Top-level cover-up

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Blaming a middleman and trying to protect corrupt immigration.

Remember those days at school when we received tips that the discipline teacher is doing a spot check? Students would comb their hair to look like Elvis Presley, trim their fingernails and tug in their shirts nicely. And when the feared teacher arrived with his inch-size cane, everyone pretended to be paying attention. Of course, the discipline teacher was proud to learn everyone was well-behaved.

That was precisely what happened when Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim made a so-called “surprise visit” to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) on Sunday (July 2), just a few days after the airport attracted world attention with a corruption scandal involving the Immigration Department of Malaysia. The problem with such spot checks is that everyone could smell the PM miles away.

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Arriving with a battalion of bodyguards, top officers and apple polishers, it was hilarious when Anwar concluded that there were only a few bad apples in the notorious immigration known for corruption. It was basically sales talk when he said the majority of immigration officers perform their duties well. Did he really expect the officers would dare go for a “coffee break” knowing he was doing a spot check?

If PM Anwar seriously wanted to do a spot check, he should have learned from Transport Minister Anthony Loke, who frequently goes incognito as he takes the train like ordinary people during peak hours to assess the transportation services. Going undercover is the best way to get the real picture of problems on the ground, not accompanied by an entourage of police and government officers.

The prime minister most likely will not go to the KLIA to inspect the customs and immigration operations if not for the warning from Beijing. On Saturday (July 1), the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia issued a warning – “The Chinese Embassy in Malaysia attaches great importance and makes every effort to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens in Malaysia.”

The warning came after a corruption scandal exploded when Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Tiong King Sing received a call for help from a staff member of the Consulate General of Malaysia in Guangzhou. He rushed to KLIA’s Terminal 1 on Thursday (June 29) in an attempt to help a traveller from China but was politicized as a minister who abused his authority to rescue a Chinese national.

The corruption scandal was exposed after a senior official of a Chinese government-owned TV station had arrived in Malaysia to pursue her PhD at a local university in Shah Alam and her personal assistant had accompanied her. However, while the senior official was allowed entry, her personal assistant was told there were discrepancies in her travel documents and hence was detained.

It was a standard modus operandi by the Immigration Department to solicit money from foreign travellers. In order to gain entry, a “three-star” ranking immigration officer demanded an RM3,000 bribe from the Chinese woman. Stunningly, the female tourist was also asked an additional RM3,000 if she wanted to return to the country of origin or re-enter Malaysia using a “special lane”, and RM12,000 for visa-processing fees.

Essentially, she needed to pay a whopping RM18,000 to gain entry into Malaysia as well as to return to China, without which she could be detained indefinitely – an intimidation and bullying tactic. Not only corruption has been committed, the cellphones of the women were also seized by the immigration officers. Minister Tiong said – “What powers do they have to seize their phones?”

Yes, the corruption involving immigration was not confined to several bad apples, as Anwar trumpeted in an obvious effort to protect the corrupt institution. The very fact that the Chinese traveller was deliberately not cleared for entry at the immigration counter, despite all her travel documents being in order, suggests that even the lowest-ranking officers were involved – all the way to the top.

The best part is after the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) grilled Minister Tiong along with the two Chinese nationals, the graft busters said it is hunting for an agent or “middleman”. Suddenly, a middleman has been accused of soliciting bribes to facilitate entries of foreign tourists who violated conditions set by the Malaysian Immigration Department.

MACC Chief Commissioner Azam Baki should stop insulting people’s intelligence. The anti-corruption agency talked as if the airport immigration is like PUSPAKOM, where “runners” are busy offering services such as road tax or driving-licence renewals to illiterate people or foreigners unable to communicate in the local language in exchange for a small amount of fee.

But is the imaginary “middleman” the same “three-star” ranking immigration officer who had demanded bribes from the Chinese woman? More importantly, how could a middleman, presumably an outsider, be allowed to operate not only in the jurisdiction of government officers but also given the authority to “kautim” (settle) on behalf of the immigration department?

Curiously, if this middleman isn’t an immigration officer from the beginning, how could the phones of the Chinese travellers be confiscated? If indeed the woman from mainland China had committed an offence, why was she immediately freed and allowed entry into Malaysia upon the intervention of Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Tiong King Sing?

Crucially, why is the MACC struggling to track down the middleman, who appears to have vanished into thin air, when Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam and Indonesian Siti Aisyah were quickly arrested after they were caught on CCTV in Malaysian airport murdering Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader, using a super-toxic nerve agent?

Even if the dubious middleman did exist, exactly how could he solve the Chinese tourist’s problem without offering bribes to senior immigration officers in the first place, which will lead to the fact that the department is plagued with corruption from the top to bottom. Call the middleman whatever name you like, but it’s not rocket science that they belong to the same cartel or gang.

That explains how the agent or middleman was tipped about a Chinese national being detained, or rather deliberately detained over half-baked accusations that she did not have proper documentation to enter the country. Like it or not, it’s hard to believe that the only culprit is an invincible middleman, whilst the Immigration Department of Malaysia is innocent and clean.

The humiliating scandal has attracted others to share similar experiences. A viral video has surfaced on TikTok, showing a man believed to be a Chinese national revealing that he was detained in KLIA since 2.30 pm on July 2 and was asked to pay RM10,000 to the corrupt immigration officer to enter Malaysia. He also shared how a Hong Kong tourist was asked to fork out RM10,000 to immigration officers.

The Anwar-led unity government and the MACC should think twice about defending the indefensible. The Chinese citizens are no ordinary tourists. They were officials for a Chinese TV station, and they recorded all the conversations that transpired with airport officials and intended to expose their unpleasant experiences when they returned to China.

If the MACC continues its effort to cover up the Immigration Department’s corruption, it will make the scandal even more toxic should the Chinese news media expose the recording for the world’s consumption.

Malaysia’s tourist receipts amounted to RM28.2 billion (US$6.05 billion) in 2022, compared to RM86.1 billion in 2019. Since 2012, China has been one of Malaysia’s biggest sources of tourists. Before the pandemic outbreak, China sent more travellers overseas than any other market – about 150 million Chinese tourists spending RM1,240.85 billion abroad in 2018. Malaysia attracted about 3.11 million Chinese tourists in 2019 – 12% of total tourist arrivals – and spent a total of RM15.3 billion.

The Malaysian government has set an ambitious target of attracting 16 million tourists this year, with the objective of generating RM49.2 billion in tourist receipts. The Chinese are not only important in terms of tourist numbers to Malaysia, but they are also “high-value tourists”. Typically, Chinese tourists spent RM661 to RM768 per day in Malaysia, which was 19% to 72% higher than the average tourist.

Creating a story of a middleman might be a clever tactic to divert attention, which ultimately leads to the infamous NFA (no further action) by the authorities. However, it’s a dumb move to sacrifice billions of tourism money in exchange for some corrupt little Napoleons. China can also retaliate in other areas. PM Anwar should act tough without looking weak and apologetic to the immigration department. – Finance Twitter