IT was one of those calls that Tan Sri Ismail Omar dreaded. The nation’s former top cop related how the quiet of a Sunday morning six years ago was abruptly broken.
He was told that 235 Sulu militants had intruded into Lahad Datu in Sabah on Feb 11, 2013.
“I was at home with my family when the Sabah police commissioner alerted me of the incident.
“I directed him to assess the situation and immediately summoned senior officers for a meeting (at the federal police headquarters in Bukit Aman).
“At the same time, I received a call from the (then) armed forces chief (General Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin) and asked him to verify the threat, check the enemy’s strength, their weapons and who they really were.
“I asked Zulkifeli to come back to me to discuss the game plan,” said Ismail, who served as inspector-general of police from Sept 13, 2010, until May 17, 2013.
Ismail, who turned 65 on May 15, is from Kulim, Kedah.
What ensued was more than the authorities had first expected.
The country had not faced a threat of such a scale since the laying down of arms by the communist terrorists in 1989.
The Lahad Datu intrusion caused more than a month of sleepless nights for Ismail.
It also saw the deaths of eight policemen, two soldiers and six civilians. Many of them were killed around Kampung Tanduo.
The operation against the militants was called Op Daulat. At least 70 of the militants were believed to have been killed in airstrikes by the Royal Malaysian Air Force and in ground engagements with the security forces.
After almost seven weeks of fighting, some militants fled from the oil palm plantation, where they had been hiding, to the Philippines.
A total of 29 people — 26 Filipinos and three Malaysians — went on trial. Twelve of the Filipinos were acquitted.
Ismail questioned the militants’ use of confrontation instead of a “roundtable” negotiation to achieve their goals.
“Was it necessary for them to do it in this modern age?
“They should not have resorted to the battlefield, especially as the state (Sabah) and the federation (of Malaysia) have achieved independence.”
The militants designated themselves the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.
They were purportedly sent by Jamalul Kiram III, one of the claimants to the sultanate’s throne. Kiram III was bent on asserting the longstanding territorial claim of the Philippines on eastern Sabah (the former North Borneo).
Ismail added that the Lahad Datu intrusion served as a lesson to everyone not to take peace for granted.
He said the first thought that flashed across his mind was whether the intrusion would be a big test for the security forces.
“It had been more than 20 years since the end of the insurgency (following the Hatyai peace accord with the Communist Party of Malaya).
“The security forces were made up mainly of a new and younger group of people, who were not accustomed to such a threat.
“However, I was moved by their fighting spirit and passion to defend the country (against the enemy attack),” said Ismail, who is also New Straits Times Press chairman. He had served as ambassador to France after retiring from the police force.
The police, being the frontline force, took the responsibility seriously.
“We realised that there was a big challenge ahead.
“Also, our men had not been tested in a real-life situation such as this for quite some time.
“But their morale was high and I was proud to have them serve under me as the IGP,” said Ismail.
He said he was on the ground with Zulkifeli for the first three weeks at the focal point of the standoff at Kampung Tanduo.
“From the start, we knew what the security forces were supposed to do.”
He said the National Blue Ocean Strategy (NBOS) was already in place at the time and was the best solution for the country.
(NBOS involved the close cooperation of agencies in handling challenging situations.)
“The intrusion gave me the opportunity as the IGP to lead the security forces to defend the sovereignty of the nation.”
He added that he had complete confidence in his men.
“At no time were we rattled, even after suffering several casualties. The men were in high spirits and ready to move in when commanded.”
He, however, had cautioned his men not to lose their heads and to think of the bigger task that lay ahead.
“They were told to act strategically, wisely and professionally, even though the chips were down.
“More importantly, we were able to overcome the threat in time for the 13th General Election,” he said.
Ismail said the intrusion came in the wake of sporadic crimes committed by the culprits for a good number of years.
“The volatile situation had been there in Sabah for some time, with a spate of kidnappings of tourists and resort workers.
“The situation was made worse owing to the proximity of numerous islands in the southern Philippines to the long Sabah coastline,” he said.
Ismail added that although the authorities were constantly on the watch, they did not expect the militants to resort to such action.
“We certainly did not expect them to come this far.
“The claims by the Sulu militants are decades old.
“It was one lesson that we learnt the hard way, which has made us more vigilant. We now have stricter preventive measures like the curfew and the Eastern Sabah Security Command,” said Ismail.
CORRUPTION IS LIKE CANCER
On another topic, Ismail said that corruption was a cancer that could destroy a nation.
He said fighting corruption was at the top of his agenda when he served as IGP.
Ismail welcomed the authorities’ action in hauling up the corrupt “big honchos”, which gained momentum as soon as Pakatan Harapan took over the federal government on May 9 last year.
“That is the way to do it. One cannot be a nice guy, and must send a strong message across the board for a clean nation.”
He added that no matter how skilled, professional or influential one was, there was no room for corruption.
He called for continuous strict enforcement to nab the corrupt “big guys”.
“Malaysia will be a better country if corruption is seriously curtailed.”
STARTING THEM YOUNG
He urged Malaysians to go back to basics, by inculcating a “clean” sense of living right from school.
“We have to start from young by educating children not to indulge in corrupt practices to seek financial rewards or success.
“Look at countries like Japan, whose society thrives on respect, humility, love, passion, discipline and integrity,” said Ismail, who also lauded the initiatives by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
He called on the Women’s, Family and Community Development Ministry to look beyond welfare and build the family institution based on respect for the aged and the B40 group.
“We must also look at ethical leadership, establish a strong foundation based on principles and seek success through noble means.
“The needs of the poor must be addressed. This way, the country will be more prosperous,” said Ismail.