Malaysia Worries Over a Crime Wave

By Asia Sentinal 1 August 2013

Two contract-killing attempts—one successful—on Malaysian streets have focused attention and growing anger on perceptions of a worrying rise in violent crime in the country, turning it into a political issue between Malays and Chinese as well.

An alarmed Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak held a press conference to say the government is prepared to give the police whatever is needed to fight crime and expressed concern over the spate of killings, saying it affected public confidence and increased fear with regard to security and serious crime.

In the most spectacular incident, banker Hussain Ahmad Najadi, 75, the founder and head of Arab-Malaysian Development Bank, was gunned down along with his wife on the street as they walked to his car. Hussain was hit in the chest and lower abdomen and died on the spot while his wife was hit in the arm and leg. She survived the shooting.

The second shooting occurred on July 27 when a gunman riding pillion on a motorcycle pulled up next to a car occupied by R Sri Sanjeevan, the head of a local anti-crime organization called MyWatch, and shot him in the chest when the car stopped at a traffic light in a town in Negeri Sembilan state. Sanjeevan remains in critical but stable condition in a local hospital.

The two incidents are hardly similar. For instance, there is widespread conjecture that Hussain was killed over a land deal gone bad, and Sanjeevan had publicly said he had identified links between policemen and drug dealers, and that he intended to make them public, and unnamed forces on either side of that equation may have attempted to silence him.

However, the shootings tie in with the widening spread of violence including a series of contract killings, such as that in April of the Customs Department director general, Shaharuddin Ibrahim, who was shot dead at a traffic light while being driven to work. The department’s highest-ranking uniformed official and one who is believed to have gone after illegal schemes, his death is the focus of a task force that so far has turned up no suspects.

Nor are those alone. The Penang Institute has identified 38 gun murders between January and April of 2013, a shocking figure for a country unused to such carnage. Two street killings took place last week in addition to the shootings of Hussain and Sanjeevan. Street murders by gun have been averaging two a week, according to statistics. A 26-year-old Indian with a criminal record was shot and killed on the street on Wednesday, according to local news reports.

The US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, in a report dated April 27, describes Malaysia as possessing an overall crime rate designated as “medium,” with most streets safe to walk at night, except around some suspect bars. The police, the report says, are a “national police force that is well trained and equipped.”

But, residents say, that paints a very optimistic picture. A growing number of Kuala Lumpur acquaintances of all races report fear of being on the streets. Many have been mugged, often by the opposite races. One Chinese friend reported being in a minor fender-bender with a Malay woman who pulled out her cellphone and made a call to someone who showed up a few minutes later with a gang ready for violence.

“It is as bad as people say it is,” said a longtime resident of the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya. “Yes, the crimewatch guy was shot and is in serious condition. Even snatch thefts have become very violent. The gangsters—they are Chinese, they are Indians, they are Malays. This is because guns are so easily available. Across the border they come. Others blame the lack of enforcement of laws. They acknowledge we have good laws but the enforcement leaves much to be desired.”

As is almost inevitable in Malaysia, the issue has become another bone of contention being worried over by ethnic Chinese and Malays. Hussain’s suspected killer is alleged by police to be a gangster known as Sei Ngan Chai or Cantonese for “four-eyed boy,” a Chinese. The taxi driver who dropped him off near the scene of Hussain’s shooting has been arrested and identified him as the shooter.

“A Chinese killer will add to the anger,” an ethnic Malay acquaintance told Asia Sentinel. “And I tell you we are angry.”

Much of the focus is on Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s decision to ask for repeal of the colonial-era Emergency Ordinance, which allowed for preventive detention, and, as the Petaling Jaya woman said, the easy availability of guns because of the porous border with Thailand. Many residents are demanding that the preventive detention measure be reinstated.

“Ever since the government abolished the Emergency Ordinances Act and released 2,000 hardcore criminals, violent crime has gone up,” the Malay acquaintance said. “There is murder by hired guns on a weekly basis. The police know who all these guys are, know all who are capable of committing such crimes, know all who have the network to commit such contract killing.”

Local media said police counted 67 serious crimes committed by former detainees within the first six months this year, a 100 percent increase from 33 cases reported in the corresponding period last year. The increase is said to have followed the release of 2,473 detainees in July 2012.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has characterized the police force as understaffed, with one police officer for around 700 residents in any given area. The Democratic Action Party disputes that, saying the ratio is more like one to 250 residents.

DAP lawmaker Steven Sim, in a prepared release, charged that the police have plenty of manpower but that the force has been politicized and must be revamped to fight crime. The police budget, he said, had been increased by more than 65 percent from 2007 to 2012. But, he said, the additional officers had been steered into the Special Branch, the police intelligence arm, and the Special Task Force Department, which keeps an eye on political activity, while the number of line officers on the street has stagnated.

But, ethnic Malays charge, it’s the DAP that is responsible for the crime wave, by demanding that preventive detention continue to be off the books, and by preaching disrespect for the police.

“Opposition teaches people to rally on the streets break laws and kick the police. You teach children to disobey authority—police authority—and you expect the law to be enforced?”