KOTA KINABALU: The persistent abductions and cross-border crime in Sabah’s east coast, as well as the existence of a local terror group aiding militants from southern Philippines, show that the federal government has failed to keep Sabah safe from threats, claim several Malaysia Agreement 1963 experts.
MA63 activist Zainnal Ajamain said that while security is a federal obligation, what had been done by the federal government to ensure the safety of Sabah had been disappointing.
Zainnal said the extent of security in Sabah over the last 56 years, since the formation of Malaysia, can be seen by the way they had positioned the country’s military strength.
The only two army divisions in the country are stationed in Peninsular Malaysia, one in Selangor and the other in Perak. Sabah, where the security threat is omnipresent, has only been given the military strength of a brigade, he said.
A division has between 10,000 and 25,000 soldiers while a brigade has around a thousand to 5,000 soldiers.
“Security is a federal obligation and there are no two ways about it. When it comes to security, it also includes infiltration by illegal immigrants.
“The illegals are also the federal government’s responsibility to resolve,” said Zainnal, who served as the Sabah government adviser in the MA63 talks with Putrajaya.
After the recent kidnapping of five Indonesian fishermen near the Tambisan, Lahad Datu, waters by a group of armed men linked to the Abu Sayaff group, the Indonesian government criticised Malaysia’s defence capabilities.
A Philippines armed forces commander also alleged that such abductions were proof that the Abu Sayyaff had the help of Sabah locals.
Deputy Home Minister Azis Jamman had also not denied the existence of internal terrorist elements working with the militant group from the southern Philippines.
Security and infrastructure development for Sabah come under the responsibility of the federal government, as stated in the Federal Constitution.
Zainnal said Putrajaya should have taken up Sabah Chief Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal’s advice to relocate the Lok Kawi army brigade to Sabah’s east coast.
This, he said, would not only be a deterrent to foreign militant groups but also instil fear in terrorists who are already in Sabah.
“But they prefer to be in Kota Kinabalu, where all the entertainment is. This refusal alone shows that Putrajaya has failed to honour its obligations.
“Even when a piece of big land in Lahad Datu was offered to the military to relocate their operations, they still refused,” he said.
Zainnal believed there was no need to lay direct blame on Putrajaya for the shortcomings, but anyone could judge for themselves that Sabah still faced foreign threats from abductions and the fact that there are thousands of illegal immigrants in the state.
Zainnal said it is the right of Indonesia and the Philippines to take their grouses to Putrajaya.
‘Military funding low’
Universiti Malaysia Sabah historian Bilcher Bala said the federal government wanted to fulfil its obligations but did not have the resources to do so at present.
He said military funding is small in Malaysia and many are not keen to join the security forces due to the low rewards and salary, forcing the government to keep its military force small.
“Besides, we don’t have the kind of policy like Singapore where all young men have to undergo compulsory military training.
“The government also cannot afford to recruit many into the force. The truth is that the country cannot even buy second-hand fighter jets, so much so that the defence ministry is even considering exchanging palm oil for the purchase of military assets,” he said.
Bilcher blamed the 1MDB scandal as one of the reasons why the federal government was now facing financial difficulties and said the money lost could have been put to better use, such as improving national defence.
He said as a result of the lack of funds, the military would not be able to provide full security to Sabah’s east coast to prevent the infiltration of criminals from across the Sulu Sea.
“There are just too many rat holes and the Sabah east coast is too long. If the government had the resources, it could easily build big military bases in places like Kudat, Semporna, Tawau or Kalabakan.
“The truth is that the federal government just can’t afford it.”
Bilcher also said security in Peninsular Malaysia was much better than in Sabah, with all sorts of security incidents happening there.
He said Putrajaya can no longer treat Sabah like one of the 13 states in Malaysia as the size of Sabah was so huge.
Bilcher noted most of the federal spending is too concentrated on states in Peninsular Malaysia, including for defence.
Another MA63 observer, Michael Peter Govind, said Putrajaya had failed to ensure the security of Sabah.
“If they had succeeded, there won’t be any more kidnappings and illegals won’t be able to enter the state.”
Govind also agreed Putrajaya should have relocated the Lok Kawi army brigade to the east coast.
“The security forces must first end the infiltration of migrants through ‘rat trails’. The danger is that terrorists can also enter the state this way,” said Govind, who served as one of the board members of Sabah think tank, Institute for Development Studies.
‘Bring back border scouts’
Another vocal MA63 activist, Pritchard Gumbaris, said as a Sabahan he could not dismiss altogether the contention that Putrajaya had failed to provide for Sabah’s security.
He believes the security forces have done enough to thwart attempts to undermine the security in Sabah.
The aide to the Penampang MP said the security forces would do even better if they reactivated the border scouts, whose success in thwarting insurgency had been proven.
The defunct Sabah border scouts, who served as field intelligence and paramilitary agents, did not only thwart the communist insurgency but also repelled the raids of Indonesian soldiers during the Confrontation in the 1960s.
“Their knowledge of the Sabah terrain allowed them to better exercise border control than the existing forces,” said Gumbaris.