Tech giants including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Malaysia Internet Exchange (MyIX) have expressed urgent concerns over the revocation of cabotage exemption for undersea cable repair vessels by the current government. As highlighted by former Transport Minister, Anthony Loke, the cabotage exemption was introduced by the previous administration to speed up undersea cable repair works but it was recently revoked by the current Minister, Dr. Wee Ka Siong.
Based on a sighted memo, the four tech companies have urged Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to look into the revocation as it not only affects millions of Malaysians which are dependent on the internet for their livelihood but also various government ministries.
The memo highlighted that submarine cables are the global backbone of the internet and it plays a critical role in Malaysia’s economy. It stresses that the revocation of the cabotage exemption will cause increased delays in repairs which will severely affect the internet stability, quality and speed to Malaysian consumers and industries.
The tech firms also expressed concerns that the decision made by the Transport Ministry was made without proper consultation with investors of the submarine cables, data centres, the industry as well as other relevant Ministries, agencies and the general public.
Cabotage is the right to operate vessels and it was implemented in Malaysia since the 1980s to protect the local shipping industry from foreign competition. As a result, no foreign-owned ships are allowed to operate in domestic waters unless it is granted an exemption.
According to Anthony Loke, the exemption for foreign vessels to conduct undersea cable repairs was introduced in April 2019 after it was requested by Telekom Malaysia and Time DotCom with the support by the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia. He shared that Malaysia only had one vessel to carry out such undersea cable works and it took an average of 27 days to repair which isn’t up to par compared to other ASEAN countries.
He also shared that Malaysia experiences around 6 major undersea cable repairs each year and the damage severely affects telecommunications and internet services in the country. With the exemption, the previous administration had hoped to cut down the time required for undersea cable repair works to 14 days.
After the revocation was announced, the Malaysia Shipowners’ Association (MASA) had thanked Dr. Wee Ka Siong for the decision claiming that it was done in the spirit of patriotism and “Malaysian First” agenda. MASA chairman Datuk Abdul Hak Md Amin said the revocation will help and enable Malaysian companies to bring cableships and technology back home to boost the local industry and to stop unnecessary outflow of foreign exchange.
He also told Bernama “If the telcos feel that developing Malaysians is not important, then let’s open up everything. Why the need to have local companies like Maxis, TIME or Celcom? Why don’t they allow Singtel, Telkomtelstra, AT&T and the like to come in?” He added that claims that severed cable could render down the whole country’s data system is not substantiated as Malaysia didn’t experience data shutdown during the previous cable outage. He also said there are a total of 19 submarine cables with two new cables underway and if there’s a cable cut, the traffic will be rerouted.
The MASA chairman also explained that there are two maintenance authorities in the region – South East Asia and Indian Ocean Cable Maintenance Agreement and Asia Pacific Marine Maintenance Service Agreement. MASA says it encourages competition between them and it also encourages its members to register a Malaysian-flagged cable ship.
He calls for the national cabotage policy to be implemented completely without exempting certain areas. He also explained that the previous exemption introduced by the previous government only excluded cable systems that land into Malaysia but not cable systems in transit. He shared that there are 10,000km to 15,000km of domestic and international cables in Malaysia and there’s a need for more local cable ships to support them.
Dr Wee Ka Siong has told Free Malaysia Today that he will explain the revocation of the cabotage exemption in Parliament today. He denies the accusations made by Anthony Loke and insists that the matter went through due process.
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