Borders remain porous as nation’s integrity at stake

MAY 7 — On May 22, 1890, the ruler of a small state under Dutch control in Aceh, North Sumatra, wrote a brief letter in Malay. The addressee was a Chinese man named Baba Seng, who lived across the Straits of Melaka in the British colonial possessions on the Malay peninsula.

The Acehnese chief informed the Chinese trader that he was in need of certain items: twenty breach-loading rifles, twenty Russian-made shoulder straps, percussion caps, and rifle oil, among other things. In return the Acehnese leader promised a cargo of pepper from his own agricultural supplies, which would have fetched Baba Seng a good deal of money on the open market of Melaka. The letter was sent via two couriers, both of whom were Acehnese women.

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There is no historical record of whether the transaction actually occurred, or whether this attempt to smuggle arms and ammunition into the Dutch East Indies — and pepper out of it — was foiled by the colonial authorities. 

Two things are known for certain, however. This sort of smuggling happened often on the Anglo/Dutch frontier in colonial Southeast Asia, and much of the time — if not most of the time — these illegal transaction were never intercepted. The development of a three-thousand-kilometre boundary between British and Dutch spheres, starting about 1865 and more or less finishing in 1915, was always a work in progress. During this fifty-year period smuggled goods continued to cross the frontier against the wishes of both colonial states.

That was taken from the book Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier (1865-1915) written by Eric Tagliacozzo.

The subject of borders and its porosity have always been debated for centuries as evident in history books.

It remains till today as nations around the globe struggle to keep their borders in check. Even developed countries like UK and USA are finding it difficult to monitor the movement of people and goods going in and coming out of their nations.

Former Tory minister Chris Patten, had during a talk in Paris last August, called it the “dark side of globalisation” which left governments increasingly powerless and that “elected representatives are increasingly reluctant to tell people the truth about such issues”.

Lord Patten was quoted as saying: “Today, with porous borders, the amount that politicians and political leaders can actually do on their own is very limited.”

The same can be said about USA as they have been struggling to keep their border with Mexico in check for decades.

An armed Malaysian policeman mans a security checkpoint in Lahad Datu on March 6, 2013. — AFP pic
An armed Malaysian policeman mans a security checkpoint in Lahad Datu on March 6, 2013. — AFP pic

The migration of people and goods from one point to another illegally is co-related with illicit activities. It is indeed a worrying to note Malaysia too is not spared from such activity. Just within this year alone, there have been a series of incidents which resulted from poor monitoring of our borders. 

Police in Penang and Kedah had earlier this year rescued several Myanmar nationals who were victims of a human trafficking syndicate and were brought in by land from Thailand.

We then saw the kidnapping incident at the Singamata Reef Resort on April 2 followed by the abduction of a Chinese national near Pulau Babi yesterday morning. The latest incident was just barely two days after pirates robbed three fishermen off the waters of Tanjung Labian.

Our waters are easily encroached despite the establishment of the multi-million Ringgit Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) set up after the Lahad Datu intrusion early last year.

Sabah has been open to such ‘attacks’ since 2000 when Abu Sayyaf gunmen kidnapped 21 hostages from Sipadan Island.  

Many are aware of the huge influx of illegals working in the state. Sabah’s immigration director Noor Alam Khan Abdul Wahid Khan said 515 people, including women and children without travel documents, were detained in and around Semporna during Ops Gasak 6 on April 10.

Imagine if a serious crackdown was launched nationwide. The numbers would be horrifying.

Border patrolling is no easy task, even more so with Sabah’s 1,400km coastline and the Malaysia-Thai 646.6km border. There needs to be participation from neighbouring countries to combat this menace.

The authorities should also work on strengthening their integrity within. They need to put an end over talks of how easy it is to cross Sungai Golok without any travel documentation or to smuggle goods, including firearms, from across the border.

There needs to be a serious commitment to tackle this issue. There are already emergence of militant groups and the last thing we need is to be known as a hub for criminals and terrorists. Tourism will suffer, so will the country’s economy.

Malaysia’s borders have been tested repeatedly and sadly we have failed on many occasions. 

We don’t need another saga to mar the image of the country as we celebrate Visit Malaysia Year this year. We need to assure the people that their money is well spent on security and we are prepared for any external attacks. 

The words of Florida-based security consultant Michelle L.Spencer, as seen in  the article ‘Borders and Interstate Security’ published in the book Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century best sums this up: 

“... the border is the first line of defence against terrorism and the last line of a nation’s territorial integrity”.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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