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Malaysia’s border problems

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 31 July 2019

If land and sea borders are the nation’s doors, Malaysia’s doors seem wide open. Terrorism, piracy, smuggling, narcotics trade, human trafficking, and illegal immigrants are all major problems that need to be tackled at the country’s boundaries.

The country, for instance, has taken in tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Muslims who have crossed the border into East Malaysia from Kelantan to seek work in a wealthier country. Substantial numbers of them have been issued identity cards to become voters aligned with Malay political parties.

Malaysia’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that the country is bifurcated into the Malay Peninsula and the North Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. The two are separated by 600-1,200 kms of open sea. It shares 3,147 km of land borders with Thailand on the peninsula and Brunei, along with Indonesia, on the island of Borneo. Malaysia also shares maritime borders with Singapore, connected by a bridge and causeway, and sea boundaries with the Philippines, China and Vietnam.


Given that much of Malaysia’s land borders are situated along hilly jungle and the maritime borders are sparse, management and protection are extremely challenging. After nearly 57 years of nationhood, many regions are still not clearly delineated. Two areas along Malaysia’s land border with Thailand are still in dispute, along with final boundary delineation along the continental shelf in the South China Sea.

Malaysia and Brunei still dispute boundaries in the district of Limbang, and a number of areas along the Sarawak-Brunei borders must be jointly delineated. There are also competing claims over the Spratly Islands with the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. There are regular maritime standoffs within this area.


Malaysia and Singapore are currently in dispute over Singapore’s Tuas Port boundaries, with Malaysia claiming the port boundaries encroach Malaysia’s border. Tensions have heightened of late and a standoff occurred earlier this year. Malaysia lost in a claim of sovereignty over a lighthouse on top of rocks named Pedro Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh with Singapore in the International Court. There is a continuing dispute over Singaporean control of Malaysian airspace over Johor, and potentially the possibility of another dispute arising over Pulau Pisang, where the Singapore Port Authority has increased the size of the lighthouse complex there.

Clearly defined delineation isn’t the only issue weighing over Malaysia’s border regions. The Thai province of Satun and Malaysian state of Perlis are quiet rural regions that have many shared family, cultural, and small-scale trade links. It takes more than two hours between cities only 10 km apart, by small boat from Kuala Perlis. A more direct link would boost needed development of one of Malaysia’s poorest states.


The most volatile issue, however, is the discovery of transit camps with mass graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshis at Wang Kelian by a journalist in 2015, proof that human trafficking was organized and rampant across unclear borders. Most of the Wang Kelian border area is state forest and requires a permit from the state Forestry Department to enter, preventing outsiders from discovering the horrors that had been going on in the camps for years.

Even though the transit camps were destroyed by Malaysian police soon after discovery, human trafficking continues. Syndicates are using either holes through the border fences around Padang Besaror walking through trails across the Bintang Mountains into the Bukit Ayer area in Perlis, where they are taken deep into Malaysian territory by car.

Recent arrests also indicate that Padang Besar on the Malaysian side is a human trafficking staging area, where foreigners are sent under forged documents to Europe. Although high ranking military and civil personnel, including the mayor of Padang Besar have been arrested and convicted on the Thai side, there have been no Malaysian arrests or convictions in relation to the camps. The slow reaction by Malaysia police after the discovery of the mass graves, suggests to critics that elements in the police, possibly the Special Branch, are covering up corruption.

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This article was first published in Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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