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Snatch thefts, sex crimes and violence:

Whither public security in Malaysia?

by Francis Loh
Aliran Monthly 2004:6

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1105b (10K)
Unless allegations of police brutality are investigated, confidence in the police will not be restored.
During the months of June and July 2004, the local media, especially the press, have been replete with reports of crime and violence in Malaysia. There have been many reports of snatch thefts, but also of rapes and other sex crimes, assaults and murders, child abuse and ill-treatment of foreign maids, break-ins as well as break-outs (from police lock-ups), hold-ups and thefts, kidnappings, extortion including the stabbing of two schoolchildren, not to mention numerous fatal road accidents. Police statistics on these crimes indicate that they are on the rise. There is a sense of anxiety, even panic and fear in the air, no thanks to the barrage of media reports.

Various suggestions on how to combat crime have been offered by the authorities, politicians, journalists and other ordinary Malaysians. They range from better lighting of dark places, the installation of close-circuit televisions (CCTVs), educating the public, and inevitably, greater law and order enforcement. The Cabinet has agreed to provide more financial and personnel support to the Police. Ominously, the Deputy Minister of Internal Security has announced the use of the Emergency Ordinance (Crime Prevention and Public Safety),1969, which allows for detention for two years without trial, and of Section 394 of the Penal Code (which allows for mandatory whipping) to curb snatch thefts and other crimes.

We are concerned that the government and the politicians are once again resorting to harsh, indeed coercive laws, to resolve this time, the scourge of rising crime, which is at root, a social problem. We are even more disturbed that Malaysians, once again, are acquiescing to this resort to coercive laws. In this regard, the media reporting on crime has been rather one-sided. There has hardly been any investigation of the underlying causes of crime, nor of how the use of these coercive laws, indeed even of the CCTVs, might impinge on our freedom and privacy on the one hand, and facilitate greater social and political control of citizens on the other. Using the Emergency Ordinance to fight snatch thefts today runs the risk of using the ISA another day.

This article is not about the causes of crime. Instead, it probes the question of deteriorating “public security” and how the barrage of media reports have instilled a sense of anxiety, fear, even panic. Under such circumstances, the use of coercive laws can be easily legitimised.

But harsher laws and more policing per se will not resolve the problem. For there has also developed a disturbing lack of trust and confidence in the police, which is why the Prime Minister launched in February 2004 a Royal Commission to look into the operations and management of the police. Observers had commented that the Commission was formed to repair the damage to the image of the police due to a spate of allegations of police brutality, shootings of criminal suspects, and deaths and violence in custody. There is a danger that the current anxiety, fear and panic will sideline the investigation into these allegations against the police. That would be a serious mistake for public security cannot be restored without that trust..

Snatch thefts and anxiety

The current anxiety about public security is directly related to the sudden surge in the reporting of crime, especially how three snatch thefts resulted in the deaths of two women and one man. Chin Wai Fung died in Brickfields in May when she fought back against a snatch thief. Then Chong Fee Cheng fell, went into a coma and died while resisting a snatch thief in Johor Baru in mid-June. This was followed by the killing of Rosli Mohamed Saad who had gone to the aid of an Indonesian woman whose bag was snatched in Ampang in June 29. Rosli chased and caught the thief who then stabbed him twice. “Petty theft” which is how snatch theft has traditionally been classified under the Penal Code had taken on serious proportions and caused the deaths of three innocent Malaysians.

Other cases of snatch thefts were also reported. The headlines included: “Four in court for snatch thefts”, referring to cases which occurred in Sungai Petani; “Teenager remanded for seven days for snatch theft”, referring to another case in Kuala Lumpur; “NS trainee helps bring habitual snatch thief to justice”, an incident occurring in Tampin; “Policewoman’s handbag snatched,” a case in Malacca; “Suspect pays with his life in botched handbag grab” in Klang. “Victim who was left paralysed”, was the headline of an interview with a victim of a snatch theft in Damansara in 1996; “Snatch thief gets 30 months”, a case in Kuala Lumpur; and “Snatch thieves get MPs’ attention”.

The newspapers also carried statistics on the number of snatch thefts. Relying on police statistics, Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon revealed that there had been a total of 515 cases of snatch thefts in Penang between January and May 2004. Of these 327 had been solved with the arrest of 52 people, mostly drug addicts (The Star, 16 June 2004 and 19 June 2004). Meanwhile the Perak CPO reported a total of 374 cases of snatch thefts in his state during January to May 2004 (The Star, 8 July 2004).

Citing police statistics, Lim Kit Siang, MP for Ipoh Timur, revealed in Parliament that there had been an increase in the number of reported snatch thefts these past years: from 14,368 reported cases in 2001, to 14,640 cases in 2002, to 15,798 cases in 2003 (The Star, 6 July 2004). The Deputy Minister of Internal Security Datuk Noh Omar further revealed that there were 5,517 reported snatch theft cases during the first five months of 2004. The problem of snatch thefts is obviously widespread especially in the urban areas.

The problem could be even more serious. Based on a survey which it conducted between 1-6 June involving 337 respondents, Nanyang Siang Pau (6 July 2004) reported that 50% of the respondents had been victims of robbery, snatch thefts and sexual harassment. Of these victims, 61% were females while 89% lived in urban areas. Significantly, only about half of the victims (50.3%) had lodged police reports. Among the reasons offered for not reporting to the police were: “Police unable to help” (45.2%); “no evidence” (29%); and “procedure for lodging report was troublesome” (11%). Nanyang surmised that there was a “lack of confidence in the Police”. Michael Chong, who heads the Malaysian Chinese Association’s Complaints and Services Bureau, similarly remarked that many victims of snatch thefts did not lodge police reports (The Star, 6 June 2004).

CCTVs, better lighting, Emergency Ordinance

No doubt there was an outpouring of grief by families and friends over the tragedies. But there also developed a groundswell of anger with snatch thieves and frustration that the authorities seemed unable to ensure public security. Invariably, the politicians and police have also expressed their concerns. Some also offered opinions on who they thought were the thieves, and what ought to be done.

According to Penang State Executive Councillor Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan most snatch thieves are drug addicts. Accordingly he calls for the rounding up of some 10,000 hard core addicts in the state. As well, he laments that the Bukit Mertajam drug rehabilitation camp is used to detain more out-of-town rather than local addicts. (The Star, 7 July 2004).

Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, the Housing and Local Government Minister has ordered all local authorities to implement four short-term measures to check crime: clean up all unkempt places; remove all billboards on overhead pedestrian bridges; light up public areas especially the crime-prone ones; and separate pedestrian walkways from motorized traffic (The Star, 7 July 2004). Many, including Penang CM Dr Koh, have called for brighter lighting and the installation of CCTVs in “hotspots”. Apparently, some local authorities must install CCTVs in public places like overhead bridges, LRT and bus stations, night markets, and lonely dark lanes by the Sept 18 deadline. Others like FOMCA advisor Datuk Hamdan Adnan, however, have called for thinking through the order, lest we waste public funds yet again. He recalled the expensive installation of cameras at traffic intersections to nab motorists who run red lights. Today, most of these are no longer in use. Besides, he argued, the snatch thieves could easily move to the suburbs and elsewhere to conduct their activities (New Straits Times, 11 July 2004).

The Police, too, have made proposals and taken steps to stop the scourge. Malacca CPO Christopher Wan has designed “safety nets” to cover motorcycle baskets so as to deter snatch thieves (The Star, 7 July 2004).

As mentioned earlier, Deputy Internal Security Affairs Minister Datuk Noh Omar has clarified in Parliament that the Police, since early 2004, had resorted to using the Emergency Ordinance (Crime Prevention and Public Safety), 1969 against snatch thieves “if the Police is convinced that the suspects had committed the offence”. Under the Ordinance, those suspected may be held for 60 days after which the Internal Security Minister could decide to detain them for up to two years without trial in Simpang Renggam.

Noh Omar further clarified that the Police would also charge snatch thieves under Sections 392, 394 and 397 of the Penal Code which allows for caning, jail terms (up to 20 years if armed, under Section 394), apart from imposing fines. This last step is in line with the suggestions of another politician, Karpal Singh (MP for Bukit Gelugor), who called for amendments to sections 392 and 394 of the Penal Code to impose mandatory whipping of not less than six strokes (The Star, 6 July 2004). It was also the suggestion of Wong Sulong in his Editorial in The Star on 15 June 2004. Another prominent columnist Wong Chun Wai has echoed the same sentiments in his “Criminals more daring with weak police force”. In this case, Wong calls for a stronger police force too (The Star, 20 June 2004)

Sex crimes

From the above, it appears that the police and various politicians are prepared to invoke whipping as well as detention without trial in order to solve snatch thefts. In fact, there is a danger that we have been egged on to introduce such drastic measures not because of anxiety over the hike in snatch thefts per se, but because of panic and fear over the rise in crime, especially violent crimes, and an emerging crisis in Malaysia’s public security. Again, the media is responsible for creating this sense of fear and panic.

start_quote (1K) The more radical approach to resolving crime is to address its root causes. end_quote (1K)
Perhaps by sheer coincidence, several dramatic court cases of violent sex crimes were on-going these past months. Reports of these court proceedings have filled the pages of the local newspapers of all languages. These court hearings involve the rape and murder of Canny Ong and Noritta Samsudin in Kuala Lumpur, and of Datuk Norjan Khan Bahadar, Sabah’s Assistant Rural Development Minister, in Kota Kinabalu.

There have been other media reports of rapes. On 6 July, it was reported that a 25-year old woman was raped in Miami Beach, Batu Feringghi, Penang. That same day, an item in local dailies stated that a 61-year old man had been jailed for 10 years for raping his grand-daughter in May 2000, in Grik. The next day, July 7, it was reported that a teenager who guided a stranger in Banting had been raped. Another report that same day involved the alleged rape of a 19-year old kindergarten teacher by her supervisor in Glenmarie. On 13 July a mother and her daughter were reportedly raped by two youths who had escaped from a nearby reform school in Jerantut (The Star 6, 7 and 13 July 2004).

Over NTV7’s English language My News Network on 13 July, the lead story focused on five dates with new internet acquaintances which resulted in rape and gang-rape. And let us not forget that there were reports of several cases of rapes occurring during National Service camps too. Indeed, for some time now, women’s groups like AWAM have alerted us to the rising number of rape cases and other sex crimes.

Killing and kidnappings

There have also been numerous reports of killings as well as court hearings of such killings, three of which are on-going. There is the assault and death of 16-year old student Muhamed Farid Ibrahim of SM Agama Datuk Klana Petra Maamor in Ampangan, Seremban on March 28. Eight juveniles are charged with his killing. Another case involves the killing of Carolyn Janice Ahmad at Salak Estate near Sungai Siput on 9 Nov. 1999. Yet another case involves the killing of lecturer Bakarudin Busu in Subang Jaya on 12 Feb 2002. Four men are standing trial in the Shah Alam High Court.

Then there is the senseless murder of 91-year old grandmother, Goh Ah Neh, in Melaka. The thief, who had apparently robbed her a year ago, killed her this time since she had recognized him. Another report on the same day highlighted another grandmother whose head was bashed by robbers in Seremban (The Star, 2 July 2004).

Three recent murders involving Penangites have also been in the news reports. On 28 March 2004, discotheque manager Nigel Samson was killed. On 5 April the body of popular teacher Pong Teng Toon was found in Baling; he had been strangled. In the latest case on 29 June, a 43-year old woman was battered outside a budget hotel in Chulia Street. The Police have announced that various suspects had been remanded and questioned in these cases (The Star, 2 and 6 July 2004). Investigations are also on-going in the assault and killing of law student Darren Kang Tien Hua in Desa Seri Hartamas in Kuala Lumpur, on 5 July morning.

Then there are the kidnappings. One of these involved Julia Law Lee Mei, a Sarawak girl studying in Kuala Lumpur, ending in her death. She was believed to have been still alive when her body, tied to a sandbag, was dumped into a disused mining pool. In another case, a 4-year old girl was kidnapped by the discipline-teacher of her school in Nibong Tebal. The teacher was arrested after her father had paid a RM200,000 ransom.

The problem of crime goes far beyond increasing numbers of snatch thefts. Full details are not readily available. However, a sense of the problem might be garnered from the following statistics released by Internal Security Ministry parliamentary secretary Datuk Abu Seman Yusuf. Kuala Lumpur Police statistics showed that the total number of violent crimes (including murder, snatch theft, and individual and gang robbery) had increased over the past four years: from 7,958 cases in 2000 to 8,060 in 2003. Murder cases went up from 52 cases in 2001 and 2002 to 58 cases in 2003. There has also been an increase in the number of snatch theft cases: from 2,796 (2001) to 3,182 (2002) to 4,262 (2003). Gang robbery cases decreased from 405 to 380 cases between 2001 and 2002, before increasing to 411 in 2003, while individual robberies went up from 2,894 (2001) to 3,080 (2002) to 3,228 (2003). However there were drops in the number of armed gang robberies and armed individual robberies (The Star, 8 July 2004).

On earlier occasions, the media had highlighted other cases of crime stemming from road-bullies, loan sharks, drugs, gambling and other vice-related activities, gangsterism, etc. Many of these crimes involve violence too, and occasionally result in deaths as well. Recall also all those cases of abuse of foreign domestic maids reported in the media, and then shunted aside by the media’s current concern about snatch thefts. If all these were taken into consideration, it would be even less surprising that there exists this fear and panic about security today.

Panic and fear, more policing and harsher laws

It is probable that the entire range of criminal activities was taken into consideration when the Cabinet recently agreed to provide the police with additional financial and human support to fight crime. According to Inspector General of Police (IGP), Tan Sri Bakri Omar, the force which was already 86,000-strong, needed an additional 23,000 personnel. The police staff was not only under-paid and under-equipped, it was also under-staffed. In high-density urban areas like Petaling Jaya, the police to population ratio was only 1: 1,154. Apparently, there are only 50 patrol cars in Kuala Lumpur.

The CID, which is 5,000-strong, needed an additional 6,000 personnel immediately, Bakri Omar revealed. To deploy more personnel in the streets quickly, the Police Force would shorten the training period for new recruits from the current nine months to six months. In the interim, General Operations personnel and Police Volunteer Reserves would be deployed. However, the IGP also claimed that there was no need for panic. For the crime situation in Malaysia is better than in most neighbouring countries, including Singapore. Indeed, he claimed that Malaysia possessed one of the best crime-solving rates in the world (The Star 24 June).

To what extent will a larger Police Force solve the increasing incidences of crime?

It depends on how one explains the rising incidences of crime in the first place.

The common sociological explanation for crime, according to conservative researchers, is “deviant behaviour”. Their corrective for crime is more policing, harsher laws including capital punishment to deter potential criminals, and heavier doses of socialization and re-socialisation of criminals and potential criminals.

The more radical approach to resolving crime is to address its root causes. Hence, the socio-economic problems of criminals, often from lower class and minority backgrounds, should be addressed. Their basic needs, especially having access to educational and employment opportunities, are given special attention. Social problems arising from poverty like broken homes, alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, etc impact on youths with severe consequences, and should be tackled sympathetically. Prejudices against minorities and the poor within society writ large, even more so within the police force, should also be given due emphases. In other words, how the police force conducts itself vis-à-vis the crime-prone communities, and whether there develops trust and confidence between the police and the public, are also critical. Yet none of these issues has been investigated by the media thus far. They have merely reported on the incidences of crime, and the court cases about them; not on the underlying social causes of crime.

The crime rate in Malaysia is nothing like that in Colombia, South Africa, Russia and other East European countries, or like in several Southeast Asian countries. In these countries criminal groups have penetrated the police forces, and law and order has broken down. Nothing like that has happened in Malaysia. In fact, whereas Malaysia’s security used to be threatened by armed communists and by violent ethnic clashes – epitomized by the May 13 communal riots, both threats have receded, something Malaysians ought to be proud of. Nonetheless, crime rates have increased and police-civil society relations have deteriorated in Malaysia.

Restoring trust in the police

In this regard, we recall that the media in May and early June was highlighting the issue of police reform, at least occasionally. In important interviews with the press, the CID chief, Datuk Musa Hassan, admitted that perhaps his major task was to regain public respect in the police. He admitted that there was bribery and corruption within the force and that he wished to eradicate it. He has warned his men that they must act on all public complaints and that he would act against those who treated public complaints as petty. However, he denied that police brutality is widespread. “In most cases, people voluntarily give cautioned statements but when the case comes before the court, they want to rebut it, claiming that they were coerced and beaten by police….When we interrogate, we use psychology, not force. We find out more about the suspect’s background and use it in our questioning”. At any rate, he has warned his men that “they will face the consequences if they resort to violence. We will not protect them and they will be charged in court” (New Straits Times, 23 May 2004 and The Star, 28 May 2004).

We are encouraged by these remarks by the CID chief but his claims have been challenged by various human rights groups who are concerned that force is being used too frequently and unnecessarily by the police. These counter-claims, however, have rarely been reported by the local media.

It was the deputy minister of Internal Security who revealed in Parliament in April 1999 that 635 people had been shot dead by the Police between 1989 and 1999 (cited in Suaram’s Malaysian Human Rights Report 2002). That revelation had sparked concern by human rights groups and concerned individuals including Raja Aziz Addruse, the former president of the Bar Council, who on behalf of another human rights group Hakam, expressed concern that the police appeared “trigger-happy”. For that, Raza Aziz was admonished by then prime minister Dr Mahathir for undermining the reputation of the police.

Yet it was at this time, it should be recalled, that former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was assaulted by then IGP, Rahim Noor, while in police custody in September 1998. Had it not been for the tell-tale signs of a black eye and other bruises, which caused the Court to order an inquiry into the matter when Anwar was presented in court, Anwar’s assault would not have come to light. For the entire police force had initially denied that assault and battery had taken place.

It was also around this time that the police was accused of using excessive force to quell peaceful street demonstrations opposing Anwar’s detention and calling for reformasi.This was also the concern of Suhakam, the National Human Rights Commission, after it had completed investigation of several such demonstrations. It was on account of these events and the statistics presented by the deputy minister that the reputation of the police suffered a set-back.

It appears that the situation has not improved. Suhakam’s 342-page Annual Report 2003 noted that 425 inmates had died during 2002 up till July 2003. It also claimed that another 18 people had died while in police custody in 2002. Suaram elaborated on many cases and highlighted in its Human Right Report 2002 a slight increase in reported deaths of criminal suspects while in police custody: 6 in 2000, 10 in 2001, and 18 in 2002. Many of these victims, Suaram noted, were young and not well-educated about their rights. Some were also foreigners, including illegal immigrants.

A case in point is that of 24-year old G Francis Udayapan, who disappeared from police custody on April 18 until discovered dead several days later. The police claimed that he escaped from his holding cell, jumped into a river, and drowned. However, his mother believes that he died while in police custody.

A few weeks later, lawyer P Uthayakumar who heads the Police Watch and Human Rights Committee, and was acting on behalf of the mother, was beaten and assaulted at gunpoint. When he asked for 24-hour police protection, his request was denied. On May 20, Uthayakumar, who believes that the police were behind his assault, left for the United Kingdom to seek temporary asylum. He did not return until a cabinet minister announced that his safety would be assured and that the IGP had been put in charge of the Udayapan case.

In fact, in December 2001, Suhakam, concerned with the numbers of deaths of suspects while in police custody, had recommended in its “Rights of Remand Prisoners Report” that certain guidelines be followed to avoid complications and allegations of police brutality. It appears that that Report, just like its Annual Reports submitted to Parliament, have been ignored by the powers-that-be.

More recently Suhakam Commissioner Datuk K C Vohrah, a former judge, has further voiced concern over the increasing number of “roadshow remands” where detainees are moved from one police lock-up to another. He recommends that magistrates carefully scrutinise applications for remand and not merely grant them at the request of the investigating police officer. In this manner, the police would be prevented from circumventing Section 17 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which only allows a maximum remand of 14 days. As well, “magistrates should also inquire into the welfare of the detained persons to ensure that no abuse had taken place”, he advised (The Star, 28 May 2004)

In similar spirit, another Suhakam Commissioner, Professor Chiam has voiced concern on “whipping demonstrations” being conducted in schools to deter students from crime. “It could lead to confusing children that using force on their peers – whether in retaliation or punishment – was legitimate”. Indeed, such demonstrations could also “cause unforeseen indirect psychological impact which may cause emotional injury to the students,” besides being contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Malaysia acceded to in 1995, as well as other UN Conventions and Covenants (The Star, 28 May 2004).

It was on account of these concerns as well as Suaram’s release of its Annual Report, that some publicity was given to problems associated with the police itself, whereupon the Inspector General of Police announced that the police would investigate all deaths in police custody and complete investigations within a month (The Star, 9 June 2004). Public inquests would be held to determine the causes of death. The family of the deceased could engage counsel to represent their interests. Also, detainees would be told in writing why they are being held. And they would also be allowed access to family members and lawyers. These are steps in the right direction and augur well if they are meticulously followed.

When declaring open the new Senior Police Officers College, the prime minister declared: “Corruption, abuse of power, rough and rude manners, indiscipline and inefficiency would only raise negative perception of the police force and ruin its credibility” (New Straits Times, 11 July 2004). Pak Lah is spot-on. For without trust and confidence in the police, it would be difficult to restore public security in the country.


Unless allegations of police brutality are investigated and perpetrators, if any, prosecuted, confidence and trust in the police will not be restored. In such case, a larger police force and harsher laws will not resolve the problem of crime and public security. Worse, it will only lead to a deterioration of our freedom and privacy. This is why the anxiety over snatch thefts, and the fear and panic over violent crimes should not detract from the important task of investigating complaints and allegations of excessive use of force by the police. Indeed, the Royal Commission should investigate specific cases of these allegations – something it has yet to do – rather than make general recommendations on police reform.

The media also have an important role to play via investigating and reporting on these deaths and allegations of police brutality so as to allay distrust of the police. More than this, the media should also provoke debate on the causes of crime, and on the best ways to curb crime while upholding our freedoms and rights.

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