Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency director- general Datuk Zulkifli Abu Bakar during an interview with the New Sunday Times in Putrajaya on Friday. Pix by Abd Rahim Rahmat

Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) welcomes its new director-general, Datuk Zulkifili Abu Bakar, who succeeds Datuk Seri Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar effective June 1. Zulkifili, who has been in MMEA for 12 years, shares with FAIRUZ MOHD SHAHAR his aspirations to continue protecting Malaysian waters

Question: Congratulations on your appointment as director-general. Can you tell us about your background?

Answer: Before I joined MMEA, I was with the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) as a law officer.

I was seconded to MMEA in April 2005. At that time, MMEA was new and needed a law officer to set standard operating procedures. I later joined MMEA in November the same year as the investigation unit chief.

In 2006, I pursued my master’s degree in maritime law at the International Maritime Institute in Malta.

After completing my studies, I was promoted to enforcement director in 2007.

In 2009, I was appointed as the maritime enforcement chief for the northern region and was later transferred to the southern region in 2010.

I returned to the MMEA headquarters to be the crime investigation director in 2012.

Three years later, I was appointed as deputy director-general (logistic).

Last year, I was the deputy director-general (operations).

Q: As the new director-general, what are your aspirations and focus to improve the service of the agency?

A: I will follow with the plan as outlined in the Maritime Strategic Development Plan 2040 to increase enforcement capabilities.

I will look into weaknesses in the agency so that I know what are the areas that need to be improved.

I will also focus on improving the human resources management, assets and infrastructure of the agency.

Q: Can you elaborate more on these three focus areas?

A: My goal is to make MMEA an organisation that can handle future challenges and continue to protect Malaysian waters.

To achieve that, we must begin with the employees. I want to focus on career development among MMEA officers and personnel by ensuring that they have proper qualifications and are given training.

I also want them to be assessed in terms of discipline and integrity.

That is why we have plans to collaborate with agencies, such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, to ensure our employees practise integrity.

In terms of assets, most of our vessels are old. They are between 30 and 50 years old.

The government allocates RM200 million on yearly asset maintenance. The older the vessel is, the more we have to spend for maintenance.

For instance, the maintenance cost for one vessel is between RM5 million and RM12 million.

Therefore, I want to replace some of the old vessels to ensure smooth operations.

MMEA is expected to receive four New Generation Patrol Crafts this year.

“We have signed a contract to add three Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV), which is scheduled for delivery in 2020.

Due to the good relationship with the Japanese government, our Japanese counterpart has contributed two OPVs — KM Pekan and KM Arau — to Malaysia. With these two new assets, our position has been strengthened and our operations and logistics improved.

Also, our officers must learn to adapt to the new vessels.

A Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency vessel, KM ‘Satria’ at Port Klang. Pix by Roslin Mat Tahir.

My third focus is to boost MMEA’s base and infrastructure. Although we apply the National Blue Ocean Strategy concept, where we share the same base with the navy, we face difficulties as priority is given to RMN’s vessels.

It is high time for MMEA to have its own base to ease the operations.

We are constructing our own bases, including in Pahang and Sarawak.

For infrastructure development, the cabinet has approved for MMEA to have its own lock-up to hold detainees.

Previously, we were not allowed to have such a facility, so we had to place detainees at the police lock-up.

There were times where we had to send them to a prison in Terengganu.

Not only is this time-consuming and costly but it also requires more staff to handle such cases.

We have to consider the risks involed, such as detainees escaping.

Q: What are the challenges you expect to face?

A: Judging from the current geopolitical situation, the role of MMEA will become more crucial.

To ensure that MMEA plays its role effectively in protecting Malaysian waters, one of the approaches we have taken is to name our vessels as “Malaysian Coast Guard”.

We still maintain the word MMEA, as it is just an additional name which has been approved by the cabinet.

We cannot simply change the whole thing because if we do, it will involve policy decision and amendment to the law.

Why do we need the additional name? This is to avoid confusion, especially among our international counterparts.

Many have mistaken MMEA as marine police, which is a totally different force.

So, we want to enlighten all parties that we are the coast guards for Malaysia.

Many may think this is a petty issue, but one must know that coast guards play an important role, especially in easing the tension when there is a conflict between two parties at sea.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you want to see better human resources management in MMEA. What is your message to your staff, especially in service delivery and protecting the Malaysian waters?

A: In MMEA, we have about 5,000 officers and personnel. It is my wish to see all of them give a 100 per cent commitment in their duties.

I know nobody is perfect, but we can help them improve by providing them training. If the officers still fail to perform, then we have to eliminate them. We cannot keep bad apples in our agency.

Now that we will have more new assets coming in, we want our officers to adapt with the new system and technology.

Most importantly, I do not want to hear excuses like they cannot carry out their duties as they need to be with their family. As someone who is in this field, they have to sacrifice.

Q: Before you were given the responsibility to helm MMEA, what was the biggest case you have handled?

A: One of the biggest achievements was recovering the hijacked MT Orkim Harmony, the fuel it was carrying and its crew in 2015.

I was the crime investigation director and I led the team to collaborate with neighbouring countries to search for the oil tanker.

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