March 3, 2013
‘Malaysian Government financed smear campaign on Opposition’
COMMENT The suspicions were always there. But thanks to a disclosure form filed on January 24 with the US Department of Justice by Joshua Trevino, a conservative American political consultant and blogger, we now know that the Malaysian government was behind the most recent effort to smear the political opposition and its leadership.
The campaign, which involved payments of nearly US$400,000 to Trevino and over US$130,000 to ten right-wing American bloggers, was conducted on behalf of APCO and later FBC Media.
We know from APCO’s filings with the Justice Department that the funding came from the government. Other sources, particularly the investigative work of Sarawak Report, indicate the same for FBC Media. The Malaysian government paid for both of them.
It is not unusual for foreign governments to use lobbyists and public relations firms to promote a positive image overseas.But there are three things that were very different about this effort.
First, the work that APCO, FBC Media, and Trevino did require that the government’s hand should not be revealed.
The funding for blog postings and articles in the United States and for BBC programs in England was never identified as coming from the Malaysian government. The financing and authorship of Trevino’s websites, Malaysia Matters and Malaysia Watcher, were hidden. Welcome to 007 land.
Second, the effort was not just to promote the image of the government and its prime minister. The hidden part of the effort targeted the Opposition and its leaders, and in particular Anwar Ibrahim (left).
Stated another way, government funds were used secretly to smear the duly-elected and official Leader of the Opposition.
Third, Trevino wrote that the “explicit intent” of the campaign was to “affect domestic public opinion within Malaysia proper.
“While there was likely to be some effect on US public opinion because the articles appeared in US outlets, he said that “was neither by design nor intent.”
That explains why blog postings in obscure American websites were immediately “discovered” and trumpeted back to Malaysia within 24 hours, via Bernama, RTM, and the ruling coalition’s newspapers.
The posts in America were created to try and influence public views in Malaysia. Indeed, according to one participant in the effort who spoke to me, the talking points and background information papers were first prepared in Malaysia and then sent on to the “independent writers” by APCO and later FBC.
“I don’t know a lot about Malaysia,” the person told me. “But even I could see that some of what they were sending to us was laughable, so I threw it in the trash.”
The Trevino-Apco-FBC affair is only the latest chapter in a sordid effort that dates back over a decade.Twelve years ago, the notorious super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff (right) and others were hired to lead a multi-million dollar effort to influence US public opinion about Malaysia.
The US Senate held hearings on the matter, and Mahathir himself later admitted that the effort existed. Others besides Abramoff and his fellow lobbyists were involved.
Ed Feulner, the Head of the Heritage Foundation, a major US think tank, accepted significant payments from Malaysian corporations to Belle Haven, his private consulting firm in Hong Kong.
The Malaysian companies could claim them as business expenses. But according to US Senate records, Belle Haven in turn transferred US$1.3 million over five years to US firms that lobbied on behalf of Malaysia.
The Malaysian Embassy in Washington, then headed by Dato Ghazzali Sheikh Khalid, made illegal payments through American banks on more than one occasion to a bogus think tank located in a Delaware beach house on the Atlantic Ocean.
After that, the money was “laundered” and transferred to Abramoff for the lobbying effort, with Ghazzali’s full knowledge.
Where are the participants in that earlier effort today? Abramoff was convicted and spent 43 months in jail; 21 of his associates either pled guilty or were found guilty.
Although the Washington Post said that Feulner’s actions jeopardised the Heritage Foundation’s tax-free status, he survived and recently retired.
Ambassador Ghazzali (left) was “promoted” to Tan Sri and is now senior advisor to Bowers Group Asia, a consulting firm headed by Ernest Bowers, who also heads the CSIS Southeast Asia program, a programme that is widely seen in Washington as a ready-made forum for Malaysian government speakers.
What will happen to those involved in the latest Trevino-APCO-FBC effort? For Trevino and his associates, there might be some embarrassment, and their business interests might suffer. But conservative circles in America have a habit of taking care of each other.
Legal action is unlikely. Although Trevino belatedly reported his Malaysia connection to the Justice Department, his work on behalf of Malaysia and that of his associates was not aimed at lobbying the US government per se.
It exists in a grey area of the law; they were not paid directly by any foreign government. They were contractors and “worker bees” paid by others.
APCO lost its contract with Malaysia long ago. But in the worst tradition of Washington DC lobbyists, it no doubt will continue to work for whoever pays it. As for FBC Media, it is now in what the British politely call “administration” – bankruptcy.
One key player in this effort, according to Sarawak Report, still sits next to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak (right). He is a British subject, Paul Stadlen. First he worked for Apco in Malaysia, and then reportedly for FBC Media.
Today he works directly in Najib’s office as an “international affairs advisor.”
One of the points I made was that people who run countries with a controlled press seem to think that the rest of the world acts the same way. They think they have the ability to influence what other people read and think.
And when they realise that those countries don’t work the same way, they then believe what the lobbyists and PR firms in those countries tell them – just pay me millions, and I can make things happen for you. It seems to make sense.
After all, in Malaysia and some other countries, if you pay millions, people will do what you want. But I wrote in Malaysiakini that in a democracy like America, anyone can write and get articles published.
We have access to government officials and can speak at public events. We don’t have to pay for that, and no one has to pay us to do it.
So years ago, Abramoff and others made – and wasted – millions. But no one had to pay me a penny. (For the record, in the 15 years since I left Malaysia, no one has paid me a ringgit for anything I have said or done.)
In the end, all of the money spent on Abramoff and the others was wasted. He went to jail – and the clandestine effort was exposed, to Malaysia’s embarrassment.
Suspect right from the start
What about this time? At least in the Abramoff days, the government hid its hand successfully, at least for a few years. This time around, it was not so. From the beginning, there was something very suspicious.
For all the money they took from the Malaysian taxpayers, APCO and FBC Media should have been a lot smarter.
Millions of dollars should have bought more “brain power” than what we have seen from APCO and FBC and Stadlen. The way they went about this threw off so many clues from the start:
- Why did all these people – all right wing, conservative bloggers, with no knowledge of Malaysia and no history of writing about foreign affairs – suddenly start writing about Malaysia?
- Why did they all sing a common tune? Why was there so little variation in what they had to say?
- Why did their articles and postings appear only on right-wing, conservative newspapers and websites?
- And why were all of their articles and blogs linked to each other?
From the very beginning, it was clear that “something was up.” Everyone suspected the government’s hand – and now Joshua Trevino has confirmed it.
And once again, millions of the taxpayers’ money have been wasted on a failed effort. Trevino says the goal was to influence Malaysian opinion, not American.
Clearly, that has failed. Because millions of dollars later, despite all the effort and all the smears, there is a real chance that Anwar and the Opposition might come to power.
If we have learned anything from this, it is that the Malaysian government should stop wasting the taxpayers’ money on schemes pitched to it by foreign PR firms. And to learn that in the end, it is what you do – as a government – that has the greatest influence on world opinion – and Malaysian domestic opinion.
JOHN R MALOTT was the US Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998, and continues to follow developments in that country closely.