat patrols, a position not likely to endear him with either the US or China.
At a speech at the American Chamber of Commerce in Kuala Lumpur last month he defended his government’s approach to curbing national debts that ballooned during Najib’s term. Mahathir also reassured the audience that his government would remain business-friendly and welcoming to foreign direct investment.
Malaysian media reported last month that the US would explore the possibility of Trump visiting Malaysia in November. Mahathir protested Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city last year and previously struck a dismissive tone toward the American president, describing him as “a person who changes his mind overnight.”