The recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport grabbed headlines around the world; it also highlighted the fact that our immigration system appears to be hopelessly broken and is in need of an urgent overhaul.
Ri Jong Chol, one of the initial North Korean suspects, who was subsequently released and deported, was found to have entered the country on false pretences. So what was he doing here and how is it that he was able to go undetected for so long?
Other North Koreans involved in the assassination plot appeared to have moved in and out of the country with equal ease.
We now have to face the possibility that Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the site of the attack because it was such an easy place to enter and operate from. And if North Korean assassins can operate in Malaysia with such ease, we have to assume that both terrorists and criminals are also doing likewise.
The alarming fact is that there are now hundreds of thousands of foreigners living in Malaysia illegally; no one knows who they are, how they entered or what they are up to.
A paradise for terrorists and assassins
One has only to sift through local media reports, many of which quote our own government officials, to notice a recurring pattern of failure by both Home Affairs and Immigration to stem the tidal wave of forged passports, visa abuse and other immigration-related violations.
In the last few months alone, local media have reported that nationals from Yemen, Bangladesh, Morocco, Indonesia and Nepal have been detained for suspected terrorism-related activities, including a planned attack on a visiting Saudi delegation.
One thing that all those arrested had in common is that they entered undetected under false pretences or with forged documentation.
So lax is our immigration system that some of these terrorists managed to enter Malaysia even after being deported from other countries or after having been released from jail for terrorism offences elsewhere. Others, according to police statements, were known terrorist sympathizers, IS operatives and gunrunners.
Among the better known cases was that of a Bangladeshi “businessman” with links to one of the ISIS suspects involved in the attack on a café in Dhaka last July which killed 22 people. The suspect, also a known gunrunner, had been happily living in KL and was the proud owner of a restaurant in the city.
Another foreigner, also arrested for terrorism-related offenses, owned not just a restaurant but several entertainment outlets in the city as well.
Obviously, anyone, it seems, can enter illegally and then operate a business here without having to worry about such inconvenient things like laws, licences and taxes that Malaysian citizens have to deal with.
Malaysia’s apparently well-deserved reputation as a “transit point and hideout,” as the Inspector-General of Police himself put it, can be attributed to three factors – an inane visa regime, incompetence, and corruption.
An inane visa regime
At a time when most countries are tightening entry requirements, Malaysia has gone the other way in order to attract more tourists. Foreign nationals from dozens of countries can now obtain a visa on arrival making it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out any prior background checks on them.
While granting visa-free travel to some countries makes a lot of sense, granting such facilities to countries like North Korea and others, which have hardly any tourists to speak off or have a proven history of visa abuse, simply makes Malaysia a magnet for all sort of unsavoury characters.
The same is true of student visas. We appear to be so desperate to grow our education industry that almost anyone from anywhere in the world can easily get a student visa to enter Malaysia. While many students are, of course, genuine and ought to be welcomed, there needs to be a vigorous and effective system of checks to make sure the programme is not abused. As it is, several of those who entered on student visas have been found to be involved in terrorist-related activities.
Free to do whatever you want
Second, our immigration department has proven extremely negligent, incompetent even, in providing an adequate level of oversight and scrutiny of foreign visitors. Too many visitors are overstaying or abusing the terms and conditions of their visas without ever being detected.
To all intent and purposes, visa free has come to mean free to stay for as long as you like, free to do whatever you want.
From time to time, the authorities make a big show of rounding up illegals but these are mostly hapless refugees rather than criminals, terrorists or others who abuse our hospitality and take advantage of our openness.
Third, there is the issue of corruption. Last December, for example, it was reported that corruption, mismanagement and failure to adhere to standard security procedures had compromised the immigration department, leaving the country exposed to terrorists and human traffickers. Unknown persons were deliberately allowed to bypass checks and facial recognition technology at entry points and baggage checks. In all, 37 immigration officers were involved.
Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan called it “dangerous” though the Minister of Home Affairs later insisted, rather unconvincingly, that no terrorists had entered.
More recently, it was reported that 10 Immigration officers were detained in Sarawak for allegedly taking bribes to enable illegal immigrants to enter the state without travel documents or work permits. From Sarawak these illegals are, of course, free to go anywhere in Malaysia.
And so, while the Sarawak state government goes to great lengths to ban Malaysian citizens, even members of parliament, from entering through the front door, corrupt officials allow all sorts of nefarious characters to enter by the back door!
According to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the situation is getting worse. Going by the law of averages, there must be an awful lot of corrupt officials currently manning, among others, sensitive positions in Immigration, Customs and other services that are responsible for the protection of the nation’s borders.
Dysfunctional and incompetent
Clearly, our immigration system is now so dysfunctional, so incompetent, so corrupt that we are defenceless, a nation with broken borders.
In fact, there is a process of colonization going on right under our very noses, a massive abuse of our immigration system, our hospitality, our openness. People are coming from all over the world to settle down, start a business, buy property, access the health care system, hide out, plan their next terrorist attack, promote their own ideology and recruit followers, and eventually, by hook or by crook, acquire permanent resident status if not citizenship.
We are losing our country bit by bit and yet it evokes so little concern from those in power. They make grand speeches about patriotism but betray the country by their wilful neglect of our borders. They are so focused on keeping tabs on Malaysian citizens that they can’t see the silent invasion of the country that is taking place.
We don’t need to build a wall to keep our country safe; we just need sane policies and an immigration department that is both competent and honest. Is that too much to expect?
[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 22nd March 2017]