National security, South China Sea | Australia, Southeast Asia

5 September 2022

As Malaysia’s bureaucracy looks to streamline maritime law enforcement, it should draw on lessons from the creation of the Australian Border Force to help it create a coherent, unified agency, Tharishini Krishnan writes.

Located along one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, the Strait of Malacca, and with claims to parts of the strategically significant South China Sea, maritime law enforcement is a significant component of Malaysia’s national security policy.

With approximately 19 agencies currently involved in maritime policy-making, calls are growing for the Malaysian Government to create a National Maritime Single Point of Contact (NMSPOC), which would centralise and streamline maritime law enforcement in the country.

Bringing together so many agencies with diverse and sometimes competing interests under one roof can be a fraught process, but Malaysian policymakers can learn from Australia’s efforts during the creation of the Australian Border Force (ABF).

The only continent to be occupied by a single state without a land border, Australia spans the Pacific, Southern and Indian Oceans, and neighbours archipelagic nations like Indonesia, New Zealand and several Pacific Island nations. Understandably, given Australia’s geography, it has significant maritime interests and security concerns, like Malaysia.

However, over the last decade, Australia’s maritime border security strategy has undergone significant transformation.

On 1 July 2015, the federal government merged the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) into the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), and created the ABF as the department’s ‘operational arm’. The ABF is now housed within the Department of Home Affairs, which was created in late 2017.

But the formation of the ABF was not an easy task.

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The first challenge was to bring two different organisations, with different cultures and working environments, together effectively.

The creation of the ABF represented a significant change in the way Australia executed its border security strategy. It revamped its approach to tackling the diverse maritime challenges it faces, including transnational crime and irregular migration.

Through the creation of the ABF, the Australian Government took a more securitised approach that centralised border control. In line with this move, the leadership of the organisation’s leadership sought to create a disciplined, enforcement-focused culture. Uniforms were introduced for some ABF personnel, and all immigration and border protection staff became subject to drug and alcohol testing, rather than just operational personnel.

By examining the effectiveness of these efforts, Malaysia’s policymakers can make more informed decisions around creating a professional work culture and an organisation that functions well.

The second major challenge was legislative.

With the establishment of the ABF, the statutory authority of ACBPS was abolished, and the new Australian Border Force Act 2015 formed the legislative basis for the ABF’s new operational mandate.

Legislative consolidation plays a crucial role in centralising operations that require the involvement of different kind of enforcement bodies. Most Malaysian maritime enforcement agencies are subject to different legislation and operate under various ministerial jurisdictions.

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Consolidated legislation that creates clear lines of accountability, similar to the Australian Border Force Act, will be an important step for Malaysian policymakers in streamlining the country’s maritime law enforcement efforts.

This process of consolidation can also have budgetary benefits.

A centralised border control agency, which is home to officials with diverse capabilities and experiences, can incentivise collaboration and increase efficiency, thereby saving the department money.

Malaysia should also look to create culture of collaboration in its NMSPOC.

It’s worth noting that it took considerable time and effort for the ABF to reach its current level of maturity, and strong political will played a key role in shaping the ABF as Australia’s leading front-line border agency.

The success of the ABF in becoming into a more integrated, effective, and efficient maritime border protection and enforcement platform sets a good example for Malaysia. As a fellow maritime nation, it deals with many similar challenges when it comes to maritime law enforcement.

In positive signs for further collaboration, the two countries have been working together in this domain for some time already. The ABF was actively involved in various workshops to help shape the NMSPOC since 2018, and it has been working with the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) on Operation Redback. Operation Redback XVI, an initiative involving both the ABF and the Malaysia Coast Guard that concluded in November 2021, focused on countering people smuggling and addressing maritime crime.

In the years to come, Malaysian policymakers should build on this collaboration and learn from the ABF, as it streamlines its own maritime border management and seeks to tackle cross-border maritime crime more effectively.

This work is supported by the Australia-Malaysia Maritime Exchange Virtual Fellowship. Views are the author’s own.

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