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Red faces and potential losse$ over salvage job gone wrong
Published on: Friday, February 17, 2017

Kota Kinabalu: State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun (pic) admitted, Thursday, that a salvage operation last month involving Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), among others, has left the State authorities "red faced", besides potential millions of ringgit losses for the local tourism and fishing sectors.

Questions remain as to why three World War II shipwrecks in Usukan Bay "had to be wrecked" he said at a stakeholders' meeting, Thursday, following public anger over the episode.

The operation was facilitated by a local firm which commissioned a Chinese-registered vessel to carry it out, initially said to find out if the cargo of the three vessels that sank 72 years ago carried 3,000 tonnes of bauxite, a hazardous substance.

However, sceptics believed the exercise was a treasure hunt for war booty, possibly gold bars which the ships were believed to be carrying.

Masidi shot down the claim of bauxite, saying it does not hold water because it was never confirmed by any expert.

But he said he respected the university's intention to carry out an inventory of what was to be found inside the wrecks.

"Was it necessary to wreck the (ship) wreck? Were you trying to find something else other than just research?" he said, echoing questions from the general public.

Among those who attended were UMS Vice Chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Harun Abdullah, deputy vice chancellor Prof Shahril Yusof, archeological research unit head Baszley Bee Basrah Bee, Ugeen's manager retired navy commander Abdul Rahman Md Saad, Sabah Museum Director Sintiong Gelet.

Ugeens Berjaya Enterprise had commissioned a China-registered vessel to salvage materials from the shipwrecks while UMS took part to conduct research and documentation on the wrecks.

The university said it was never involved in the actual salvaging operation.

Both had obtained salvaging permit from the State Marine Department, who did not object, and Sabah Museum Department. But the museum explained that the permit issued was only for exploration, not removal of any artifacts or the wrecks.

Abdul Rahman denied recovering any from the Japanese transport ships Higane Maru, Hiyori Maru and Kokusei Maru except for some porcelain and parts of the ships which they have sent to the State museum.

He also said the wrecks have been returned to undisclosed locations at sea and the coordinates have been given to the museum.

According to Masidi, the whole issue started because there had been confusion and unclear guidelines as to how a salvaging work had to be carried out, thus resulting a mess. He pointed out that even his Ministry's permanent secretary was never reported to by heads of agencies under it with regard to the salvage work.

"We're all left red faced because of this," he admitted, while assuring that the State would work out strict guidelines, laws and Terms of References for future salvage works.

Sabah Anglers Association President Datuk Wilfred Lingham said its members were furious to learn that the salvage work almost destroyed all the wreck sites.

Masidi stressed that the public still had suspicion about the project, especially over the involvement of the China-registered vessel.

"That just creates a whole different perception," he said.

Ugeens Berjaya Enterprise's interest in the project was apparently to earn some royalty from UMS' research publications on the project to cover the costs the company had put in.

Tourism Malaysia diving advisor Clement Lee estimated that the removal of the wrecks may have cost the State tourism industry RM2 million of revenue annually.

UMS has offered to place artificial reefs at the sites but stakeholders said the State has lost not only in monetary terms but a piece of history as well. - Leonard Alaza

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