PETALING JAYA: The Ambassador of the United States was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday (April 17) to clarify the US government's decision to list Malaysia as a country where kidnapping and hostage-taking are a risk.
The Ministry's acting Secretary General Datuk Nushirwan Zainal Abidin received Ambassador Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir and handed over a protest note, expressing the Malaysian government’s objection to the US decision.
The Ministry said US position did not reflect the reality on the ground, particularly the improved security situation in eastern Sabah.
"During the meeting, the ambassador explained that the US' travel advisory categorised each country into four possible tiers, based on the government's assessment of the safety and security situation.
"As in previous years, Malaysia as a whole has been placed in Tier 1, reserved for the safest countries and which is the lowest risk. However, it was explained that eastern Sabah is subject to the "K" indicator, due to the concerns over potential kidnappings and hostage-taking.
"It was recalled that in the previous travel advisory, that area was subject to "C" (crimes) and "T" (terrorism) indicators, which were broader in nature. Eastern Sabah is no longer subject to these two indicators.
"Both parties agreed that it would be useful if, in the future, the Malaysian government is informed prior to similar announcements being made," the MInistry said in a statement on Thursday (April 18).
Malaysia is one of the 35 countries marked with the new "K" indicator by the US State Department in a travel advisory issued on April 9.
Among the 34 other countries are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine (in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine) and Yemen.
The Ministry reiterated that the security and safety of tourists throughout Malaysia, including in eastern Sabah, continued to be a top priority and that the country had been taking proactive measures to ensure the security of eastern Sabah.
"This is reflected to the significant drop of kidnapping cases to almost nil last year," said the Ministry adding that the American Ambassador took note of the Malaysian government's protest.
It added that Malaysia recorded a 27.9% increase of tourist arrivals from America in 2018, bringing the total to 253,384 people.
On the website, the travel advisory on Malaysia is listed as "Level 1". However, with the latest Risk Indicator update, the Department categorised the eastern area of Sabah as Level 2 (exercise increased caution).
The Advisory reads: "There is a threat of kidnappings-for-ransom from both terrorist and criminal groups. These groups may attack with little to no warning, targeting coastal resorts, island resorts, and boats ferrying tourists to resort islands.
"The US government has limited ability to provide emergency services to US citizens in eastern Sabah as US government employees must obtain special authorisation to travel to parts of eastern Sabah."
In recent years, there have been several kidnapping cases in the state, with the latest being the kidnapping of a Malaysian and two Indonesian fishermen who were snatched from the Pegasus Reef in the Kinabatangan area by Abu Sayyaf gunmen in Dec 5 last year.
With reports saying Abu Sayyaf gunmen were hunting "value kidnap" targets in the state, the security forces in eastern Sabah are on full alert.