Malaysia must ensure its interests protected as 5G matures

21 Feb 2023 12:14pm
Intel dan Ericsson akan membina ekosistem 5G bagi manfaat pelbagai sektor
Intel dan Ericsson akan membina ekosistem 5G bagi manfaat pelbagai sektor
SHAH ALAM: As Malaysia rolls out its 5G network, concerns remain over the architecture, technology and services in the face of serious geopolitical competition that has spilled over into nearly all critical sectors.

A recent report by UOB-Kay Hian has indicated that Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB) could introduce a second network equipment provider to roll out 5G, apparently to reduce costs and speed up the adoption of the technology.

More tellingly the report revealed that the DNB isn’t exclusively tied to Ericsson, a vendor which it appointed in July 2021 to build the national 5G network. There’s a provision in the contract to introduce a second network provider which opens up the potential of getting Huawei, Nokia or ZTE to be involved in its rollout plans.

The incorporation of Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE in Malaysia's 5G network has been hotly discussed due to the potential dangers it poses to national security and sovereignty. The main concerns mainly relate to the relationship between these companies and the Chinese government, raising concerns about the possibility of espionage and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure.

One of the main concerns is the potential for backdoors in the network equipment, which could be used by the Chinese government to monitor without consent Malaysian citizens and businesses. This could compromise sensitive information, such as financial transactions, intellectual property, and other sensitive data.

Furthermore, there are concerns about the potential for cyber-attacks on Malaysia's critical infrastructure, including power grids and other essential services. In the event of tensions with China, there is also the possibility that the 5G network could be used as a tool for political coercion.

Such a scenario is not far-fetched as several Asean countries are already at odd with the aspiring superpower especially over the South China Sea and wider concerns over falling into China’s sphere of influence in a way that would see the erosion of their sovereignty on a number of issues.

Take for example the recent Series 2 of the 2021 Auditor-General’s report which found that there were a total of 1.12 million cyber attack attempts on the MySejahtera COVID-19 management app. If just one critical app could give bad actors access to the data of millions of Malaysians, what more risks of having a compromised 5G network.

Malaysia should consider alternative options for its 5G infrastructure including working with other trusted partners to develop and deploy the 5G network. The US, European Union Japan, and South Korea are some potential partners that could offer secure and reliable 5G technology.
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Working with these partners could also reduce Malaysia's dependence on China and help diversify its supply chain, which would be beneficial for the country's economic and political stability.

Another alternative is for Malaysia to develop its own domestic 5G technology. This would require significant investment in research and development, but it could provide Malaysia with a unique opportunity to build a secure and reliable 5G network that meets the country's specific needs. Malaysia could also work with other countries, such as Singapore and Australia, which are already developing their own 5G technology, to share expertise and resources.

Malaysia must also implement stricter regulations and security protocols to ensure the safety and security of its 5G infrastructure. This could involve conducting thorough security assessments of network equipment and ensuring that all vendors comply with strict cybersecurity standards. Malaysia could also require companies to use open and transparent technologies, which would make it easier to detect and prevent potential security breaches.

This must be accompanied by efforts to improve its cybersecurity capabilities and invest in the training and development of cybersecurity professionals. This would enable the country to better detect and respond to potential cyber threats, which would be essential for ensuring the security of the 5G network and other critical infrastructure.

While the incorporation of Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE in Malaysia's 5G network may offer benefits in terms of cost and technology, it also poses significant risks to the country's national security and sovereignty.

To ensure the safety and security of its 5G infrastructure, Malaysia should consider alternative options, such as working with other trusted partners, developing its own domestic technology, implementing stricter regulations and security protocols, and improving its cybersecurity capabilities. By taking a proactive approach to 5G security, Malaysia can ensure that its critical infrastructure remains secure and reliable in the face of potential threats.

Samirul Ariff Othman is a Political Economic & International Relations analyst. He was previously attached to a leading local think tank. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.