By Mariam Mokhtar

Perakians are familiar with the seaside town of Kuala Sepetang (Port Weld), in Larut Matang. The area is renowned for its tourism activities, with the natural beauty of the mangrove forests, and the bountiful harvest of seafood. The surge in eco-tourism has brought benefits to the population and speeded up development, in the area.

Last October, the tranquil nature of the sleepy cluster of fishing villages was shattered by a report in a local Malay newspaper. The residents were horrified by claims that their area was home to a den of smugglers and criminal syndicates.

When contacted, one resident was angry. He said, “The journalists did not get their facts from the correct source. Their report reads more like fiction.”

The Malay newspaper claimed that the criminals ran their activities along the lines of the mafia. They controlled casinos, besides being responsible for murder, prostitution, gambling, drugs distribution and illegal land intrusion. Kuala Sepetang, it was alleged, was a hub for the smuggling of drugs, diesel, cigarettes, illegal people and liquor.

Many of the villagers were furious, because these unsubstantiated claims and negative perceptions had the potential to affect their businesses and trade, destroy the reputation of the community and scare away the tourists.

Village heads lodged police reports to say that the newspaper report had serious implications for the future of the village communities.

The points mentioned in the Malay newspaper report are revealing and one person who has close ties to the area, wondered if the reporter had been fed stories by disgruntled locals who have not been able to get a lion’s share, in the economic successes of Kuala Sepetang.

The reporters wrote about Kuala Sepetang being the largest distribution centre for drugs in the area and that drugs were hidden in the locations which by day, were tourist sites.

Another local when contacted wondered if this malicious rumour was made by envious business rivals.

The reporters claimed that illegals were being smuggled into the area and that certain locals were harbouring them, before they were dispersed throughout the nation. The reporters also said, that whilst they were interviewing some villagers, other people were attempting to eavesdrop on their conversation.

The article said that the fishing activities were controlled by non-Malays and that the minority Malays residing in the area, were only small time fishermen. The big boats of the fishing operators were manned by foreigners and that the enforcement authorities ignored them but harassed the small time Malay fishermen.

The journalists, for the Malay daily, said that their sources claimed that gun-shots were heard frequently, and that little attention was paid when murders were committed.

The report also received the attention of the Perak police, which denied the presence of mafia-like criminals operating in the coastal fishing villages of Kuala Sepetang, Bagan Panchor and Pulau Kuala Sanggar.

The acting State police chief A. Paramasivam said that the level of crime in Kuala Sepetang was relatively low and the public should not panic over this report. He said that the police had not received reports of crimes “like snatch thefts, threats or any violent crimes from the public, especially the tourists.”

He also questioned the newspaper report which he said, tarnished the reputation and integrity of the police.

Paramasivam said only one murder had been reported in the area, in 2013 and although there had been five arrests, no one was charged, for lack of evidence.

In 2014, there were 36 crimes, which included the smuggling of contraband goods and illegal immigrants. He also mentioned that there had been 11 motorcycle thefts and break-ins reported in the area. In the year 2013 to 2014, there had been 61 drug-related cases.

Despite the statement by Paramasivam, both the Umno-Baru division head, Syed Abu Hussin and the Home Minister Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi alleged that criminal syndicates were operating in Kuala Sepetang. Syed Abu said, “The villagers told us the activities occur during bad weather or late at night when everyone has gone to bed.”

The Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar has supported the Acting Perak police chief’s assertion that the town was not run by the mafia and that the Malay newspaper reports were not true.

Khalid said, “Kuala Sepetang used to be a hotspot for trafficking activities. However, such activities are not rampant, now.”

One tour operator who runs a successful tourism business said, “I have been at Kuala Sepetang since 2011, when I started my tour using wooden fishing boats. One of our stops is at Kuala Sanggar. Nowadays the villagers’ income from selling fresh shrimp, dried shrimp and salted fish has increased. Since then, I have not heard of any gangsterism.

“There were two deaths, one was from drowning and the other one, which was possibly drug related, was from falling from the new bridge.

“This newspaper report is part of a campaign to smear us and give a bad reputation to our eco-tourism trade.”