Malaysia Dateline

Covid-19: How porous are our borders?

Malaysia has relatively huge territories straddling from the Malay Peninsula to Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, sharing terrestrial and maritime boundaries with other sovereign neighbours, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In relation to the above, the portion of the northern part of the Malaysian peninsula shares common borders with Thailand, expanding 646.5km from one coast to another. Both Malaysia and Thai governments have established eight immigration posts along the length of the international boundary line separating both nations, namely Wang Kelian and Padang Besar in Perlis, Bukit Kayu Hitam and Durian Burung in Kedah, Pengkalan Hulu in Perak and Bukit Bunga, Rantau Panjang and Pengkalan Kubor in Kelantan. Down south, there are two main gateways linking Malaysia to Singapore, namely Tanjung Kupang and Johor Bahru.

Sabah and Sarawak are direct neighbours of the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan with a shared land border of 2,019.5kms from Tanjung Datu all the way up north to Tawau. Brunei landmass is entirely surrounded by Sarawak with a common border of about 481.3km.

Malaysian frontiers are mostly located in remote hilly areas, covered with thick rainforest making it difficult for extensive surveillance to be carried out. As a result, problems like smuglling, human trafficking, illicit trade in narcotics, among others, are still issues yet to be resolved in its entirety. For example, in 2015, a shallow Rohingya grave was discovered in areas near the Malaysia-Thailand border in Wang Kelian and Wang Prachan near Perlis, a manifestation of the grim effects of human trafficking.

In addition, Malaysia has huge maritime areas strectching from the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea towards the Sulu Sea, making it challenging for the authorities to carry out extensive surveillance and monitoring activities.

Malaysia and Thailand are separated by the tiny Golok River that flows from the jungle hinterlands of Kelantan and Narathiwat towards the South China Sea. Although these territories are part of different nations today, Kelantan and Narathiwat possess centuries of historical, family, and cultural ties that goes back to the era of the then Pattani Sultanate. These factors make it difficult for the authorities to monitor the movements of people coming in and out of both territories.

Initially, shoppers and visitors of the Wang Kelian Market located at the Perlis-Satun boundary were allowed to criss-cross both nations without having to use international passports on weekends. As a result, there were reports that this has allowed illegal smuggling activities to fluorish. Consequently, as of April 2015, free access between the two nation at the Wang Kelian boundary post has been rescinded.

Just like the Golok river frontier region, the local residents of the eastern coast of Sabah has close relations with those originating from the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines, as historically they were part of the same territory prior to Western colonisation. This has also caused difficulties particularly in monitoring locals and foreigners criss-crossing international boundaries between Malaysia and the Philippines in that part of the country.

In addition, the same could be said with regards to the Malaysia-Indonesia boundary in Serikin, Sarawak. Although there is no official international boundary post located here, many Indonesians from nearby province of West Kalimantan commute into Sarawak and back to sell their goods at Serikin Market, in most cases, without using international passports.

In short, although Malaysia has a number of international boundary posts located all over the nation’s frontier, there are cases where illegal immigrants swooping into the country without proper documentations.

This could no longer be taken lightly, particularly when the nation is at war with an invisible enemy, the Wuhan Virus. The Covid-19 plague has claimed 83 lives in Malaysia with 2,342 active cases as at 15 April 2020. New infections of Covid-19 in Malaysia has been quite stable with daily cases recorded not exceeding 200 and not less than 100, ever since the Movement Control Order (MCO) was declared on 18 March 2020 and scheduled to end on 28 April 2020. Beginning 15 April 2020, the number of new reported cases has gone down below 100, an indication that the MCO has continuously shown positive results.

Although Singapore has been praised and glorified for being able to withstand the first wave of Covid-19, all this admiration has turned into frustration when the richest country in Southeast Asia succumbed to the plague and had to again grapple with the resurgence of Covid-19.

The Singapore government has emulated Malaysia’s MCO, or circuit breaker, as it is described in Singapore and enforced it from 7 April 2020 and is scheduled to end in mid May 2020. Daily infections in the republic has recorded skyrocketing cases of more than 190 for eleven days in a row since 9 April 2020. Singapore now has the highest Covid-19 infection in Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s immediate neighbour to the north, Thailand, is also battling against Covid-19. Although the rate of new infections in Thailand is not as high as other Southeast Asian nations, it is to be noted that the number of Covid-19 tests being carried out is relatively low, compared to Malaysia and Singapore.

The Philippines has more than 6000 cases reported as of 19 April 2020. President Duterte has declared a lockdown in the island of Luzon, the largest island in the archipelagic nation to curb the spread of the plague.

Although media attention is not spotlighted on Brunei, this is perhaps one of the nations in the world that may have won the battle against Covid-19 as there has been no new cases reported since 10 April 2020. Brunei has also conducted considerable number of Covid-19 tests on its citizens and no deaths has been reported since 28 March 2020.

In contrast, Malaysia’s largest neighbour, the fourth most populous nation in the world, Indonesia has overtaken Malaysia and is now the second most-affected Covid-19 country in Southeast Asia. It recorded new infections at the rate of over 200 cases daily since 6 April 2020.

Unlike its neighbours, the Indonesian government has yet to declare a full-scale lockdown or even a partial lockdown. Moreover, CNN Indonesia reported that Indonesia is among the nations in the world that has carried out the least number of Covid-19 tests on its citizens. This means that there is a huge possibility that the reported positive cases of Covid-19 in Indonesia may not depict the reality of the immense rate of infection taking place in that nation.

Malaysia’s medical expert, Dr. Musa Nordin, through his interview with Astro Awani on 9 April 2020, adamantly contended that Indonesia is a Covid-19 ticking time bomb and called for the Malaysian government to shut and secure international gateways located all across the country in the attempt to succesfully win the battle against Covid-19.

Consequently, Malaysia has to enhance surveillance not only on the official gateways but also on hundreds of ‘back alleys’ along the length of the thousands of kilometers of land and maritime boundaries encircling the nation. The arrival of Rohingya refugees to Malaysian shores in Langkawi is a manifestation that effort should be undertaken to further protect the nation’s frontier, which may involve a number of government agencies like the Coast Guard (APMM), the Malaysian Border Control Agency (AKSEM), Immigration Department of Malaysia, the Royal Malaysian Police and many others.

In the effort to curb the widespread infection of Covid-19, Malaysia must tightly seal all international gateways securely and enforce strict measures to stop unwarranted and illegal immigrants trespassing into the country. The authorities have to restrategise and learn from past mistakes in ensuring that Malaysia’s borders are not porous particularly when the nation is working hard to stop the invasion of the deadly Covid-19 plague.

* Associate Professor Dr. Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli and Dr. Fareed Mohd Hassan are lecturers at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.