The Sea Is Vast

A MMEA personnel keeps a watch on the boat carrying 143 illegal immigrants near Kuala Kurau

A boat carrying 143 illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, including 134 Rohingya, was detained by authorities after it ran aground on a sand bar six nautical miles off Kuala Kurau, Perak yesterday. Almost immediately criticisms were leveled especially at the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and at other agencies for their failure to detect their presence in our waters.

Truth be told, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) are among the busiest sea lanes in the world. Because of the nature of the straits, they come under Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Even the borders overlap each other depending on whose chart you are looking at while an average of 274 commercial vessels ply through on a daily basis, 66 being container ships alone.

Therefore, maritime authorities of each country keep a close eye on these vessels for both security and safety reasons. The MMEA has an elaborate radar surveillance system deployed throughout the country. Suffice to say that nothing goes unnoticed especially in the Strait of Malacca.

So, how did a boat with 143 illegal immigrants got to within six nautical miles before they were detained?

Two weeks ago the MMEA commenced Op Khas Pagar Laut aimed at further tightening our maritime borders during the Hari Raya Aidil Fitri festive season. In just a week, the operations has resulted in 32 vessels being detained resulting in seizures worth around RM10.6 million. 66 crewmen from seven Vietnamese fishing boats and 16 illegal immigrants were arrested before the arrival of this batch of 143.

With the commencement of the operations, the dragnet in waters off Pulau Pinang, Kedah, Perlis and Langkawi which are the favourite arrival spots for Bangladeshi and Rohingya illegal immigrants is tightened and almost impossible to get through.

Now that the waters there are off-limits, human smugglers then have to plan to deposit their human cargo farther south. All they had to do was to sail south skirting close to our 12-nautical mile limit, assuming the right to innocent passage, to a point before the strait narrows where another dragnet to prevent smugglers and illegal immigrants from Indonesia from entering.

And as long as they traversed the sea without entering our territorial waters, prejudicing our peace, good order, welfare and safety, they had the right to innocent passage.

The authorities were alerted the moment they digressed from their track and breached our 12-nautical mile limit at 4am, making for Kuala Kurau. Sending a boat out to intercept them at this juncture would prove detrimental as these smugglers are not without land-based informers watching the authorities. It would have taken almost 20 minutes for the boat to be intercepted, and before that could happen the boat would have been informed and have made its way back beyond our waters.

It was wise of the authorities to have waited until the boat had reached a point of no return before going out to intercept, and the effort was made easier due to the grounding of the boat on a sandbar. This is called ‘working smartly.’

Of course it would have been better for the MMEA to just deny them entry into our waters. That way we do not have to spend taxpayers money on illegal immigrants. But the Agency suffers from two critical things: criticism of such action by our own people in the past, and the lack of assets to do so.

To protect our people at the beginning of the pandemic our security forces were instructed to repair boats of illegal immigrants, provision them with fuel, food and water and make sure they leave our waters. The policy was very necessary then as it would take a year more before we started our vaccination program. But we were heavily criticised by human rights groups and, sadly, a small but media-social influential group among our own people.

MMEA personnel from the Kuala Kurau Maritime Zone transfer drinking water to the boat carrying 143 illegal immigrants

We have never been without a heart. As mentioned, we provided these boats with enough fuel, food and water to last them more than a month, and even facilitated repairs. And because we have a heart we now have to spend another RM5,800 a day for food for the 143 recently-arrived illegal immigrants on top of the RM6.3 million that we spend daily just for food for the other 158,000. That comes to RM190 million a month on meals.

That amount equals to 3,386 PPRT homes for the low-income group – per month. And we spend that much on illegal immigrants. I have not factored in medical treatment costs, lodging, utilities and other costs as well. But that is okay as long as we satisfy a small group of people who champion the rights of illegal immigrants.

The MMEA has been operating for 17 years with limited resources because lawmakers in the Parliament do not understand the law they passed to create the MMEA. The government also lacks the political will to enforce this Act. As a result, the Agency now suffers from limited budget as it has to share whatever limited resources that has been given, with the 11 maritime-related agencies that should have been dissolved with the formation of the MMEA. Majority of its patrol boats are more than 40 years old.

In terms of waters to cover, each of the MMEA’s 180 small patrol boats has a 180 sq km to patrol while each of the 70 larger vessels cover 5,675 sq km.

In short, each of the 4,500 men and women of the MMEA has 124 sq km of waters to guard, protect and save.

In spite of that, in its 17-year existence the MMEA has contributed more than RM2.7 billion to the government’s coffers in terms of seizures, saved more than 10,000 lives and RM650 million worth in assets. It has to protect the same area that the Royal Malaysian Navy has to which is 556,285 sq km. Yet, the Royal Malaysian Navy received RM1.6 billion last year while the MMEA received only a fraction of that.

Therefore, given the dire limitations that the MMEA has and compare this to its achievements, the MMEA is a force to be reckoned with, thus should be supported in its never-ending struggle to acquire more assets and train more men and women in order to become a better organisation.

Imagine what it could become with the RM2.3 billion we spend a year feeding illegal immigrants had the amount been given to the MMEA instead.

The boat carrying 143 illegal immigrants coming alongside the Kuala Kurau jetty
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