Amid growing questions about security in Sabah following a recent spate of abductions and deadly shootings, Malaysia's Home Ministry has given its security forces the nod to shoot intruders on sight in the security zone.
But the order drew an immediate response from Prime Minister Najib Razak, who said this must come with a government-approved standard operating procedure (SOP) to prevent incidents that could hurt innocent bystanders.
Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the shoot-on-sight order is justified if it could stop intruders deemed "a national threat".
His order followed the killing of a Malaysian marine police officer, while another was abducted by Filipino gunmen in a shoot-out with security forces on Mabul Island in eastern Sabah last Saturday night.
"The government has no problem with the shooting order if intruders try to enter the country," Datuk Seri Zahid was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper yesterday.
But Datuk Seri Najib gave the assurance that a clear SOP will be in place before the security forces are given the powers to shoot on sight. "The SOP must be clear to avoid untoward incidents involving the lives of innocent people," he told local media yesterday.
Islands in east Sabah are popular among foreign tourists for their azure waters and renowned dive sites such as Sipadan Island. But rising abduction cases, with an average of one case a month since May, have spooked tourists and worried locals.
The latest abduction and police shoot-out have prompted the British government to issue a travel advisory to its citizens travelling to several Sabah islands.
The incidents have been happening despite Malaysia imposing a security zone with military presence covering some 1,400km of the Sabah coastline.
The zone, called the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom), was set up in March last year.
Mr Zahid said tour operators would be required to install surveillance cameras on their premises. He also promised to give Esscom more powers and resources.
Analysts said the long and porous shoreline in the east coast of Sabah has made it difficult for security forces to ensure that all areas have proper surveillance at all times. Many of these gunmen have blended in with locals and are familiar with Sabah's terrain.
Mr Zahid's nod on the shooting order came a day after navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar lamented that current laws allowed security forces to only shoot in defence and fire warning shots at the gunmen.
The order could court controversy as Attorney-General Gani Patail has rejected the plan, saying the country is not a military state.
"Even during a war, there are several conventions that must be followed, what more in a situation when we are not at war," lawyer Syahredzan Johan told The Straits Times yesterday.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, an analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said Malaysia needs more than a shooting order.
"Malaysia should consult with the Philippines as such that armed forces of either countries in hot pursuit of those armed combatants can enter the maritime territory of each other with short notice," he told The Straits Times. "This will deny the combatants sanctuary behind borders."
This article was first published on July 16, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.