​​​​​​​Kesban at sea – holistic security for east Sabah

DURING the Second Malayan Emergency in the peninsula, which came after independence, the government introduced a new strategy for fighting the Malayan Communist Party. Known as the Security and Development Programme, or KESBAN (Program Keselamatan dan Pembangunan) its focus was on civil-military affairs. Under KESBAN the Malaysian Armed Forces and other (government) agencies took comprehensive measures to strengthen and protect society from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency, and these ultimately led to effectively breaking the Communist movement. It was clear to the Malaysian authorities that security along with development were the most prudent and potent approaches in combating the Communist insurgency and terrorism.

KESBAN was later adopted in Sarawak to curtail the North Kalimatan Communist Party Second Bureau (NKCP). The Rajang Area Security Command (RASCOM) was established in 1972 to address this threat in the Rajang river valley around Sarikei, Sibu, and Kapit. RASCOM was an inter-agency outfit where civilian, security, and defence personnel worked together to address the menace. The Chief Minister of Sarawak was entrusted as the Director of Operations to coordinate and manage the entire operations based on the Public Security Ordinance, Sarawak 1962, the Internal Security Act 1960, and related regulations.

However, the daily operations of RASCOM were delegated to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who was elected among the senior civil servants from the state administration and on attachment to RASCOM. The success of RASCOM later contributed to the surrender of the NKCP. In 1989, the Communists signed a peace accord that finally freed Malaysia of the threat.

The combination of KESBAN and state responsibility played an important part in understanding and resolving state security issues. KESBAN evolved as a successful programme from land to river and was ready to include the sea as an element for ensuring broad-based and enduring security.

Years after the defeat of the threats to Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, a new peril developed on the far side of the Malaysian defence and security space. The East coast of Sabah was known as the wild wild east for obvious reasons with the distances of the capitals from the three states in the tri-border region contributing much to the under-governed spaces. Conversely, the proximity of borders added to the complexity of governance especially where tri-border ethnic boundaries are ill-defined and allow for a range of criminal activities to fester due to their porosity and the challenging terrestrial expanses. Poverty was rife and the coastal communities poorly managed. This landscape was fertile for a much bigger threat to come, one that would take the ill-prepared state administration, defence forces, and security agencies by surprise.

Though sporadic intrusions from across the border by criminal gangs on the East Coast of Sabah have occurred for a number of years, the threat that arrived on the shores of Lahad Datu, Sabah was like no other.  On 11 February 2013, 235 militants, some of them armed, sailed from the Philippines to lay claim to Sabah. There were also sporadic attacks at different parts of the east coast of Sabah. The government went into action with Op Daulatand by 24 March 2013 it was all over. The standoff that took more than a month reportedly claimed 71 deaths comprising 51 militants, 9 Malaysian soldiers/policemen, and 6 civilians. Damage to plantations and properties were in the millions. The impending operations incurred enormous losses to local businesses and tri border trade. Coastal and migrant communities bore the brunt of sweeping operations. Scores were arrested to face trial and new laws were enacted to address terrorism.

In March 2013, the Prime Minister announced the creation of the Eastern Sabah Security and Safety Zone (EssZone) comprising 10 districts on the east coast and the establishment of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) based in Lahad Datu which was to be modelled after RASCOM. With regards to the management and conduct of EssZone and ESSCOM, the Attorney General’s Chambers published the Preservation of Public Security Regulations 2013 which enumerated the role of the Prime Minister’s office as the Oversight Committee, the Chief Minister of Sabah in leading the Esszone Committee for achieving the overall wellbeing of the zone, and ESSCOM as the civil-security-defence architecture. Much investments were poured in for the security, defence and supporting architecture that were developed. EssZone was now a fortress. However, these responses were ineffective against the subsequent Kidnap for Ransom (KFR) gangs and other criminal activities that began to haunt the new fortress.

The proximity of the tri-border areas made it difficult to monitor and presented a lucrative shadow economy to organised crime syndicates. EssZone was designated as a risk area (coloured red) and foreign governments issued negative travel advisories that deterred investors. Risk premiums rose adding costs to businesses. Disgruntled coastal communities became assets to criminal activity as curfews curtailed their livelihoods and mobility. The authorities terminated tri-border trade to reduce movements but this resulted in the loss of essential goods to the tri-border community and contributed to costly living. Fish bombing became rife as fishing communities found it difficult to feed and make a living.

A new strategy was required that called for holistic action, and the KESBAN programme was considered. It was time for KESBAN to evolve from land and river to the sea. Hence, KESBAN at Sea.

The Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) together with the Sabah National Security Council (NSC) and University Malaysia Sabah developed the KESBAN at Sea concept, drawing from the successes of KESBAN in the Peninsula and Sarawak. The Framework allows multi stakeholders to play comprehensive roles, address pitfalls and opportunities in four Pillars namely economy, socio-politics, marine environment and the amalgamation of security and defence. Each pillar is broken down to clusters which drive strategy and action plans and eventually forming a Balanced Scorecard to achieve holistic security that would lead to peace and stability, sustainable development, and a sustainable environment.

A two-year multi stakeholder consultation was conducted on each of the Pillars and the reports can be accessed online. Industry players and Non Govermental  Organisations (NGO) were engaged to get a better view of the land and seascape. A number of clusters were identified to alleviate the economic position of the coastal communities, enrich socio-political interactions in the multi ethnic communities, enhance conservation and preservation of the pristine marine environment, and address comprehensive measures between security and defence architectures. 

Among the recommendations to the Sabah state government is to develop a holistic framework in the form of an electronically developed Balanced Scorecard for the EssZone Committee in which the state will coordinate and manage EssZone. Multi stakeholder involvement in achieving Key Result Areas (KRA) and Key Performance Indexes (KPI) will be supervised by the Chief Minister (Director of Operations) through the EssZone Committee. The whole process is to be monitored by the Prime Ministers Department in Putrajaya. ESSCOM will be the primary respondent on matters pertaining to security and defence in the EssZone and work closely with the EssZone Committee. The Head of ESSCOM is to be a State administrative officer who will be advised by security, defence and other civil staff in ESSCOM.

The digital age has provided for simultaneous supervision of the electronic Balance Scorecard between Putrajaya, Kota Kinabalu, and Lahad Datu and contribute to the unity of effort, management of scarce resources, and help eliminate duplication by stakeholders. 

Among the other prescriptions are the need for EssZone to change of the present colour RED to BLUE (to revive the Blue Economy), regulate migrants and coastal communities as a potent workforce to revitalise the economy, establish a one-stop-centre for investor relations, and negotiate with countries to remove negative travel advisories. These measures would with time revive the legitimate coastal economy and allow it to gradually replace the shadow economy that is plaguing the region. The marine environment is to be co-managed with the coastal communities and state using the rich and diverse ethnic knowledge and heritage.

When the coastal community is made an important stakeholder in security, sustainable development and sustainable environment, holistic security can contribute towards peace and stability. Public enterprises will gradually address co-management, community policing, and crowd sourcing through cooperatives within the society. This will provide a sense of belonging to the state, cutting off support to organised crime and other unsavoury activities.

Whilst the authorities conduct and manage the hard security aspects, soft security measures will complement them towards enduring security for East Sabah. - Bernama  

* Capt. Martin A. Sebastian RMN (r) is a Senior Fellow And Centre Head, Centre for Maritime Security and Diplomacy, Maritime Institute of Malaysia, a national maritime policy think tank in Kuala Lumpur.