KOTA KINABALU - Senior state Customs officers with millions of ringgit in their bank accounts are being probed while two major Sabah smuggling kingpins have been nabbed in a crackdown in the state.
The authorities have also frozen 69 bank accounts linked to state customs officers.
The 69 were among 1,623 banks accounts worth RM560mil belonging to individuals and companies that were frozen during an integrated multi-agency sting called Ops BS which began on May 15 in Sabah.
The two smuggling masterminds operating in Sipitang and Keningau are under custody at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency headquarters in Putrajaya.
They were detained between May 14 and 16, a source told The Star.
They are said to be involved in smuggling cigarettes and alcohol into Sabah from duty-free Labuan.
Investigators are now piecing together the network involved in distributing the contraband items across the state.
The source said several of the senior customs officers were living beyond their means and were being investigated for allegedly accepting bribes linked to smuggling.
"All of their accounts have been frozen to facilitate investigations," he said.
The crackdown was carried out jointly by MACC, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom), the General Operations Force, Customs, Bank Negara and the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry.
While it was difficult to put an exact figure to the scale of the smuggling network, some consumers here were already feeling the effects of the crackdown.
Many who have enjoyed cheap beer dubbed "Sepuluh tiga (RM10 for three cans of beer)", were complaining that the contraband was now difficult to find.
"You still get them but not as openly," said a regular consumer.
Sales of contraband alcohol usually pick up during the Kaamatan (harvest) festival and year-end festive celebrations.
Concerns also rose over how the prolonged freezing of accounts could hit the business operations of the companies, which included supermarkets, sundry shops and importers.
Kota Kinabalu Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Datuk Michael Liu urged MACC and other relevant authorities to allow for conditional lifting of the freeze to allow certain aspects of the businesses such as paying salaries to be facilitated.
Sabah Special Tasks Minister Datuk Teo Chee Kang also called on MACC and other related agencies to investigate their cases quickly as the state feared serious repercussions on the economy.
In a statement issued yesterday, the MACC denied allegations that it was misusing its powers to freeze the bank accounts in the recent crackdowns in Sabah and Sarawak.
Its deputy chief commissioner (operations) Datuk Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull said the action was within the law and was taken after half a year of investigative work.
"We would not freeze the accounts without solid basis," he said, responding to complaints from Bandar Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jen and Likas assemblyman Junz Wong.
Mohd Shukri also said the companies could access part of the funds if there was a good reason such as to pay salaries.
"They can apply to us for some of the funds to be released while unfreezing the full amount will depend on the investigation," he said.
Apart from the crackdown on smuggling networks, the operations have also focused on the abuse of subsidised diesel.