IR experts say govt must strike balance between promoting tourism and ensuring nation doesn’t become hub for global syndicates
KUALA LUMPUR : The controversy surrounding a North Korean residing in Malaysia, who is accused of money laundering and being extradited to the United States, may have highlighted an issue with a particular immigration policy.
International relations experts told The Vibes that Malaysia’s lack of a visa requirement for most countries may have created room for abuse.
At present, the country requires visas for travellers from fewer than 40 countries, regardless of the length of their stay. For most others, a visa is required if their stay exceeds a certain period.
Universiti Malaya International and Strategic Studies Department’s Balakrishnan Suppiah said while it is understandable that the policy is meant to boost tourism, the government needs to strike the right balance to ensure the nation does not become a hub for global syndicates.
He said past and present governments have proven themselves to be pro-business, sometimes at the expense of security.
If Putrajaya intends to carry on with its visa-free policy, he said, surveillance on citizens from selected countries must be increased, and enforcement, too, needs to be ramped up.
“It’s very difficult to do away with the visa-free entry policy because it promotes tourism. I understand that if we cancel it, it will certainly slow down arrivals.
“We have seen how neighbouring countries are doing the same. We can’t blame the government for doing it, as it benefits businesses here. But the issue is, it is being abused by some irresponsible foreigners.
“So, it is absolutely right that we need to find a balance between promoting tourism and the economy, and ensuring the safety and security of Malaysia.”
Balakrishnan said the government should come down hard on corrupt enforcement officers and agents who abuse their powers with regard to immigration matters, as well as foreign criminals involved in illicit financial activities.
“This way, foreign citizens will be more afraid about even thinking of making Malaysia their money-making hub.”
He was commenting on North Korea’s decision on Friday to sever diplomatic ties with Malaysia after the top court here ruled on March 3 that a citizen of the hermit nation will be extradited to the US to face money-laundering charges.
Mun Chol-myong, who has lived in Malaysia for a decade, is accused of violating sanctions by supplying prohibited items to North Korea and laundering funds through front companies, mainly in Singapore.
It is not the first time a North Korean citizen has been accused of conducting illicit activities here.
In 2017, following the high-profile murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at klia2, it was revealed that several of the North’s agents had been operating in Malaysia and were at the scene to witness the assassination.
It was only following the killing did Malaysia cancel visa-free entries for North Koreans.
Foreigners taking advantage of visa-free policy
Like Balakrishnan, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies director, Prof Sufian Jusoh, believes it is Malaysia’s visa-free policy for North Koreans that has allowed instances of sanctions violations and financial crimes here.
“We were the only country in the world to not impose a visa requirement on North Koreans, before the murder of Jong-nam. So, they took advantage and opened businesses here and supplied prohibited items back home.
“Somehow, there is bound to be illegal financial activities in Malaysia (because of the visa-free policy). Foreigners are using us and taking advantage of this lax security.”
However, Sufian said he does not believe Malaysia is a key hub for money laundering.
According to the 2020 edition of the Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index, which prepares an independent score and ranking that assesses the risk of money laundering and terrorist financing, the country scored 5.25 out of 10, just slightly above the average of 5.22.
The closer the number to 10, the higher the risk.
However, Malaysia’s score is still significantly lower than many other countries in the region, including Myanmar (7.86), Laos (7.82), Cambodia (7.10), Vietnam (7.04) and Thailand (6.01).
The index is based on data from 15 publicly available sources, such as the Financial Action Task Force, World Bank and World Economic Forum.