The SCOMI Affair Becomes Curiouser And Curiouser

President George W. Bush and the CIA director, Mr George Tenet, said so in public: the SCOMI Precision Engineering (SCOPE) factory in Shah Alam is a link in the shadowy international trade in nuclear weaponry. Malaysia denied it. SCOPE invited foreign and local correspondents to visit its factory to see for themselves. A senior US official, Mr John Bolton, in Singapore, said Malaysia is not involved in this shadowy Pakistani-led network. That is enough for another round of self-congratulation in Malaysia. The curious thing is that no one accused Malaysia of it, only that SCOPE was. Malaysia looked for any straw that could clip the connexion between SCOPE and the Pakistani chain. For SCOPE is the subsidiary of a listed company, SCOMI, which is controlled by the only son of the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. If SCOPE had not been cleared of any wrongdoing, Pak Lah's political career could well be in the dumps. For it becomes clearer by the day that both the Pakistani and Malaysian governments were aware of the network and their respective roles, and is why no one is detained or punished.

This month, Pak Lah ordered the Royal Malaysian Police to get to the bottom of the affair. A fortnight later, it turns out that there is more to the matter than we were told. But the police now say it began its investigations on 13 November, three days after the American CIA and the British MI6 intelligence services informed its Special Branch of SCOPE's role in this trade. But it said all along, in public, it knew nothing of it, that as far as it is concerned, SCOPE is clean, and all this is a deliberate attempt to damage the fair and good name of Malaysia. In other words, the Malaysian government led Malaysians up the garden path. It stonewalled until it could no longer. The flurry of information it released on 20 February 2004 was too little too late. If it had been released judiciously over the past three months, it was would have saved Malaysia from its embarrassing public relations fiasco. When the world was scrambling for information, Malaysia would not say anything. As more details emerged, silence could not be an option. Malaysian leaders and police officers cleared themselves, and commented cynically of this attempt by the US leaders and foreign reports to sully the fair name of Malaysia, which of course failed because they got it all wrong.

SCOPE opened its doors to local and foreign reporters to prove that it did not make the offending centrifuge parts, and used the occasion to accuse the world of denigrating an honest-to-goodness company. But it did not tell the whole truth, as we find out when the police issued its report on its investigations. A Sri Lankan Muslim, Mr B.S.A. Tahir, is the middleman, so we are told, of this Pakistani network. He is married to a Malaysian, and is a substantial investor in SCOMI through a company called Kaspadu, whose major shareholder is Mr Kamaluddin Abdullah, the Prime Minister's son. He is by far more influential than the police investigations suggest for he persuaded SCOMI to build a factory to his specifications in Shah Alam, and allow his men to run it as a highly secret operation. Since I understand the factory cost nearly RM100 million and is shut down after producing RM13 million worth of parts, it is far-fetched to now claim it did not know what it was all about. For it had one client and one only: Mr B.S.A. Tahir. Without major modifications, it cannot be used to produce centrifuge units for general use.

The Malaysian police is critical of Mr Tahir's involvement, but insists he is not in its custody, and that he is in Kuala Lumpur. His wife, the daughter of a retired Malaysian diplomat, does not know where he is. Pak Lah last week even pooh-poohed the foreign reports that he is in detention. He is not, he averred. If he is not, he ought to be. In matters of national security, and this is clearly one, the principle of strict liability applies. This is looked at in the global war on terror. There is no difference in law between what Mr Kamaluddin and Mr Tahir did and what the Kelantan mentri besar, Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat's son, and several others detained under the Internal Security Act for alleged involvement with the Taliban during their period of study in Pakistan. Both compromise national security if the charges against them are true. One is treated with kid gloves, and the other not. Why? If the centrifuge parts were made by an unknown company and without the knowledge of the government, several would by now be detained under the ISA.

In this instance, Kuala Lumpur panicked. Pak Lah had just taken office, he had declared his war on corruption, and as that stalled, he is faced with a crisis far more serious. This SCOPE factory was built in 2001 and, let us face it, when the then Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, saw it upon himself to help the Muslim world however he could. The eminence grise of this shadowy network is the Pakistan nuclear scientist, Dr A.Q. Khan, who would have met Dr Mahathir during his several visits to Malaysia. How did Pak Lah not know of the SCOPE factory and what it made until he was officially told of it on 10 November 2003? It is highly unlikely too that Dr Mahathir would have known of this at the time. Curiously, no one has bothered to ask him of it. Besides, the report suggests that SCOPE officials did not control the operations. All this should have run alarm bells. But we are told it did not. Strange.

Malaysia hopes this police investigation would end the controversy. All Malaysian newspapers covered it in detail, after studiously ignoring it. If it had reported it as it should have been, it would have at least put the matter in perspective. The police would not have had to do its own overkill, stating the obvious, regurgitating what it received from elsewhere as its own findings, and calling upon the international agencies to investigate the foreign figures allegedly involved. But Malaysia has got into this mess because it has no clear policy on either the war on terror or even on the spread of nuclear weaponry. Which is a pity. Tun Mahathir had his instincts right on foreign policy. Where he got it wrong was that he would not allow Wisma Putra, the foreign office, to turn that into proper policy. So all this was never formal policy. Now that he is gone, Pak Lah is caught flat footed. He should have couched his reaction to this crisis with a proper policy on this, and distance himself from Washington's war on terror. But he could not. He says he plans to put matters right. No doubt he would. But it cannot be in the next few years. The system is badly broken in the 22 years Dr Mahathir was Prime Minister to be easily repaired. He is caught in a dilemma his predecessor created. But it is he who jumped into this mess. And lest we forget, neither President Bush nor Mr Tenet has withdrawn what they accused SCOPE of.

M.G.G. Pillai - 21.02.2004

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