On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Horror of a botched rescue

Even when the situation looked dangerous, they appeared to be nonchalant and seemingly unconcerned about how the deadly kidnapping could end.

The police negotiators were seen joking and laughing with the disgruntled former cop who demanded to be reinstated in his job in return for releasing the hostages.

In fact, it even had the CNN newscaster asking at some point why the authorities were taking the whole situation so lightly.

Right from the beginning, most of the world seemed to have the feeling that the whole episode would have an ugly ending. A tragedy was just waiting to happen, maybe because the Filipino police have a record of being incompetent.

Never mind the corrupt part. Some Malay­sians are critical of our police but when it comes to serious crimes involving drug kingpins, dangerous criminals and terrorists, most of us believe they can do their job well.

But the same cannot be said in the case of the Philippines. The whole hostage crisis appeared to be mismanaged from the start. And the fiasco continued until the end.

The former cop should have been shot dead when food was delivered to him. If that decision had been taken, a lot of innocent lives could have been saved.

There were other missed opportunities – the hostage taker had, at one point, opened the door of the bus and peered out.

We watched in horror when the commandos failed to get into the bus for more than an hour after smashing its windows with sledgehammers. Yes, an hour.

But what has outraged the world is that this is not the first time abductions of tourists have taken place in that country.

Last week, it was reported that gunmen had killed a South Korean man and kidnapped two of his companions in a pre-dawn attack in Manila.

In the case of Malaysians, in 2000, Abu Sayyaf terrorists raided the resort island of Sipadan and took away 21 hostages comprising 10 tourists and 11 workers.

More recently, two Malaysian seaweed farm workers from Sabah were kidnapped in February and until now, their fate is still unknown. The two were taken away from Pulau Sebangkat near Semporna and are believed to have been brought to Jolo, the haven for radical terrorists.

It’s been more than six months but there is little news about their conditions even as authorities from both countries say they were exchanging information about their whereabouts.

From lawless groups like the Abu Sayyaf to a lone nutcase ex-policeman, the Philippines cannot hope to instil confidence among tourists and investors with these criminals around. Visitors who bring money to the country must have some sense of security and personal safety.

I remember accompanying then Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar on a trip to Manila when the Sipadan incident took place. I was walking out of a five-star hotel to a shopping mall across the street when I was suddenly grabbed by two strangers.

Badly shaken, I managed to break free and run into a crowded McDonald’s outlet. That did not deter the two men, who acted like abductors, from pursuing me.

Seeing the dangerous situation, I ran back to the hotel and told the desk manager what had taken place.

The desk manager nonchalantly told me they had heard similar stories from their guests and that they had informed the police but there was nothing much they could do.

The abductors are targeting Japanese tourists and others from Malaysia or Singapore.

In another incident, a fellow journalist who could speak Tagalog and has interviewed Nur Misuari, the Moro National Liberation Front founder, found himself accosted in a taxi. Although he considered himself an old hand in the Philippines, he had entered into a taxi only to find himself joined by another “passenger” a little while later.

The bottom line is, after the hostage-taking incident in Manila, the perception that the Philippines isn’t safe will be reinforced. The damage to tourism will be tremendous.

Filipinos are very nice people but the hoodlums and criminals in their country have ruined their image. It doesn’t help that President Benigno Aquino himself handled the situation badly.

In Malaysia, we do not expect to see tourists being taken as hostages but there are petty criminals here who prey on locals and tourists.

The presence of tourist police who can speak English, Chinese or Arabic sufficiently needs to be increased in specific areas.

At the KLIA and LCCT, they should be on patrol to advise airport users to watch out for their bags, especially those with computers, as is done at London Heathrow Airport. They should walk the extra mile to seek the views of tourists and airline passengers and help promote Malaysia as a safe destination.

Tourism is one of our biggest revenue earners and these are small investments.

There are lessons to be learnt from what happened in Manila in terms of crisis management and the rest of the world, especially law enforcers, should study that case carefully.