KOTA KINABALU: For generations, Sabah has been squabbled over by international parties with rival claims on it.
In the past, the effects of such conflicts were mostly felt only in the immediate areas. No longer.
The east coast has long been particularly vulnerable to militants, pirates and kidnappers due to its length and lack of adequate defence forces.
That weakness was forcefully illustrated in 2013 when a relatively small number of armed Philippine militants trying to claim parts of eastern Sabah landed in Lahad Datu, Tawau.
The incursion resulted in a bloody standoff with Malaysian authorities which was ended after three weeks by Malaysian air and surface forces brought in for the purpose.
The incident prompted discussions at state and federal levels on how eastern Sabah could be better protected.
The resulting urgent increases in security included the creation of the 1,400km Esscom (Eastern Sabah Security Command) and Esszone (Eastern Sabah Security Zone) in March 2013 to deter future such incidents.
In addition, the previous federal government promised to build seven new police stations and deploy five army battalions to give muscle to the security upgrade.
Such developments, while logistically complex and expensive, were agreed to be necessary to shore up coastal security.
It’s an ongoing requirement as Sabah still faces unresolved hot-button issues such as the Philippines’ territorial claim, the Spratly Islands dispute, kidnapping in the Sulu Sea, and overlapping claims on the Sulawesi Sea.
Despite the promises made in 2013, the five battalions have not yet been deployed, according to newly appointed Deputy Home Minister Azis Jamman.
“I am not sure how many battalions have been placed in the Esszone by now,” he said. “But I am sure that the number has not reached five.”
Apparently, five years on, bringing the promised battalions to the east is still in the planning stages.
Recent proposals by Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal to relocate west coast army camps such as those at Lok Kawi and Kota Belud to the east coast are one way of fulfilling the 2013 promises.
Shafie’s proposals have been cautiously welcomed by politicians and defence experts, but with several caveats.
Building bases which can accommodate and provide for military families is complex and expensive.
Most military personnel currently serving in Lahad Datu actually live in Kota Kinabalu where they return to their families every week.
There are worries that relocating those troops to the east coast without their families would have negative effects on morale, especially if, as some military experts insist, troops stationed at the proposed new bases should be fixed personnel instead of rotational ones.
The government will need to build fully-fledged bases in east Sabah along with all the concomitant infrastructure and services they will require, including schools and hospitals.
One fully-functioning army base alone could cost the government between RM300 million and RM500 million, according to National Patriots Association president Brig Gen (Rtd) Mohd Arshad Raji.
But the cost could be worth it to the region. For it’s not just about the cost of beefed-up security.
Such major changes will contribute to the sorely needed development of the whole region.
Stationing five permanent camps of around 700 soldiers each and several hundred additional ancillary staff will bring much needed change to the east and inject money into local economies.
Defence expert Ramli Dollah from Universiti Malaysia, Sabah, pointed out that shifting army bases to the east coast could be a magnet to attract other development to the region. Investors thrive in a secure environment.
Kerino Jalani, chairman of the Semporna Bumiputera Tour Operators Association confirmed this, saying he recently explored investment opportunities in Semporna with seven wealthy potential investors from China, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
“Security was one of the most important things on their mind during their visit.”
In fact, security is on everyone’s mind, particularly potential tourists, for whom it is often the primary deal-breaker when planning their vacations
Roaming gangs looking for kidnap-for-ransom victims, and Abu Sayyaf militants still trying to invade the coastal waters to commit cross-border crimes do not make for a relaxing holiday.
Eastern Sabah is a wonderland for adventurous tourists but well-publicised abductions, continued security inadequacies and the sea curfew, recently extended by prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, still cause trepidation internationally.
The governments of countries such as the US, UK and Australia continue to issue travel advisories warning their citizens against visiting the east coast.
So long as such unease continues, the region will continue losing millions of tourist dollars.
Increased security would undoubtedly contribute to a vast potential tourist and development dividend.
To combat fears, Shafie plans to meet with defence chiefs to discuss security and to make sure all assets and personnel are located where they are most needed.
He maintains that despite the problems, defence bases can successfully be relocated as shown by similar actions in Peninsular Malaysia.
“We need to sit down with the federal government and discuss the issue, bearing in mind that we are the state government and we know more about our own security.”
Regional entrepreneurs like Kerino are all for the plans, saying, “Tourists want to visit us but they have security doubts, so we welcome the chief minister’s ideas to improve security in the Esszone.”
Of course, while focus is rightly placed on threats to the east coast, security on the west coast where the state’s capital Kota Kinabalu is located should not be forgotten.
As Arshad reminds us, “We need contingency plans in case attacks unexpectedly occur away from the east coast.”
So while regional spats are primarily of national concern, if eastern Sabah wishes to take its fair share of available global investment and tourist dollars then it really is time to quick march the army.