Snuffing out the smugglers

9 April 2017:

The Customs Department is getting serious with smugglers, intensifying its collaboration with regional counterparts and local enforcement agencies.

SMUGGLERS beware. We’re coming for you.

Weekly seizures are now the norm, says Customs director-general Datuk Subromaniam Tholasy.

Most recent was the seizure of three containers of illicit cigarettes in Port Klang on March 30, which cost the Government an estimated RM18mil in duties. For every 40-foot container of contraband cigarettes smuggled, the Government loses RM6mil, he adds. 

“The containers were declared as something else. But they couldn’t fool us because in August last year, Malaysia enforced the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

“Now, before containers can be loaded, the weight must be declared and a certification from the port obtained. So they cannot cheat us by making fake declarations anymore.”

And the upcoming Ubiquitous Customs (uCustoms) system and national targeting centre, he says, will enhance customs control.

In 2014, Subromaniam’s predecessor Datuk Seri Khazali Ahmad told The Star that the centre which would use a risk-based approach to focus on high-risk consignments, would be developed through the uCustoms system to fine-tune the department’s risk assessment of the shipments entering the country’s ports. The fully-electronic uCustoms integrated solution for goods clearance will replace the existing customs information system.


UCustoms, however, is only one of many measures to wipe out illicit goods, says Subromaniam. Special operations, land and sea patrols, roadblocks, penalties, outlet inspections and the Collaborated Border Management system, are all being enhanced.

Smuggling activities here are mainly by containers at the port and via coastal areas by smaller vessels. The coastal areas pose a bigger challenge because it stretches more than 6,000km. Smugglers bring in illicit cigarettes, for example, and transfer them onto fishing boats in the middle of the sea.

To tackle smuggling in these areas, the department is working with agencies like the navy, marine police, maritime enforcement and the Immigration Department.

Sharing his “personal KPI”, Subromaniam says the goal is to bring illicit cigarette smuggling down by half over the next three years. Explaining why, he shares how despite a 40% hike in the excise duties of cigarettes in 2015, there was no drop in consumption. Yet, the department’s collection only went up marginally.

This, he says, is because of illicit cigarettes. So, the huge revenue loss to the Government must be addressed by improving the department’s procedures and processes.

“We seized cigarettes worth RM648.92mil in tax value last year –almost double that of the previous year. The numbers look good but it doesn’t mean we’ve controlled smuggling or that we’re doing a better job.

“In the past, we were so proud to say we had seized so much of contraband in terms of quantity but the bigger question is whether the gap between revenue and leakages has been reduced.

“Looking at just the numbers is like measuring output. What we want is outcome because numbers sometimes tell a different story. I’m trying to ‘reinvent Customs’ by looking at things from a different perspective. This means going back to the processes and procedures.”

Last year, drugs valued at RM73.4mil – more than twice the amount compared to 2015 – were seized. In the first two months of this year, RM10.8mil worth of drugs have been seized.

Next month, Subromaniam will attend a meeting of Asean Customs directors-general in Indonesia to discuss cross-border and transnational crime. It’s important, he says, for the region’s high-level Customs officials to be in close contact.

“We share intelligence, success stories and the latest modus operandi. For example, a man dressed in monk robes was recently caught with drugs in Thailand. Stopped by a Customs officer, he panicked. That was when they discovered the drugs.

“The young officer was initially reprimanded by his senior for not respecting the ‘religious’ figure but his instincts proved right.”

Smugglers are creative but Subromaniam believes his men can perform their duties effectively with cooperation from their regional counterparts. The department, he says, also invests in technology.

“We do risk management. We look at body language and have ways of identifying smugglers. Our officers are well-trained and are kept updated on the latest tricks.”