The latest espionage scandal courtesy of Edward Snowden is in Southeast Asia, where the Malaysian government is indignant following a report in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday that Singapore helped the Americans and Australians spy on both Malaysia and Indonesia. The spying dates back to the 1970s, the newspaper reported, citing documents leaked by Snowden.
The Malaysians profess to be shocked by the allegations. “It cannot be overemphasized that spying against a good friend and neighbor is unacceptable and goes against the true spirit of and commitment to good neighborly relations,” Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said in an e-mailed statement. “If these allegations are eventually proven, it is certainly a serious matter that the Government of Malaysia strongly rejects and abhors.”
Any spying by Singapore on Malaysia would be especially sensitive, given the history of uneasy relations that dates back to Singapore’s departure from the rest of Malaysia in 1965. Ong Keng Yong, Singapore’s top diplomat in Malaysia, told Bloomberg News today that he had received a call to meet with senior foreign ministry officials.
The fact that governments spy on one another is hardly shocking. “I don’t think we should be surprised that these sorts of diplomatic statecraft are being practiced, even by the closest of neighbors,” Singapore Management University associate law professor Eugene Tan told Bloomberg. “The question now is whether some of the intelligence gathering may have crossed accepted norms.”
The latest leak could further complicate life for Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was already trying to contain the fallout from earlier reports of Australian wiretapping of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone. “One of the fundamental tasks of my government is to ensure that our relationship with Indonesia goes from strength to strength,” Abbott said in Sydney on Monday, according to an e-mailed transcript.
Unfortunately for Abbott, the relationship is getting weaker, not stronger. Indonesia has recalled its ambassador to Australia and cut off cooperation on stopping asylum seekers who go through Indonesian waters on their way to Australia. Cracking down on that traffic is one of Abbott’s top priorities, but with the spy controversy dominating the news, he can’t count on help from Yudhoyono. “Cooperation over people-smuggling has been stopped for now, according to the president’s instructions,” Reuters quoted Indonesia’s National Police Chief General Sutarman on Monday. “Now we are still waiting for further instructions.”
The spat threatens to shorten the honeymoon of Abbott’s new government. His conservative coalition won a landslide election in September but—less than three months later—trails the Labor Party in an opinion poll conducted by Fairfax Nielsen. Voters “don’t like seeing signs of a deteriorating relationship with Indonesia” Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide, told Bloomberg News.