Malaysia has announced a partnership with Huawei as part of a push to become a regional leader in cybersecurity and increase the technical skills of its workers. Malaysia’s government appears unconcerned about Huawei’s reputational issues and the news comes amid ongoing cybersecurity controversies in Myanmar and Cambodia.
The Malaysian government has announced a partnership with Huawei to create the first cybersecurity lab in Southeast Asia.
The new initiative is a collaboration between Huawei and CyberSecurity Malaysia, the government’s digital security agency, as well as Celcom Axiata, one of Malaysia’s largest telecom companies.
CyberSecurity Malaysia said the three will work together on cybersecurity capacity building, standards and certifications, as well as “cybersecurity governance”. The Huawei partnership will focus on end-to-end security, including mobile application and hardware testing.
Malaysia’s digital security push is part of its plan to build 5G infrastructure, a key step as its digital economy continues to grow.
“We want to be among the first ASEAN member states to roll out 5G deployment and not just limit ourselves to 5G test labs,” said Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah. In mid-February, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Malaysia will introduce 5G by the end of 2021, ahead of schedule.
Digital security has been in the news in Southeast Asia this month as Myanmar’s military coup leaders have repeatedly shut off internet access, pressuring foreign-owned telecom operators Ooredoo and Telenor to cooperate. Both companies have faced major criticism for complying with the Myanmar military’s orders.
The internet outages have reportedly had major economic impacts as domestic businesses and investors are kept offline. Despite the internet shutdowns, popular opposition to the coup has continued with protests filling the streets of cities across the country, often under the banner of a new civil disobedience movement.
The military coup leaders have also pushed a new cybersecurity law that would grant the generals more power, including increased access to users’ data. The New York Times reports that, in the last 10 years, military officers from Myanmar have traveled to Russia to be trained in information technology.
Soon after Myanmar’s coup on February 1, Cambodia’s government announced it is creating a new National Internet Gateway, similar to that used by China to monitor online activity. All internet traffic will have to be routed through the gateway by February 2022, giving authorities the ability to “disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morality, culture, traditions and customs”, according to the government’s decree.
The announcement comes amid increased repression of political dissent in Cambodia, as well as new measures to monitor social media and messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Telegram. Cambodia’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications pointed out that the decree doesn’t include any powers intended to restrict freedoms, but the move jeopardizes digital security in Cambodia and has been condemned by international analysts.
Malaysia looks to support expanding digital economy
Malaysia says its new partnership with Huawei will increase telecom security and help build the capacity of workers and business in its digital economy.
“The test lab will also carry test cases including Internet of Things (IoT) security, telecommunications security and look at improving readiness in responding to 5G-related cyber-attacks,” said Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah in a speech at a virtual mobile technology forum.
Malaysia established a relationship with Huawei under the previous government of Mahathir Mohamad, when CyberSecurity Malaysia began meeting with the Chinese company to discuss cyber threats. Domestic telecom giant Maxis also relied on the Chinese firm’s hardware to build 5G services in late 2019.
The Malaysian government has also recognized that it needs to improve digital skills among its workforce. Malaysia’s tech sector is the biggest in Southeast Asia, accounting for 30% of the region’s digital economy, but a recent Huawei survey found that nearly half of the country’s small and medium-sized businesses didn’t have any digital skills.
Malaysia unconcerned about Huawei’s questionable cybersecurity record
The Malaysian government has made no mention of Huawei’s reputational issues regarding digital security. “The mobile industry needs globally trusted and mutually recognized security assurance schemes,” Amirudin Abdul Wahab, CyberSecurity Malaysia’s CEO, said of the partnership.
Huawei has faced allegations for years of facilitating espionage, intellectual property theft and repressive surveillance in China and abroad. Much of this criticism comes from the US government, which has placed numerous restrictions on Huawei and banned US companies from partnering with the company over security fears. Officials in Washington say Huawei technology, including 5G infrastructure, gives the Chinese government access to backdoor surveillance.
Huawei also stands accused of supplying technology for surveillance in Uyghur internment camps in Xinjiang province amid the ongoing genocide. Huawei built much of Myanmar’s telecom infrastructure, along with fellow Chinese firm ZTE, and now provides the country’s government with surveillance technology.
But Myanmar and Malaysia aren’t outliers for working with Huawei. The company claims to have built over half of the 140 5G networks already being implemented around the world. Much of Southeast Asia, including US allies Thailand and the Philippines, will likely rely on the company as they roll out their own 5G networks, as its competitors’ services and hardware are still 20-30% more expensive.
For Huawei, cybersecurity programs represent a public relations effort to counter the widespread distrust in the company. Huawei already runs six of its own digital security centers, in Canada, the UK, Germany, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and China.