However, Mahathir’s attempts to woo foreign capital to Malaysia and calm the jitters of American investors about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in South East Asia have been nullified not only by the latest Newsweek interview of Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who said that there are terrorist cells all over South-East Asia, naming in particular the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, but also Malaysia’s new-found notoriety in the international media as a haven of terrorism.
In the past week, there had been a flood of adverse American media reports about Malaysia being “a primary operational launch-pad” for the September 11 terror attacks (Newsweek cover-datelined 4.2.2002), as well as others quoting the FBI as describing Malaysia as ''one of the primary operational launch pads'' for the September 11 terrorist attacks (USA TODAY 30.1.2002) or carrying headlines such as “Staging Area for Terror Attacks” (New York Times 31.1.2002), “Malaysia - Site of Sept. 11 Planning” (Washington Post 1.2.2002), “Itinerant Malaysian Cleric Emerges as Terrorist Leader” (New York Times 3.2.2002), “Malaysia: Staging Ground for Terror? - How a Southeast Asian nation became a favorite meeting place for al Qaeda and its allies” which quoted an US official describing Malaysia as "a perfect place for terrorist R-and-R" in Southeast Asia (Time 2.2.2002).
The last-mentioned Time magazine article said:
“Beyond those pre-9/11 transactions in Malaysia, monitored by the FBI, the terror networks continue to thrive in the predominantly Muslim nation - and across its seas, into Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and the rest of southeast Asia. The region's most notorious and violent radical Islamic groups still regularly gather in Malaysia to meet with their al Qaeda backers - and with the region's long-established weapons smugglers. Says ‘Mat,’ a pony-tailed Indonesian who has been trading illegal arms for 20 years, ‘These groups use the internet to set up the venue and date for their meetings. The messages are sent in encrypted codes.’ If a local radical group wants weapons, they place an order and al Qaeda will pay for it. Malaysia, he says, ‘is their favorite place to have meetings with the other radical Islamic groups in the region.’
“Since last September, as part of the worldwide crackdown on extremist Islamic groups, Malaysian police have arrested some 50 suspect radicals. Despite the arrests, as one Malaysian official notes, and even with new, stringent surveillance of visitors and tightened-up immigration checks, it's nearly impossible to track what he estimates are ‘several hundred’ al Qaeda linked businessmen, bankers, traders, tourists - many of them Arab - who pass through or live in the country. Among the radical groups partly funded by al Qaeda who meet regularly with arms smugglers in Malaysia are the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from the neighboring Philippines, the Laskar Jihad and the separatist Free Aceh Movement of Indonesia, and Malaysia's own Kumpulan Mujahideen.”
The Time article said that “the apparent ability of al Qaeda to command significant funds in spite of its Afghan rout makes it a welcome player in Southeast Asia's flourishing illegal arms trade”. It said that according to sources at all levels of the clandestine arms trade in Southeast Asia, meetings between representatives of Islamic groups and their al Qaeda financiers continue to take place in Malaysia - sometimes several a month, in cheap hotels and guest houses outside Kuala Lumpur, in the beach resort of Port Dickson, and in the cities of Malacca and Johore Baru across the straits from Singapore.
Are these for real, and if not, why is Malaysia suddenly the target of such an avalanche of adverse US media reports, involving the FBI Director, Robert S. Mueller III who has gone on record last Thursday as saying that US investigators believe the September 11 terror attacks were planned in part by al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia?
And is this the background, together with the controversy over the reported US demand for the extradition of Malaysian former army captain recently detained under the Internal Security Act, Yazid Sufaat, the reason why the Far Eastern Economic Review reported even before Mahathir’s departure for the United States that the Prime Minister would not get to meet President Bush as Mahathir had hoped, although the proposed meeting was backed by the U.S. embassy in Malaysia?
Be that as it may, the time has come for the Cabinet to face up to the reality that the Malaysian investment climate is a serious casualty of post 9/11 syndrome and the government should stop playing partisan politics and instead harness a national consensus to devise an effective counter-strategy.
The Cabinet should be seriously concerned about the latest data about the sharp drop of American investments in Malaysia, with US foreign direct investments (FDI) slumping 55% last year to RM3.31 billion as compared to RM7.49 billion the previous year.
Although the Minister for International Trade and Industry, Datuk Paduka Rafidah Aziz said yesterday that Malaysia would try to convince new US investors it was not a terrorist nation, such assurances are grossly inadequate in the face of the avalanche of adverse international media reports about Malaysia and Southeast Asia as the hunting-ground for al-Qaeda operatives - as the strenuous denials by the Malaysian government do not seem to be effective to counter the media reports.
The government should stop playing party politics on the threat posed by national and international terrorism by convening an all-party round-table conference on terrorism to give a full and frank briefing to all political party leaders, whether government or opposition, develop a national consensus and work out an effective strategy to ensure that Malaysia is really terrorist-free and not a favourite “terrorist R-and-R” to secure national confidence that the “anti-terrorism” campaign will not become a camouflage for an “anti-democracy” campaign and to win international confidence and assure foreign investors that the national unity and harmony backed by all political parties and the civil society is the best assurance for foreign investments in the country.