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Mohammed Arafat Hossain

Intelligence can turn into a double edged weapon. If it is used in proper way and paid adequate heed to, it yields best outcome. If it is not used and kept in snooze hoping that everything is okay, it will bring upon disaster. With a complacency of intelligence outfits being there is a big risk which produces poor result. This is why intelligence community is the first to take the blame of any failure even it is the inability of the policy makers to timely identify and address a problem.  This is exactly what happened in case of the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Before the innovation of the vaccine, almost all the countries of the world were affected and maximum of them initially failed to properly address the pandemic. The countries of Southeast Asia also fall into that group. As usual, a lion share of the fingers were pointed towards intelligence failure for being hit as such. But, is it so? Is it really the intelligence failure, or the policy failure that resulted this disaster? Is the condition of pandemic in Southeast Asia really was bad as rest of the world, or otherwise? If someone blame the intelligence community, what are the reasons? Is the intelligence community equipped to monitor worldwide medical data which is the basis of warning? Does it fall within the parameter of intelligence in general? If not, whose job is that? Did the intelligence community warn the government adequately beforehand? What if this is the policy makers’ failure? What if, this pandemic is the outcome of reluctant decisions taken by the government itself?

These very simple questions and rounded up answers guide us to the statement; “It is not the intelligence failure that to be blamed, rather it is the lack of timely decisive action by the policy makers that constituted and escalated the pandemic in Southeast Asian countries”. This paper makes an endeavor to briefly examine all these questions and weave a chain of evidence in support of the statement given above.

State of Pandemic and Use of Intelligence in Southeast Asia

This paper takes the peak of the pandemic timeline (Mar 2020-Aug 2020) for discussion. Thus, obviously statistics used here are 6 months old. However, before discussing the state of the pandemic, we should be well informed that the early warnings and indication for worldwide spread of the disease was given by both the intelligence community as well as the medical and health society. Moreover, it will be helpful for us to keep this piece of information in mind and see how the countries of Southeast Asia reacted in the initial days of the spread of the disease. This section of this paper will try to get an insight whether the decision makers of the states took the intelligence warning seriously or not.

Let us start with the countries that needed a lesson before they fully comprehend the necessity and importance of intelligence feedback. Cambodia’s dictatorial Prime Minister Hun Sen downplayed the disease in the early stages of the epidemic. Though after changing the notion, they had only 129 confirmed cases with no deaths.  Same was in case of Indonesia which was also fairly relaxed to act upon a complete response. The critics condemned the Jokowi regime for a decentralized and clumsy approach. Indonesia struggled to control the spread of disease and had 45,891 confirmed cases and 2,465 fatalities in June 2020.  A proportionately small state, Laos with the early lockdown had 29 cases reported with no deaths in population of 7 million.  However, due to the secretive nature and media censorship, this number could not be justified. There are rumors that the actual condition is worse than what was reported.  Another secretive nation, Myanmar was in denial of exposure to the pandemic till mid-March 2020. The government even suggested that Myanmar is immune to coronavirus despite sharing a long border with China. Till end of June 2020, only 287 cases were reported with no death which was probably understated due to the lack of testing (60,000 out of a population of 54 million people).  The “Pearl of the Orient Seas”, the Philippines did well on quick reporting of cases and banning visitors to travel from affected areas. Yet they suffered due to less number of testing, lack of surveillance and contact tracing. However, after 78 days of restrictions, some amount of normalcy returned in the country that had 29,400 confirmed cases and 1,150 deaths by June 2020.

Let us now focus on the countries that were successful since the beginning of the pandemic. Malaysia chalked out its likely response and preparation plan including the provision of diagnostic tests basing on the initial intelligence and medical warning.  It reorganized the hospitals to face the pandemic and prepared other institutional facilities accordingly. Till 22 June 2020, total 8,556 cases were reported with 121 deaths in Malaysia.  Brunei as well took early steps like travel ban, restrictions on public gatherings, and asking people to work from home to stop the spread of the disease and till today remained effective. It utilized surveillance, contact tracing and technology like social apps to succeed. Brunei has so far 187 confirmed cases and 3 fatalities.  Similarly, Singapore responded very well to the initial outbreak that kept the spread under control. Widespread temperature-taking, large number of testing, detailed and arduous contact tracing and quarantine measures for confirmed cases including the returning travelers from other countries helped them get a success. However, lack of focus on the migrant workers cost Singapore heavily as they constituted the lion share of the confirmed cases.  Till August 2020, totla 42,095 cases were reported with 26 deaths in Singapore.  Despite public criticism for its initially dull response at the onset of the crisis, Thailand government started to move on the pandemic battle in late March. Today, the country was applauded for its effective containment of the epidemic not only for winning the fight, but also for the state of the art health care system. It invested vastly in health security area comprising the monitoring and tracking cases of infectious disease, lab testing, epidemiological training, and electronic surveillance reporting. Till August 2020, totla 3148 cases reported with 58 deaths.  Last but not the least, Vietnam is the name which is uttered with respect because of its early conceptualization of marshaling its public on the fight against the pandemic from very beginning. It introduced substantial cessations of socialization and ensured extensive surveillance of citizens. The aggressive monitoring and surveillance of citizens have been supported by the government’s large network of informants.  Till July 2020, total 349 cases reported with no deaths out of a population of 95.5 million people.

Besides the division of the countries being successful from the beginning of the outbreak and from the states which needed a push form the pandemic itself, the above two paragraphs allow us to see another pattern in this region. Firstly, countries namely Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand were reluctant to act on the warning from the intelligence and suffered the initial strike of the pandemic. On the other hand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei were the countries who got success by taking the intelligence feedback into cognizance.  Point to note that two countries out of five, Singapore and Vietnam had lessons learnt from previous pandemics including Spanish Flu or Influenza and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).  This proves the far-sightedness of the leaders as well as good coordination between intelligence community, society, medical department and the policy makers of the country. However, loosing focus on continuous collection of medical data and intelligence affected Singapore with its foreign workers. The second pattern shows us that countries those are authoritarian in nature had better results than that of the democratic ones. An example may be sought by naming Thailand and Indonesia. May be it is because of the fact that such leaders have the freedom of choosing and deciding quicker than a democratic leader who needs more time to go through a process. Nevertheless, it is also true that a government’s success in flattening the curve is the result of leadership and competent government administration, regardless of regime type.  However, we have the proof of two things now. Firstly, the intelligence community, may it be national or international, provided adequate warnings to the policy makers and thus did a commendable job. Secondly, adhering to the intelligence on the disease, most of the Southeast Asian countries are now in a stable condition. This is also supported by the statement “Early and aggressive measures by member countries, including unprecedented physical distancing measures, have helped keep the number of cases in the Southeast Asia low as compared to other parts of the world”, by The Southeast Asia office of the WHO on May 15.

Role and Capacity of Intelligence in Monitoring, Analyzing and Reporting a Pandemic

This part of the paper examines the role and capacity of national and international intelligence community in the monitoring, analyzing and reporting a pandemic with a view to fathoming how far reaching is the intelligence in an epidemiological context. As we discuss on global intelligence community, we assume that the Southeast Asian intelligence community falls within the same parameter. It is understandable that medical science is a non-traditional sector for the regular intelligence organizations. Now, if they are not equipped in terms of subject matter experts (SME) to monitor, store and analyze medical data such as the ongoing pandemic, it can only act according to its traditional role. Besides, intelligence always serves better as a proactive tool rather than a reactive one. With the virus being spread severely every day in 2020, we assume that quick and better information in conjunction with much quicker action could have saved many lives. Thus, it is also very important to learn how existing intelligence community collects, processes and disseminates the intelligence about diseases.

Though ill-equipped, the leading intelligence organizations of developed countries, for example; USA collect data through surveillance and monitoring, analyze them and brief their government on likely outcome and course of action. If the matter is of global nature, this brief or piece of intelligence is shared with the world such as in the case of any pandemic or health related issues. One year before the actual world-wide break out of the pandemic, in January 2019, Congress was informed by Dan Coats, the then-director of US National Intelligence that a large-scale outbreak “could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”  However, pandemic detection is the main liability of little-known agencies, for example; the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) of USA. It is a part of the Department of Defense that tracks emerging diseases, bioterrorist threats and the medical capabilities of other countries.  Many other countries may also have similar arrangements. Nevertheless, beyond the intelligence community, countries have civilian medical and public health information collection which is of use during requirement. May be, for the developing country, this is not always available due to technological backwardness, but it is a traditional and legitimate way of intelligence collection.

The international medical intelligence system is led by the World Health Organization (WHO). For example; it;s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) attempts to identify outbreaks in developing countries. There are similar programs that collects information from open sources such as print and electronic news media to detect and notify disease outbreaks. These include the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) developed by Canada, the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) by USA and HealthMap which are used by the media, medical professionals and public health departments for free. Besides, since 2018, WHO has been warning through public and open sources about the possibility of a new pandemic but was not considered much by the governments as WHO does not have any authority to supervise their actions.  Overall, though the epidemiological context is not well understood or synchronized in the existing global intelligence communities, it was well covered by WHO and reporting of the virus was quite notable which is not a matter to be missed by any government. Thus, it is safe to say that, intelligence did its job, may be the policy makers did not.

Relation between Intelligence and Policy Makers

Both the abovementioned sections indicate towards the failure of policy makers to take timely decision and action. As such, this section studies the relation between intelligence community and the policy makers in brief with a view to suggesting how best to connect them for successful policy formulation and implementation in the epidemiological context. As we know, such relation depends on how we define national intelligence and what products intelligence services are expected to supply to the decision-makers.  The American President Donald J. Trump was ruthlessly criticized for prioritizing economic interests over the advice of health and intelligence authorities.  Trump was reluctant to enforce a lockdown. Perhaps this hesitance was initiated by economic reasons. However, it could also be the outcome of his well proved personal behavioral tendency to dis-respect the guidance of expert authorities.  Similarly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was criticized for skipping very important pandemic related meetings largely because of the fears of a no-deal BREXIT diverted the focus from health to economic objectives whereas Britain was in a very good shape in terms of heal care facilities.  Now, having this two examples from the west, same can be said in case of the countries in Southeast Asia. Heads of the states of Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar and, Cambodia being autocrat did what they personally feel rather than taking the input from the international intelligence community. For example; president Duterte, the chief policy maker of Phillipines even tried to mock the media organizations and personalities that warned and advised social distancing.  However, the countries and the supreme leaders who paid heed to intelligence and acted accordingly received success. For example; Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. This result allows us to comment that, intelligence community in Southeast Asia did not fail rather the policy makers failed who did not conceive the warnings of the intelligence community as well as lacked the capability of forwarding their intelligence requirements to the intelligence outfits.


A political culture where success is often credited to policy and intelligence is to blame for any failure certainly falls short in securing national interests.  Forcefully blaming intelligence community does not help a nation to survive a pandemic. The study of the country perspective of Southeast Asia proved that the intelligence community warned the policy makers well in time and adherence to it permitted stability to this region except for few countries. The study further claims that the policy makers need to bridge the gap between themselves and the intelligence to help the nation. They also need to understand that traditional intelligence outfits are not equipped to provide quality intelligence on health and medical issues. To equip them for such mission with required essentials such as good data and analyzing tools is the task of the policy makers.


This study forwards following recommendations:

  • A global centralized understanding of “Intelligence in an epidemiological context”, within the intelligence communities may be brought upon through training and circulation of related publications.
  • Each Southeast Asian country should plan for individual National Center for Medical Intelligence well equipped with SME and other necessary instruments.
  • In case of fighting against pandemics such as COVID-19, international coherent steps may be taken. For example; WHO may lead with significantly greater authority to enforce individual nation abiding the international standard.


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