Thursday, October 24

A matter of national security

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Open houses are a priceless tradition. — File photo

MISSING two newspapers within a space of a week was an ordeal; so a clipping of The Borneo Post of March 19 of this year provided some relief.

I read about the Malaysian police cooperating with the Turkish authorities in bringing home Malaysians suspected of having been involved in terrorist activities in Syria. A total of 51 Malaysians – that we know of – have been identified. Apparently, they have been in communication with their families in Malaysia.

Twenty-three of them (12 children, presumably those of the group) had contacted their relatives, expressing their wish to return home. The police were contacted by these families and the former promised to help, on condition that the jihadists would have to undergo a rehabilitation programme.

In the same paper on the same day, Bernama reported that 13 foreigners had been arrested in Sabah, a Malaysian was among them. He was suspected of getting mixed up with the groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Maute, and Royal Sulu Force. News about extension after extension of curfews in the eastern part of Sabah did not convey a picture of peace. What happens to Sabah is felt in other parts of the Federation, more acutely so in Sarawak.

Around the same period this year, a man disguised as a businessman, was nabbed as a terror suspect, furtively operating in Serian! Serian, not Syria!

I’m not saying that in that division, there is a terrorist behind every durian tree. But the discovery of some spurious businessman has made Malaysians in Sarawak feel unsafe. They scramble for mental safety, thanking God for the Immigration Act! And trusting that the security apparatus would be able to nab every undesirable element living in our midst.

Outcome of negotiations?

Three months of waiting for the outcome of the talks between the police and the Turkish authorities seems ages.

Have the Malaysian jihadists been brought back to the country already, quietly, without warning the law-abiding citizens among whom they will live? Or are they still in Syria, seeking refuge in Turkey before returning to Malaysia?

If they are back, have they been investigated, rehabilitated, and then released among the general populace without any residential restriction? No news. That worries Sarawakians a lot.

If any of the returned jihadists comes over to Sarawak, the ordinary people have no means of identifying him or her. They will have to trust the Immigration officers manning the entry points to be able to identify such a ‘visitor’.

Rehabilitation of suspects

How long does it take to rehabilitate a terror suspect?

Fifty years ago, when I was a member of the Board of Visitors to the Detention Centre at Mile 6, Kuching, I had heard about how hardcore terrorists were being brainwashed by the police personnel trained in psychological warfare. Many success stories there were, for sure, but many of failures too. Some terrorists were simply incorrigible, ideologically!

Such police officers were assigned to handle REP (Returned Enemy Personnel). They were good. I wonder if there are any still around. Some religious teachers were also good at bringing back the religious deviationists ke pangkal jalan (true path). However, I don’t know if any of them is good at reconditioning any jihadist, who is both a terror suspect and a religious fanatic.

Common-sense questions: Why did these people go to a war-torn country in the first place, if not to train as terrorists and then return to Malaysia with their ‘education’? There is nothing to terrorise in this country anymore. Except for the incursion at Lahad Datu by a couple of hundred armed Sulus in 2013, we have been enjoying freedom from any serious internal security threat. And we want to continue to live that way.

Not so long ago, Sarawakians had a fair share of terrorist activities. That is why any whisper of a violent ideology causes considerable anxiety among us. Over the past few decades, we have been enjoying relative peace. And we want to keep it that way.

Appeal for understanding

So when we keep on hammering on Sarawak’s powers over immigration as being non-negotiable, the other Malaysians coming to Sarawak ought to study the historical background behind our sensitivity. Anyone reading about the obstacles to the merger between Malaya and Singapore in the late 50s and early 60s would appreciate our concern. No space for elaboration here. Read James P Ongkili’s book ‘Nation-Building in Malaysia – 1946-1974’ and Lee Kuan Yew’s book ‘The Battle For Merger’ – they would be good to read about those obstacles.

The Sarawakian founding fathers of Malaysia insisted on writing the power over immigration into the Federal Constitution for a good reason. Sarawak had been enjoying this power while it was a colony. For good measure, the leaders made that power into a federal law (Immigration Act) – retaining for the Sarawak government the right to turn away anyone deemed to be a security is a wise move. The security of the state is also the security of the country as a whole. Any disagreement there?

It must be admitted, however, that certain politicians and NGO members have been barred from entry into Sarawak. It is the policy of the government of the day. Speaking for myself, I think it’s unwise in the long run to be politically selective in invoking the Immigration powers. It’s vital only if the security of the country is really at stake!

Aliens in own country

I have been hearing Peninsular Malaysians complaining about being treated as aliens in their own country when they enter Sarawak, while Sarawakians entering Selangor or Johor are treated like any other visitors to those states. Sarawakians are allowed to work and reside in Selangor and Johor and in other states in the peninsula without a permit.

Unfair! This is just one side of the coin. Flip over, any historian would tell you about major obstacles to the merger between Malaya and Singapore alone – before a solution was found in the form of an enlarged Federation by dragging in the Borneo Territories for demographic balance. That’s the hangover.

I often said to my friends in Peninsular Malaysia during the meetings of the National Consultative Council (Mapen) that anyone with no intention to terrorise Sarawakians would be most welcome to the state.

The fact is that thousands of Malaysians from other parts of the country have been in and out of Sarawak without any problem at all and we have been welcoming them. The more the merrier. The few in the list of persona non grata are the ‘enemy’ of the ruling politicians, defending their green turf, not the enemy of the ordinary Sarawakians like me. We are worried only if any ‘reconditioned terrorists’ should pass through the immigration counters without people like us knowing it.

Understand Sarawakians, you must. If we are so overzealous in preserving the interreligious and interracial harmony that has been nurtured and nourished by our people for a long time, we ought to be excused to keep that priceless Sarawak’s unique character – welcoming strangers to our shores provided that they behave.

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