MMEA’s Baptism of Fire

The two Vietnamese fishing vessels that had attacked the MMEA’s patrol craft

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) recently experienced its baptism of fire literally when one of its patrol craft came under attack from Vietnamese fishermen on board two fishing vessels. Early today, an Indonesian smuggler was shot dead in a scuffle with an MMEA personnel.

Incident with the Vietnamese fishermen

The incident involving the Vietnamese fishermen occured some 81 nautical miles from Tok Bali, Kelantan, inside the Malaysian Maritime Zone. This is equivalent to the distance where most of our offshore drilling platforms are located – 150 kilometers from the mouth of the Tok Bali river.. It also means that the Vietnamese fishing vessels were most definitely far from their own waters. They are known to have gone as far south as the Indonesian Natuna islands and have recently rammed several boats from the Indonesian Department of Fisheries to avoid being detained.

Not only that, towards the end of April of last year, two Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels rammed an Indonesian navy vessel in order to stop the latter from detaining several Vietnamese fishing vessels.

In the previous Sunday’s incident, they waited for the seven-men crew of the ‘Penyelamat 7’ to come close to their vessel before ramming their boat, throwing objects including iron blocks, wrenches, sharpened iron rods, cooking gas tank and others at the boat and crew. They have also prepared diesel bombs in several barrels on board their vessel which they threw at the boat with the intention of destroying it and its crew. In defence, the crew fired several warning shots to deter the crew of the fishing vessel from intentionally hindering the enforcement from boarding and inspecting. Still, they did not stop. The consequence, unfortunately, is in the form of a dead Vietnamese fisherman.

Incident with Indonesian smugglers

Near Tanjung Sedili early today, the MMEA foiled an attempt to smuggle exotic birds, the White-Rumped Shama and the Magpie Robin, by Indonesian smugglers using two fibreglass speedboats. The MMEA managed to stop the first boat and detained three Indonesian men aged between 40 to 62 and discovered about 90 cages filled with the birds mentioned.

A second boat arrived unaware that the first boat had been detained. An MMEA personnel jumped on board in an attempt to stop it. The boatman accelerated away in a dangerous manner where he tried to ram the MMEA patrol boat. A struggle ensued between the boatman and the enforcement officer where the former had tried to seize the latter’s weapon. Warning shots were fired by the other enforcement officers but this too was ignored, and a decision was made to use reasonable force to stop the smugglers from harming the enforcement officer on board their boat. A shot was fired and one of the smugglers was hit, and later pronounced dead on arrival at the Tanjung Sedili Medical Centre.

Formation of the MMEA

The men of the MMEA were just doing their job under but not limited to Section 7(2)(b) and Section 7(2)(d) of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Act, 2004 which allows them to board any vessel with the purpose of inspecting and searching, and investigate any offence that is being committed, or about to be committed, or has been committed. The 19 Vietnamese fishermen as well as the Indonesian smugglers that have been detained are now being investigated especially under Sections 307 and/or 186 of the Penal Code for the attempt to murder and for obstructing public servants from carrying out their duties.

The formation of the MMEA was mooted in 1999 and tabling of the MMEA bill was made in Parliament in 2004. Prior to its formation, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was managed in a sectoral manner by 11 government agencies and departments, involving 5,000 personnel and more than 400 vessels of all types. A singular and dedicated approach was required, leaning towards the roles of a coast guard, as both an enforcement agency as well as combatant in times of war – in other words, it is a paramilitary body. It in not any different than the Royal Malaysian Police’s General Operations Force (PGA). But unlike the police, the MMEA has the power to investigate and prosecute.

The MMEA acquired hand-me-down assets from the various marine departments and agencies, some of which are already in their 60s. Although procurements of new vessels have been made, the bulk of vessels patrolling our waters are more than 30 years old. Not only that, the numbers are not sufficient to cover the operations. Larger but older vessels need regular maintenance for them to be able to operate continually. Hence, smaller boats that are not meant for long-distance patrols and have no on-station endurance have to be employed.

In Dire Need of Newer and Suitable Assets

It was probably based on this knowledge that the fishing vessels involved in the recent incident were armed with improvised weapons meant to cause the destruction of these smaller patrol boats. Imagine what would have happened to the brave crew of the 20-meter Penyelamat 7 had their boat sunk that day. Desperate to not lose their livelihood if caught, these fishermen would do anything at all to avoid arrest. In April 1993, a Royal Malaysian Navy personnel whom had boarded a fishing vessel off Pulau Kapas in Terengganu was kidnapped, possibly after being overpowered, and was never found. I was made to understand that this almost happened to the men of the MMEA.

We need to understand that these fishing vessels work in packs of several vessels per pack. The MMEA would have to spread itself really thin to follow these packs. When a boarding party has successfully boarded a vessel, the MMEA patrol boat will then go after the other boat. Now imagine this: each fishing vessel is crewed by about ten men. Each Penyelamat-class boat has a crew of about eight. How many MMEA personnel can be put on each fishing vessel safely if they are not to be overpowered, and if there are three or four fishing vessels in a pack? In the case of the Penyelamat 7, it would have taken two hours and 40 minutes for another fast MMEA boat travelling at a speed of 30 knots to get to their location. In those two hours and 40 minutes, they would have to rely on sheer guts and luck to stay safe while facing 40 desperate and determined men.

Therefore, it is imperative that the government equip the MMEA with more purpose-built assets which are newer, larger and faster, to replace the current older ones as well as boats that are not built for long-range patrols. As its name suggests, the Penyelamat 7 was built for search-and-rescue operations, not enforcement. The MMEA would also be needing mobile floating bases – perhaps converted merchant vessels that can house extra crew, the Special Task and Rescue (STAR) team with a helicopter and fast Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats to act as a logistics ship for the MMEA patrol vessels as well as back ups for its patrol vessels. This way, patrol vessels will have a longer range and patrol endurance to intercept the packs.

Faster and capable patrol boats also need to be acquired for anti-piracy and anti-smuggling operations especially in the Johor waters and the Strait of Melaka.

The Vietnamese fishing fleets are known to be accompanied by a ‘mothership’ so that they can fish far from their waters, while the Indonesia smugglers and pirates are only a short hop away, able to carry out hit-and-run raids quickly if left unchecked. It is about time the government becomes serious about the matter and better equip the MMEA as any paramilitary force should be equipped.

Purging Penang’s Peasants

You tengoklah sekarang. Kalau you tak ada duit you cuma boleh tengok bukit. Kalau you kaya you boleh tengok laut. Bukan Melayu sahaja yang tak mampu. Cina pun ramai tak mampu!” (You look at it now. If you don’t have money you’d be looking at the hills. If you are rich you can see the sea. It isn’t just the Malays who cannot afford, but many of the Chinese too!)

The above are words said to me by a Penang Chinese during my last visit to Penang.

If you live or have lived in Penang like I did, you would know what the statement above is all about.  My earliest memory of Penang is of my trip there in 1974. Several more visits followed and I finally lived there from 1989 until the end of 1991 when I worked at Jalan Azyze.

Penang has always been a melting pot of cultures because unlike the mainland Peninsular Malaysia, Penang (together with Melaka and Singapore) were true crown colonies, ruled by Britain through the Colonial Office in India. The composition has always been majority Chinese, followed by Malays and people of the Indian diaspora.

When I got married there weren’t many quarters for armed forces officers back then and rent rates were just too high for me (I was earning a basic of RM750 per month with RM115 as service allowance). My monthly housing allowance was RM400 while a terrace-house would have cost me RM800 a month. Initially I could only afford to live in a squatter house, which really was a shed attached to the back of a main house in what was Kampung Haji Mahmood in Tanjung Tokong and paid RM150 per month for that. It was literally a eat-where-you-sleep and shit-where-you-bathe house. I stayed there for half a year before moving to an apartment unit at the UDA apartments across the road. What I liked most about Tanjung Tokong were the stalls that lined up the coastal road.  I used to hang out at a stall operated by a man named Murad and would fish across the road for Groupers.  Yes, you could see the sea then and the proof of that is when the South Asian Tsunami (aka Boxing Day Tsunami) hit Penang in 2004, Tanjung Tokong was one of the places affected.

Post-Tsunami Tanjung Tokong looking towards the UDA apartments (blue roofed)
Post-Tsunami Tanjung Tokong looking towards the UDA apartments where I used to live (blue roofed). On the left is what was Kampung Haji Mahmood
Since then, Kampung Haji Mahmood is only a memory and you can no longer see the sea from the road side.  Where fishing boats used to dot the coastline is now filled with apartment buildings where none of the units built can be afforded by the locals.  What saddens me most is that Kampung Mahmood, a traditional Malay village and not a squatter village, has been bulldozed to make way for more apartments that the Malays who resided there cannot afford to buy.

Kampung Haji Mahmood now
Kampung Haji Mahmood now
Back then, Malay villages used to dot the coastline between Kelawei and Tanjung Bungah.  Now, you would be extremely lucky to find even one.  Gentrification has forced those who cannot affor to live on the island off to the mainland.

The Seri Tanjung condominiums built on a reclaimed land has blocked the viewoof the sea from Tanjung Tokong
The Seri Tanjung condominiums built on a reclaimed land has blocked the viewoof the sea from Tanjung Tokong

Jalan Tanjung Tokong was what separated the sea from the Malay kampungs
Jalan Tanjung Tokong was what separated the sea from the Malay kampungs
What is probably the last Malay kampung on the northern shores of Penang island, Kampung Mutiara, is also gone. The kampung, which had existed since the 1950s sits on a piece of land that had since come under private ownership.  While the landowner is a private individual, Lim Guan Eng as the Chief Minister had promised the people of Kampung Mutiara that he would intervene. Based on this word given by the Chief Minister the legal representatives of Kampung Mutiara should have applied for an equitable estoppel.

Kampung Mutiara in Batu Ferringhi back in January 2016 - already surrounded by high-rise buildings
Kampung Mutiara in Batu Ferringhi back in January 2016 – already surrounded by high-rise buildings
However, in February 2016, the Kampung Mutiara residents lost their appeal at the Appellate Court and were asked vacate the land and pay legal cost amounting to RM5,000 to the landowner, Peter Loke Leng Seak.

The Malay fishing community of Queensbay (formerly known as Pantai Jerejak) will soon be gone
The Malay fishing community of Queensbay (formerly known as Pantai Jerejak) will soon be gone
Next to suffer are the fishing communities of Queensbay and Teluk Kumbar. Reclamation works is now in full swing in a nearby area and is already affecting the daily catch.  “We used to get RM500 worth of catch daily. Now, we are thankful if we can get RM100. Life has been difficult. We are plagued with debts. What is going to become of us?” said Queensbay fisherman Mohd Rafie Md Said to New Straits Times reporters.

Shahrul Nizal Md Daud, 30, said there were times when he came home empty-handed. “I have a family to feed. I also need to pay for the house and car. “We were given only RM5,000 as compensation. How long can that last us?” Both fishermen said they had no clue as to the purpose of the reclamation, adding that more than 100 fishermen had been given until the end of the month to move out.

Read More :

T-shirt worn by the wife of a Queensbay fisherman expresses the helplessness they feel
T-shirt worn by the wife of a Queensbay fisherman expresses the helplessness they feel
And in Gertak Sanggul where the Malay fishing community fish for shrimps, there is already a plan to reclaim the waters off Gertak Sanggul all the way to the southern island of Pulau Kendi. Some 1,500 Malay shrimp fishermen will be affected.  They have already protested to the State government but their protests have fallen on deaf ears.  This video report, again by My Nation, explains the situation.

These waters off Teluk Kumbar where traditional Malay fishermen look for shrimps will soon be reclaimed
These waters off Teluk Kumbar where traditional Malay fishermen look for shrimps will soon be reclaimed
Livelihoods and traditional Penang communities will be lost and there would certainly be a migration of those marginalised in Penang DAP’s plan for the gentrification of the State.  But what would happen to those who cannot afford to either own a house in Penang or move out?

They become the homeless, the vagrants, the destitute.

When commenting on Tengku Adnan’s move to arrest the homeless and fine soup kitchens two years ago, Lim Guan Eng had this to say:

“I admit that the homeless in the streets is a problem but arresting them is not a solution, just like in Penang, we put them in homes and they escape to live in the streets.”

The truth is far from it.  A quick walk around the KOMTAR building where Lim Guan Eng’s office is located, we found the following:

A homeless person sleeps on the grounds of the KOMTAR building, seat of the Penang State Government under Lim Guan Eng
A homeless person sleeps on the grounds of the KOMTAR building, seat of the Penang State Government under Lim Guan Eng
Web news portal My Nation even shared a video made by one Saiful Abdullah on this issue.

And NGOs tackling the issue of the homeless in Penang all say that there is no government shelter that is being provided for the down-and-out.

Penang is already inhabited by those who can afford to live there which translates into more financial support for the DAP government.  The gentrification of Penang has helped those marginalised to move out of the island in search for more affordable housing and new jobs.  Given that the Chief Minister has been charged in court for corruption and corrupted practices under Section 23 of the Anti-Corruption Act and Section 165 of the Penal Code, yet is still trying to create unnecessary projects in Penang, I don’t think he is interested in helping the Penang people.  As in the words of Trevor D Richardson: “People used to make money, but somewhere along the way, it started making us.