KUALA LUMPUR: The Immigration Department's screening last year prevented the entry of almost 90,000 people with suspect motives into the country.
The increase in suspect arrivals, with the reopening of the borders after a prolonged closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has forced the department to enhance its screening processes.
This had led to congestion at Immigration counters, particularly at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
These foreigners, including those who had intended to work illegally in Malaysia, were weeded out by the department's frontliners at the entry points.
Immigration director-general Datuk Seri Khairul Dzaimee Daud, in an interview with the New Straits Times, said he had instructed his staff to adhere to strict screening procedures since the reopening of the borders last April, to ensure that only genuine foreign tourists entered the country.
"The instruction was issued ever since we opened up our borders. This is done for safety reasons because there are lots of foreigners who try to sneak into the country to work illegally.
"Our records showed that last year, we stopped 88,564 people from various countries who were on our Not-To-Land (NTL) list.
"Out of these, 35 per cent or 31,069 foreigners deemed NTL were stopped at KLIA and klia2."
Khairul Dzaimee said the department's success in preventing their entry saved Malaysia more than RM184 million in lost levies.
The Immigration Department came under fire recently following complaints of long queues at the entry points, with some claiming that they were forced to wait several hours to have their passports cleared.
Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing took the department to task after inspecting the situation at KLIA. He claimed that some travellers had complained about having to wait for up to two hours.
Khairul Dzaimee, however, said a survey conducted by Malaysia Airports Holding Bhd showed that the Immigration counters at KLIA could clear an average of 495 tourists in 47 minutes.
This put it at a mere six seconds per passenger, far lower than their Key Performance Indicator target of 30 seconds per passenger.
"The processing period, however, is subjective because some tourists require more questioning prior to clearing.
"Suspicious individuals will be taken to our operations room for further questioning."
In addition to tightening the screening procedure, he said, another factor contributing to the congestion at KLIA was the simultaneous arrival of roughly 26 to 27 planes within a five-minute window. He said the peak periods at KLIA were from 6am to 8am, as well as 1pm to 10pm.
He, nevertheless, gave his commitment that at least three quarters of Immigration counters at airports would be open, particularly during the peak periods. There are 38 Immigration counters and 20 autogates in KLIA.
Khairul Dzaimee said while keeping three-quarters of their counters open had been part of the KPI, there were instances where this wasn't possible due to a lack of staff.
One solution, he said, was to deploy a Quick Response Team from Feb 1 to man the counters.
"This comprises our enforcement officers who will be given quick training before they start manning the counters.
"The three-quarter staff strength is what we have been striving to offer even before this.
"But there were times when we could not meet the numbers because our officers were either on medical or emergency leave, or they were suspended from counter duty."
Khairul Dzaimee said another initiative to ease congestion at the two main airports was to reassign more officers during peak periods.
"We don't need a lot of manpower during the non-peak period from 11pm to 5am, so these officers would be reassigned to man the counters either in the morning or early morning."
The government, he said, was also looking at granting tourists from 10 countries permission to use autogates.
"This will likely begin in the middle of February. They will comprise 25 per cent of visitors to the country."
He, however, declined to disclose the 10 countries.
Last year, Malaysia recorded 87,698,460 foreign visitors, 4.8 million of whom arrived via KLIA and klia2.
The number of tourist arrivals is projected to increase following China's easing of travel restrictions and the upcoming Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition in May.