Threats at sea have changed, says MMEA chief

PUTRAJAYA: The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) marks its 11th anniversary on Monday. For Admiral Datuk Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar, who took over as director-general of MMEA five months ago, his priority is to make sure the agency is always on the ball. He tells AUSTIN CAMOENS and NATASHA JOIBI the challenges that come his way.

Q: How has it been since you took office?

A: I am used to these kinds of challenges. I’m still surviving, so it should be okay. Our core business is to ensure that our people, economic activities, our coast, is not interrupted by anybody. The environment keeps changing. Years ago, you can say the threat is only about sea robberies, piracy, smuggling and human trafficking. We have gone beyond that. We are talking about terrorism now.

We have to improve our awareness on safety at sea. We have taken all these steps to advise, educate the operators, to be aware of necessary arrangements to be made. In terms of search and rescue, we have saved more than 4,000 lives at sea within the span of 11 years of our operation. Japan has presented us with a ship which is used as a training ship. Australia has given us two ships, six fast boats. Canada presented us with two high-speed boats.

Q: What are the assets and personnel of MMEA now?

A: I have close to 5,000 personnel and 242 assets. We are planning to double up these numbers. We have a training academy. We train locals and those from South-east Asian countries. Our academy has been recognised as a centre of excellence in the region. We have instructors from Japan, Australia and the United States. We train some officers from Djibouti, a country close to Somalia. Many of our officers have been invited to share their experiences. This is a recognition of our achievements, along with awards we received from international bodies.

In terms of search and rescue, we also assist merchantmen and passenger liners with medical problems while passing through our waters. For example, a ferry from India to Singapore had a European suffering of a heart attack so we sent a helicopter to fetch him. He was sent to a hospital.

Thus far we have achieved the expectations of our leaders and also international maritime communities. The Straits of Malacca has no less than 77,000 vessels passing through last year. Out of that, not a single ship was interfered with. So that means economic activities are going on well.

We are a small country, but recognition and trust have been given by the global community because we haven’t failed them. Last year, the Government allocated funds for us to buy new ships. Six ships are being constructed now. We hope by next year, we will be able to get them in stages.

Q: You mentioned that MMEA also work with other agencies and Interpol, Do you have specific goals to fight terrorism? How is MMEA’s role different from other agencies?

A: The threat to the country is not only on the mainland. You must understand that they may enter the country by sea or by air. This is where we have to really monitor. Last year, for example, we intercepted, done the boarding and inspected not less than 30,000 vessels of various sizes. The radar surveillance system we have in the Straits of Malacca, Johor and even in Sabah waters, and two more under construction, will enhance our detection capabilities.

We will investigate anything suspicious out there. Day and night, rain or shine, we will be there. That’s why intelligence and information- sharing with our neighbours and other security agencies is our priority. This effort is continuous. Any kind of indicators or signals, we will respond accordingly. For example, there are outbreaks of diseases. We always monitor if people entering the country illegally are carriers.

Q: Have there been incidences where MMEA intercepted possible or confirmed terrorists?

A: No, not yet. We have intercepted nationalities from Somalia, Afghanistan, from some countries that are high on the list. We will work with the police and Immigration Department to trace every possible info about them. We can see that some of them probably used our country as a transit point. We have conducted operations with Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Australia. We call it Redback operations. You can see the number of people using us as a transit point have declined very much. Even the Australian government recognises our contribution.

Q: We have seen IS sympathisers in the police force and military. What about the MMEA?

A: To date, I can say that among MMEA personnel none of them are sympathisers or involved in whatever that is against the discipline of our organisation.

We are also heavily involved in Sabah’s Esszone, the areas of interest, since the 2013 Sulu incident. I have doubled up the number of our assets and personnel to safeguard eastern Sabah. I’ve also deployed our special forces and helicopters and our intelligence has been beefed. Recently, I had a session with my southern Thailand counterpart.

Q: These days, the public hold a more sceptical view towards government agencies. Some of the issues were due to news about corruption within government agencies. What is MMEA’s stand?

A: In our human resource planning, integrity is the main thrust that we put forward. We don’t want to have a good system, good facilities, good weapons or tools, ships, aircrafts, but the people handling it are untrustworthy. So, definitely all necessary efforts have been made to prevent any kind of corruption. We have the Sahabat Maritim programme where we befriend all of our stakeholders including fishermen and operators on the ground. From time to time, we send people to conduct research on how people view our commitment to our job. Of course there are people who will not be satisfied with our strict manner. At the end of the day, we can see the outcome of it is. The crime index on our waters has never been more than 3%. So that is an achievement. Before this, it was like 48%.

Q: I was told a few years ago MMEA was looking into making forward bases out of decommissioned oil rigs.

A: Yes. It’s being done. Of course this is undertaken by the armed forces. But under the Blue Ocean Strategy, we share the facilities. Although it is organised by the armed forces, the stationing of the armed corces also allows us to be together with them. Therefore, that has been done. At the same time, for our own forward bases, we have three in Sabah especially in the east coast. And two is coming up. Last month, we completed our base in Sandakan. Other than that, we have planned our blueprint until 2040 and it has been accepted by the Government, so we go by stages to develop it further including replacing old vessels with new ones.

We will have bigger vessels to cover the waters that we are responsible for. Of course it must be tailored to the needs of MMEA and affordability. We must consider all those factors.

Q: When we talk about patrolling the waters of Malaysia, we have these vessels that are manned by human beings. But what about unmanned aircrafts and drones, for example, to monitor our waters? Is MMEA looking into that?

A: That is a consideration. Don’t forget we also have the armed forces with us. We work together. We have the air force and navy choppers flying in the area. We share information with each other. We always indicate where we are and vice versa, so that we are not all at the same spot.

Q: You mentioned that MMEA saved more than 4,000 lives at sea. Does these numbers include those who try to illegally cross into our waters?

A: Definitely. When out at sea, when they are in trouble, we cannot say that we should abandon them just because they are Indonesians. No way! Those are lives at sea. Everybody saves one another when you are out there. It is immaterial where you are from, which nationality. Life is above everything. Once we have brought them to shore, we will handle the other side of it. But as far as lives at sea are concerned, it is our business. And we are proud to say that we not only save lives, but also property. We have saved not less than RM500mil of property.

I remember an incident when a ferry was on its way to Sandakan from southern Philippines. They faced engine trouble and the weather was not good. We pull all our gears to assist them. As far as search and rescue at sea is concerned, every nationality is equal. We will assist everyone.

Q: These recent years, there have been many deaths from illegal border crossings. We have Sabak Bernam last year and recently in Johor as well. And Teluk Panglima Garang about two years ago. The casualties were high. Should MMEA play a bigger role in ensuring that no casualties on such a scale will happen again?

A: We don’t want anything of that sort to happen; not to anybody. I should say that in the first place, we should stop them from leaving the country illegally. There are proper points of departure. If you use a route undetected by authorities along the coastlines, we will be out there. When we get emergency calls, we will go for it. We have been doing our best. Mind you, we have spent a lot of money to rescue people. Not only do we use the surface ships and divers but also the aircraft. For example, last two years I employed four aircraft for that purpose. So you can imagine how much we spend on that. But it is not money that counts, it is people’s lives that counts. At the same time, we request that some of whom we call tontos, tekong darat, tekong laut and those staying along the coastlines, if they notice something unusual, please come forward and call us at 999. We would respond accordingly.

Mishaps like these should be avoided. That’s how I look at it. At the same time, whoever who employs them, the moment the workers go on leave, I think their employers should know how they are leaving the country. Is it through illegal or proper channels?

Everybody should play their role. We can’t afford to have our assets monitoring every inch of the waters.

Q: The 4,000 people who were rescued; this was within how long a period of time?

A: That is within 10 years. But you can see the numbers are improving. Why? Because people realise the importance of security requirements. All these boat operators, it is spelt out in their licence what they should bring. If you have 20 life jackets, you should have 20 people onboard not 40. This is the law. We check them from time to time. For example, just before CNY, all ferry terminals have been checked. All the ferries have been warned. We don’t want any untoward incidents to happen during festive seasons.

Q: When we talk about human smuggling and smuggling of contraband cigarettes, how many hotspots have MMEA identified so far?

A: Let’s say you are a smuggler and you follow Chow Kit road, then you see a roadblock. What do you do? Use another road. So, the lorong tikus keeps changing. So we must also be smart enough.

Where do these cigarettes come from? We know the departure points. We not only monitor here, but also the points of departure. We have our radar. I think we have enough resources. Last week in Johor, we intercepted cigarettes worth RM5.1mil. That is also a good effort carried out by us. Last year we intercepted containers carrying cigarettes in Miri worth RM33mil.

Another approach is to stop consuming cigarettes. It’s a good habit anyway to stop smoking.

Q: I was told that there are digital cameras with high resolution capabilities that are monitoring the coastlines. How many cameras are there?

A: We have nine. Besides those cameras, we have radars. The radar will point to a target and the camera will zoom in. That’s why there’s a case where you can record how the sea robbers climbed the merchant ships. The crew onboard didn’t even realise it but we on the ground witnessed it. That’s why six of them were caught red-handed and prosecuted. There’s another case where we prosecuted the suspects in less than three weeks. Orkim Harmony took a longer time because they landed in Vietnam. But we have already visited them to record their statements and complete our investigation papers. This is required before we request for extradition from Vietnam and bring them here to face our laws.

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