“Cat and Mouse” in Cameron Highlands

8th  December 2014- The speed at which events are unfolding in Cameron Highlands this last month comes as a surprise to many of us. We have been waiting for years for the lawlessness that is suffocating us, to be reined in and finally after 14 years of highlighting it, we see some positive changes.  On the 2nd of November 2014, a local daily headlined that Cameron Highlands was “conquered” by illegal immigrants. “Cameron Highlands di tawan”. This was followed coincidentally on the 5th of November 2014 by the mud floods in Ringlet, Kuala Terla and other areas which took 5 lives. Suddenly the focus shifted to the rampant illegal land clearings here as being the main cause of the mud floods and the illegal workers as being the main cause of the illegal land clearings. All hell broke loose. The public reaction and media attention that ensued was way beyond the norm. Over the last decade we had gotten used to the ‘sandiwara’ or drama that followed every media exposure. Things will eventually quieten down and the perpetrators will emerge bolder and the environment will deterioriate further. But not this time. The reporters from the various local media were around longer and their stories were more in depth. The Federal Government response too was far better than what we have ever dared wish for. But having been disappointed over and over again , we just sat back and watched how ‘the Cat and Mouse’ drama  played out, hoping that the environment of Cameron Highlands will now stand a chance.

One of the first teams to arrive was the immigration department. When they came they caught almost everyone by surprise because they came disguised as tourists. “We were very happy when we saw what we thought was a busload of tourists disembarking” said a hawker in Kea Farm. “ The ‘tourists’ started browsing ,some as couples, some with cameras and then precisely at 1.30 pm they got to work, checking passports of foreign hawker stall assistants and handcuffing those without proper documentation. There was just no opportunity for the foreign workers to escape.” This story, with some variations were repeated in the other towns.   Similarly in the hotels and eateries in Brinchang and Tanah Rata, premises were searched, passports of workers checked and those deemed illegal were caught.

By the 2nd week, operations had moved to the outskirts with other departments such as the army, police and Rela joining in. Army and police trucks were now a regular sight. News began to filter in from the villages about vehicles with enforcement officers going in and hauling up illegal workers, how the workers would run helter-skelter into the hills whenever they see an unfamiliar vehicle. Soon many farms especially illegal ones were empty of workers and left unattended. “Tracker dogs were also brought in and I saw the dogs and their handlers leaping over fences as they pursued the workers” said a farmer. In another incidence, a farm worker reported having seen around 24 tractors fleeing Manson Valley in the wee hours of the morning. He was woken up by the cacophony in the still of the night and started counting them. Another friend remarked, “The densest place in Cameron Highlands now is probably the mountains surrounding the villages, dense with foreign illegal workers.” Foreign workers on the run had sought refuge in the forests but it would only be a matter of time before they leave as temperatures there can drop to 11 degrees Celcius.

Packing houses which were usually located near the main roads in towns were also covered. In one such packing house with 5 foreign workers, only 2 were found when immigration officers enter the premises. The officers soon left. But where were the other 3?  The boss later told friends “Oh , the 2 workers sealed their co-workers in the cardboard boxes (for packing flowers) with  tape!”(the boxes have ventilation holes in them and the workers were eventually let out)

Tales abound about the ingenuity of the pursuers and the pursued. For many years illegal immigrants have taken advantage and exploited the cracks in our system. They have an elaborate communications system and network. Evading authorities have become an art form. (Many of these valleys where these farms are situated have only one main entry point such as the Pos Terisu Valley , so when government vehicles are seen entering the area, farm workers at the far end of the valley would know what to do. This time around the officers enter the area using the ubiquitious pick-up trucks and landrovers) The immigration officers seem to have the upper hand as for now.

However it must be said that detaining illegal foreign workers here is not enough if our borders and points of entry into our country remain porous. Corruption at these points must be controlled and the illegal flow stemmed. Otherwise those who have managed to gain entry will make a beeline to places in our country deemed to be “easy meat” such as Cameron Highlands.

It is hoped that the illegal migrant workers will be repatriated to their home countries soon.

Another ’cat and mouse’ scene that is unfolding is not visible to the naked eye. Many locals have been grumbling that only the illegal workers have been caught but corrupt officials  in the land office and the ‘big guns’ have remained untouched and these people are largely  responsible for vast tracts of land being cleared. With just a stroke of a pen on a land clearing permit, hectares of land is cleared.(In contrast land clearing done by foreign workers are usually smaller plots cleared by hand and not with heavy machinery.) Apprehending these local culprits would need hard evidence and following the money and paper trails takes time. Most probably in the weeks to come, the long arms of the law would reach them. So the significant happenings are actually those occurring beneath the surface.

And it all started with a mud flood.