A fresh round of bad publicity

Wong Chun Wai

The abduction of a Chinese national in the pristine Singamata Reef Resort, off Semporna, Sabah, couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Malaysia.

Wong Chun Wai, The Star

IT couldn’t have happened at a worse time. While Malaysia grapples with the delicate task of trying to defuse the anger of China nationals over MH370, another incident throws all efforts to the wind – the abduction of a Chinese national in the pristine Singamata Reef Resort, off Semporna, Sabah.

The abduction by the notorious Abu Sayyaf group has already generated a fresh round of bad publicity. Talk is that Malaysia is not able to protect the safety of tourists.

Certainly, this will be hot news in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. And it was barely five months ago that the same group shot dead a Taiwanese man and kidnapped his wife from Pom Pom Island, also in the same vicinity.

Following that attack, the Taiwanese media descended on Malaysia. The Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom), which is responsible for security in the area, came under heavy criticism.

The woman was rescued after 36 days and an official from Esscom said then that “the incident would not be repeated and that the security forces would work hard to ensure the Esszon (Eastern Sabah Security Zone) is safe”. The official also called on resort operators to cooperate fully with the security forces.

Well, the reality is that the group has struck again, and so soon after the previous incident. We’d better not hear our Malaysian officials say it won’t happen again.

And it was in February and March 2013 that a massive breach of security happened in Lahad Datu when 235 Sulu militants from the Philippines stormed into the village of Tanduo. The trial of 30 people involved in the incident is currently in progress in Kota Kinabalu.

These incidents show how vulnerable the area is, and how difficult it is for our security forces to protect the many resorts there that are highly popular with foreign tourists.

In some parts of Sabah, the Philippines is so near that their people can row their boats to Malaysia just for a game of football before heading home. This is not a joke, and urban folks in the Klang Valley probably cannot imagine how porous the international boundaries are in this part of the world.

But this writer, together with colleagues in Sabah, has visited some of these seaside villages, where most of the residents are Suluks. On a clear day, you can see parts of the Philippines with your naked eye.

It is clear to those familiar with such abductions that these criminals see such acts as nothing more than a business.

They will keep their victims for weeks, months or longer, depending on how fast or how slow the negotiations take place.

They know that the Malaysian Government would come under severe pressure to ensure the victims are returned safely. They certainly know our weak points.

Since the invasion of Lahad Datu, the Malaysian Government has sought to strengthen security through the formation of the Esscom, which covers 10 districts – Kudat, Kota Marudu, Pitas, Beluran, Sandakan, Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu, Kunak, Semporna and Tawau.

It’s obvious that all that has been done isn’t enough. Another security breach has taken place and all the promises to improve the security loopholes have failed.

The resorts need to do their part and help out our security forces. There have been complaints that some Western divers, who also run these resorts, do not want our security men around because they feel their presence would drive away tourists.

If that is the case, these operators should hire well-trained armed security men to protect the resorts. It should be a requirement. If they don’t, the bill should be sent to them. Yes, it costs a lot to carry out rescue operations.

The safety of tourists should be paramount. These island resorts may be secluded but in the Internet era, any news – good or bad – will spread swiftly over social media. News of the abduction, and how the safety of tourists has been compromised, would have gone viral by now, causing much damage to Malaysia’s reputation as a tourism hub.

The huge sums of money spent to promote Malaysia as a tourist destination would be wasted if we do not dedicate the same resources to ensure safety.

Tourists must be assured that they can travel and have a great holiday in our country without any fear.

We have maintained a fairly good reputation because the touts, hustlers and peddlers normally associated with tourism joints stay away. There are also no strip joints where customers are literally stripped of their money or have hefty bills presented to them by nasty-looking men.

True, there have been reports of snatch thieves and pickpockets targeting tourists but this is not unique to Malaysia. This writer experienced the same thing even in the Holy Land. The harsh reality is that not everyone is holy, even in the Holy Land.

The abduction of the China national has reminded us of the need for heavier army and police presence in Semporna and the surrounding areas.

These are world-class resorts and the presence of our security men would help show the world that we are serious in protecting them.

They must be seen on land and in the surrounding waters. It is an investment that will go a long way in sending the right message to the world even as we pray for the safe rescue of the kidnap victims.