KOTA KINABALU: Four Chinese tourists, who were detained for 18 days in Tawau prison for not having their passports stamped by the immigration when they entered Sabah, returned to their motherland yesterday.
One of them, 25-year-old Wang Xiali, was eager to return to her family after the ordeal. Nevertheless, she said that the incident taught her to be more attentive towards legal affairs of a country, particularly those which are travel-related.
“This experience taught me to do research before travelling to any country, so that I would be more aware of the restrictions and regulations. I will take this experience for self-improvement,” she said.
Wang added that she was touched by concern shown by loved ones at home and abroad, as well as assistance provided by locals.
Meanwhile, Liu Ling, 22, said the detention was frightening as they were subjected to a harsh environment at the centre and prison. Despite the uncomfortable situation, she was grateful for the help given by locals after she and her friends encountered problems.
Wang, Liu, Zhang Qingsi, 23,and Wu Jinting, 24, from Shanghai arrived at Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) from Tawau Airport yesterday, where they held a press conference.
Wang explained that she was not clear on the procedure when they arrived at KKIA on transit to Tawau.
“As soon as we arrived at KKIA, we did not leave the airport and waited for a transfer to Tawau. It had always been the four of us travelling together, since the beginning of our trip. There was no instruction from anyone and no obvious signboards, so we had to fumble on our own.
“In addition, the ticket inspectors did not carefully check our passports when we boarded the plane to Tawau, but only routinely inspected our plane ticket. After arriving at Tawau Airport, the authorities made the same mistake and did not find that we had missed the seal.
“On December 9, the authorities found that four of us had stamp omissions but did not immediately seize our passports. We were just given an address in Tawau Airport and were told to find the place ourselves.
“By the next day, we were detained. At the time, we were all handcuffed by law enforcement officers. Psychologically exhausted, we felt very stressed after suffering such an impact.
“This was the first time in my life that I was caught in handcuffs. At that moment, we felt that the situation was serious, and our mood just dropped,” said Wang.
She went on to say that she and her friends then suffered inhumane treatment, as they were detained with some repeat offenders. They thought it would only be for a day or two, but ended up spending 18 days in prison from the date of their arrest (December 10).
“We were held in a crowded space with more than 100 others. We were traveling, why should we be treated like murderers? We couldn’t sleep every day and even if we could, we slept late and had to wake up early. The environment in the prison was very bad and the food was rotten,” she elaborated.
On December 28, the Sessions Court in Tawau sentenced the four women to 18 days’ jail, from the date of arrest, after they pleaded guilty to a charge under Section 24 (2) of the Immigration Act 1959/63, for failing to report to the immigration counter upon entering the country.
Upon conviction, the charge carries a fine of up to RM10,000 or a jail term of not more than five years, or both.
According to Sabah Immigration Department director Datuk Dr Muhamad Sade Mohamad Amin, the four women arrived in Kota Kinabalu on December 4 at 6.15am, before taking a connecting flight to Tawau later at 7.40am.
He explained that the women had failed to report to any immigration counter, especially the transit counter at KKIA, for immigration endorsement indicating that they had entered the country legally.
“All the women were detained on December 10 when they were having their passports checked for their return flight to Shanghai via Tawau International Airport,” he said.
Muhamad has urged all parties including airlines, travel agencies and the Chinese embassy to advise visitors from China to comply with Malaysia’s immigration regulations.
He said this was to address, among other things, the issue of Chinese tourists failing to get their documents checked at immigration counters when entering the country.
The Sabah Immigration Department together with Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad and the Sabah Tourism Board have also taken proactive steps by placing warning signs in Mandarin at various places around the KKIA.
KKIA also makes public announcements in Mandarin to prevent such matters from occurring, he said.
Meanwhile, Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) information chief Chin Vui Kai said the government has a duty to the people, to the country and to tourists to stop once and for the illegal detention of innocent tourists.
“This incident is not the first time it happened. In December last year, the same had happened to several Chinese tourists (among them, one was a pregnant woman) and they were detained in Rumah Merah, a temporary detention centre in Manggatal, together with illegal immigrants,” said Chin.
“Are we not ashamed to see genuine tourists intending to spend their money and enjoy their stay in Sabah being treated worse than illegal immigrants? In Sabah, illegal immigrants will be specially treated with three-year passes (PSS) renewable to 100 years,” Chin said.
“Think of the physical and emotional trauma these ‘supposedly happy’ holiday travellers experienced for the whole 18 days in the dirty, stinking jail in Tawau during the festive season.
“It is just common sense these young innocent tourists had neither criminal intent nor any intent to flout the law. They must have visas issued by the Malaysian government before they could board the plane at the airport when departing China,” Chin said.
“Let’s not let our state and country be labelled as inconsiderate, heartless, undiplomatic, irrational and overzealous prosecutors by other countries that will eventually affect the tourism industry and our country’s image,” he reminded.
The recurrence of such incidents is evident that there is existence of weaknesses at the airport terminals. If such weaknesses were left unresolved, it would be like a trap waiting for the next victim.
“Be mindful that 2020 is Malaysia Tourism Year, the airport terminals, reception and immigration need to be geared up not just to avoid recurrence of bad incidents but to improve and live up to the expectations of Sabah as a tourist destination,” Chin said.