Over the past few years, the terrorist threats facing the eastern Malaysian regions on the island of Borneo have become subject for alarm. Since 2021, residents in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE) have been undergoing frequent curfews that have lasted until this year, with a recent announcement that the curfew has been extended to July 9. Authorities have revealed that curfews are in force due to unabating terrorist threats, along with kidnapping attempts and cross-border crimes linked to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The latest intelligence published in March 2022, suggests that the ASG’s second-in-command, a figure named Mundi, is seeking refuge in Sabah, raising concerns that ASG-linked local groups and sympathizers may become active.
Furthermore, Sabah has emerged as the preferred transit point for Indonesian militants infiltrating the southern Philippines in order to commit terrorist acts there. The combination of these factors foreshadows a monumental risk to Malaysian national security. Putrajaya must therefore be proactive and act immediately to nip the terrorist threats in the bud before any bloodshed takes place. The Lahad Datu incursion by Jamalul Kiram III of the Sulu Sultanate into Sabah in 2013, which caused the deaths of over 60 individuals, including civilians and authorities, should have been a critical signal for Putrajaya to bolster Bornean security in ensuring such threats will not recur.
Against this backdrop, Putrajaya must act vehemently to deter the reemerging threat of the ASG and other militant groups, while preparing for a possible militant incursion in East Malaysia. A threat looms over Sabah in particular, as indicated by the government’s continuous imposition of curfews in the region.
Putrajaya is currently strengthening East Malaysian security through various initiatives. The recent acquisition of three AW139 helicopters by the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is a prime example, indicating that assets will be mobilized to enhance patrols in Bornean waters. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defense initiated a new army base in Lahad Datu earlier this year, at a cost of 646.15 million ringgit ($146 million) that aims to strengthen Sabah’s security and ability to deal with the emerging threats. Finally, one unit of Special Action Unit commandos has been dispatched to Sabah to combat the ASG threat.
Malaysia’s initiatives to empower Bornean security readiness and capability are timely given the growing non-traditional security threats to East Malaysia. Apart from terrorism, other non-terrorist challenges, such as cross-border kidnapping for ransom (KFR) and illegal immigration, remain rampant in East Malaysia and demonstrate the need for Putrajaya to up the ante on border security in the region.
Cases of cross-border KFR and armed robberies have plagued Sabah since the year 2000. In that year, bandits from the ASG kidnapped 21 people, including foreign tourists, from Sipadan Island. Following these incidents, Malaysia launched a military operation called Ops Pasir in September 2000 which sought to eliminate further cross-border crimes at a cost of 300 million ringgit ($67.8 million) annually. Although generally effective, Ops Pasir was not enough to prevent incidents such as the 2013 Lahad Datu incursion. This outcome should necessitate Putrajaya to diversify away from its heavy reliance on a military approach to the region’s security challenges.
The Lahad Datu incident dictates the current development of Sabah’s border security. Following the incident, Putrajaya recognized the need for even greater maritime security in Eastern Sabah, leading to the establishment of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) to protect ESSZONE. However, ESSCOM was criticized after its formation for being inefficient in achieving its primary objective of preventing transnational crime, raising questions about Putrajaya’s military approach to Sabah’s borders. As a seasoned Sabahan politician stated in 2016, “ESSCOM is not the solution as there were more cross-border kidnappings during ESSCOM’s three years than the last 20 years without ESSCOM.”
Although the federal government has taken military measures to address cross-border crimes in Sabah, these challenges have been immensely difficult to solve. Geographical factors play a central role here. For example, Sabah’s 1,450-kilometer-long porous maritime border lies close to the Philippine province of Tawi-Tawi, and contains 107 islands that intruders can use as staging points before entering Sabah’s waters. More military resources are arguably required to protect the coastline, but we must question the viability of a solely military approach to protecting Sabah’s borders. Ops Pasir’s inability to prevent the 2013 incursion demonstrates the need to explore non-military measures in order to support current initiatives.
Apart from the KFR threat, illegal immigration continues to be one of the central issues in Sabah. From 1990 to 2007, 298,601 immigrants, mostly Filipinos and Indonesians, were deported from Sabah, not including those who remain undetected by authorities. As of 2020, the number of illegal immigrants in Sabah totaled 1.2 million, with the highest concentration in Tawau, the region closest to the southern Philippines. The underlying cause of such high degrees of illegal immigration can be traced to two main reasons: kinship and economic opportunities.
Before the advent of modern borders, some of the earliest immigrants to have set foot in Sabah were the Bajau and Sulu from the Mindanao region of today’s Philippines, a fact that forms the basis of the Philippines’ historic claim over Sabah. Following the Moro conflict in the late twentieth century, many crossed illegally into Sabah, capitalizing on kinship and family ties in order to integrate. Relatives or friends provide illegal immigrants with shelter and nourishment, perpetuating chain migration.
Furthermore, the potential kinship between Sabahan security personnel and illegal immigrants may result in lax enforcement of immigration laws. Poor economic opportunities back home provide additional justification for migrants to cross the border. Due to these reasons, 300 million ringgit per year in military expenditures are insufficient to deter illegal border crossings. It is clear that Sabah also requires soft policies to eliminate illegal immigration effectively.
Sarawak is equally at risk from illegal immigration, stemming from its equally porous border with Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. Indonesia’s new capital Nusantara in Kalimantan will begin development in the second half of this year, which should prompt Putrajaya to double down on Sarawakian security concerns. It is expected that the Nusantara project will involve the eventual relocation of some 30 million Indonesians, leading many Sarawakians to believe that it could increase illegal border crossings into Malaysia. If unaddressed, transnational crime syndicates may flourish, threatening Sarawak’s security.
East Malaysia’s geographical complexities and diverse demographics require a multi-pronged approach to improving border security and addressing the region’s growing non-traditional security threats. Sheer military might will deter some, but will not succeed in preventing all instances of border violations, as seen with Ops Pasir. In any event, the Malaysian federal budget does not have the margins to support the increases in defense spending for Sabah and Sarawak that some are recommending.
For example, Budget 2022 has allocated 26.4 million ringgit ($5.9 million) to ESSCOM, a reduction from Budget 2021’s allocation of 26.8 million ringgit ($6.1 million). While ESSCOM’s commander has called for increased resources, it is understandably difficult for Putrajaya to fulfill his wishes. Only 75 billion ringgit ($16.9 billion), or 22.6 percent of Budget 2022, is committed to development costs, with the remaining 233.5 billion ($52.7 billion) spent on operational costs. Thus, margins for defense development are slim, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. As the government pushes an expansionary fiscal policy post-COVID-19, increased defense spending is unlikely to be a top priority.
Instead, a multistep compromise is needed. For Sabah, Putrajaya should consider relocating pre-existing Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and RMN assets from Peninsular Malaysia to Sabah, as there is substantially less risk of a maritime threat to the former. This gives East Malaysian security operations the assets they require without increasing financial commitments. Additionally, Putrajaya ought to increase the MMEA’s scope within ESSCOM whilst reducing the purview of the Malaysian Armed Forces, given that the former focuses specifically on maritime issues.
Furthermore, minilateral efforts on the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines to patrol the Sulu Sea have been successful in reducing transnational crimes. In March 2022, all three TCA signatories pledged to increase patrols in the area. However, this must be translated into swift action given the persistent threats of cross-border crimes along East Malaysia’s border.
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle for East Malaysian border security is the pursuit of softer approaches. The Malaysian government must explore how better to tackle the root causes of the emerging non-traditional security threats. Grassroots initiatives in border communities are necessary to instill the nationalism needed to overcome crossborder kinship ties. Putrajaya should also utilize its network of Village Security and Development Committees in rural areas to educate villagers on the importance of their role in protecting national security and to rebuild trust in the Federation.
The onus is on Putrajaya to re-examine its strategy toward East Malaysia’s security. The incursion of Lahad Datu in 2013 is a bitter lesson that Malaysia will have to endure. To prevent a recurrence, it must undertake multilayered efforts to address East Malaysia’s border security challenges.