PETALING JAYA: All facets of national interest must be considered by the Cabinet when it deliberates the issue of cabotage for ships conducting undersea cable repairs in Malaysian waters, says Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) chairman Tan Sri Halim Mohammad (pic).
Noting that digital investments were a critical aspect of economic development, Halim said there was no total objection towards foreign ships conducting repair works in the country’s exclusive economic zone, but that Malaysian-flagged vessels must be given priority before the job was opened up to others.
“I’m a fervent supporter of the cabotage policy, but exemptions can be given on a case-by-case basis so that we will not stop expertise from doing the work we do not have the capabilities in.
“It is up to the policymakers to evaluate this if Malaysia truly wishes to be a maritime nation, ” he said in an interview with The Star yesterday.
Under the present cabotage policy for cable repair work, Halim said foreign ships could apply for exemptions from the Transport Ministry to carry out repair works in Malaysian waters, with such applications usually approved in three days.
“That is a record. During my time, it took much longer – up to three weeks, provided that the applicants gave the fullest details.
“That is to prevent abuse by companies fronting foreign shipping companies, ” said Halim, who is also executive chairman of Halim Mazmin Bhd, a company with extensive involvement in commercial shipping.
With over 40 years of experience in the maritime industry, Halim noted that many developed countries had similar cabotage policies in place to protect their respective national interests.
“Most countries, including the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines, do not allow foreign ships to work on their coastlines and exclusive economic zones.
“Why should we Malaysians allow this?” he questioned.
Stressing the issue of national maritime security, Halim said the country could not just allow any foreign ships to enter Malaysian waters under the pretext of cable repairs.
“We don’t know what they could be doing in our waters, like mapping our seabed, ” he said.
Halim also noted that Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had recently emphasized the need for Malaysia to digitise its economy.
“I do hope our ministers will take heed of this and come up, after their deliberations, with a policy that will take into account our national interests first, ” he added.
At the same time, Halim stressed the importance of developing the local shipping industry, revealing that he had continuously called on the government to provide financial assistance and skills training.
“Shipping is a highly capitalised industry. For several years, I have strongly advocated that the government should provide substantial allocation in the budget to help bona fide Malaysian companies expand their fleet.
“Train Malaysian officer engineers as well because this is a high-income job.
We can retrain many unemployed graduates to serve on Malaysian-flagged ships.
“But there must be strong political will to give sufficient ship financing facilities, ” he added.
After Wednesday’s post-Cabinet meeting, several ministries were instructed to deliberate the potential impact on digital investment and the local shipping industry if the ongoing cabotage policy for cable repair works is to be revoked, with the relevant ministries instructed to report back to the Cabinet with recommendations within two weeks.
The re-imposition of the cabotage policy for submarine cable repair works has been a contentious issue, with critics arguing that such a policy could deter foreign investments and cause giant tech companies to exclude Malaysia from cable projects aimed at boosting regional Internet connectivity.
However, calls to re-impose the cabotage policy was defended by the Malaysian Shipowners’ Association, which deemed the move necessary to safeguard national sovereignty and the interests of the national shipping industry.
The cabotage policy for cable repair works was revoked by the former Pakatan Harapan government in April 2019.
It was reintroduced by Transport Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong on Nov 16,2020.
The cabotage policy was first introduced in Malaysia in January 1980.