Crime fears go viral in Malaysia

The fear of crime is soaring in Malaysia as personal tales of abduction, assault and robbery go viral online, upping pressure on authorities to respond and triggering scrutiny of official claims that offences are down.

Shopping malls and residents' groups have launched patrols, sales of security equipment are surging, newspapers offer tips on how to avoid becoming a victim and social media are abuzz with anguish over the situation.

Residents of the multi-ethnic Muslim-majority country -- one of the most developed and stable in Southeast Asia -- have long complained about bag-snatching and other petty crime.

But more serious recent incidents have gained wide attention on the Internet, channeling public concern in a country where nearly half the population of 28 million is on Facebook.

A day after two men tried to abduct Chin Xin-Ci at knifepoint in her car at an upscale Kuala Lumpur mall in May, she wrote about the ordeal on the social networking site, a post that was shared more than 51,000 times.

Fearing rape, she escaped by jumping from the vehicle as it slowed to exit the carpark. The attackers -- as in many cases -- got away.

"To me, it felt like one long nightmare. We never think it's going to happen to us... and then it does," the 24-year-old wrote.

Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged to reduce crime after taking power in 2009 and, with fresh elections due next year, his government claims progress, saying the crime problem is being hyped online.

It said the number of reported crimes fell 11.1 percent in 2011 and was down 10 percent in the first half of 2012, crediting stepped-up patrols in crime-hit areas and increased lighting in public.

But many victims say officers tell them there is little they can do to catch bag-snatchers and muggers, and critics say the drop in reported crimes could be due to the resulting apathy about seeking police help.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein admitted authorities were losing the "perception" battle.

"I'm not in denial. This is something that needs to be addressed," he said last month.

Malaysia's official crime rate appears relatively low when compared internationally.

According to the most recent government data, 740 crimes were reported per 100,000 people in 2009, compared to 665 in famously low-crime Singapore, but differing methods of data compilation make such comparisons imprecise.

Scepticism over the figures is rife, given that nearly every resident of Kuala Lumpur has been a victim -- or knows at least one -- of bag-snatching or "smash" thefts.

In the latter case, perpetrators on motorcycles will shatter a car window at a red light, snatch belongings, and utilise the capital's notorious traffic jams to speed off unpursued.

"There has been a spike over the past couple of weeks with regard to especially this snatch theft and crimes against women," said Lee Lam Thye, vice-chairman of the government-linked Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation.

"When this goes on the Internet and YouTube the impact is very great."

Some blame illegal immigrants -- Malaysia has an estimated two million undocumented workers from its poorer neighbours in the region -- but victims of some of the most brazen crimes say the perpetrators were Malaysians.

Whatever the causes, Facebook users are trading stories of women assaulted in mall carparks, and knife-wielding robbers tying up families.

In April, a 12-year-old Dutch boy was kidnapped in broad daylight entering his international school in an upmarket Kuala Lumpur area, prompting other schools to ramp up security. He was freed a week later after a ransom was paid.

Malls, often jammed with people escaping the tropical heat, have seen a wave of reported car park attacks against women, prompting shopping centers to install "panic buttons".

National police chief Ismail Omar insisted last month that incidents were few, but conceded that people were becoming afraid of visiting shopping complexes.

Gated communities with guards are common. But unguarded neighbourhoods are also now increasingly taking security into their own hands amid the widely held view that Malaysian police are ineffective and corrupt.

Retiree Teoh Yan Sing, 65, and his neighbours have hired a security guard, started nightly walking patrols of their neighbourhood in a Kuala Lumpur suburb, and recently began blocking off streets at night.

One neighbour ringed his home with barbed wire after a robbery.

"The statistics don't matter at all. The fear is there. My wife and I, every time we want to go out, we look left and right," said Teoh, whose wife suffered a smash-and-grab attack earlier this year.

Jeffrey Tan, general manager of Centrix Security, said sales of closed-circuit television cameras -- which homeowners can monitor via mobile phones -- have jumped 40 percent in the last three months.

Fed-up citizens have launched online petitions demanding greater police action, and the political opposition has pounced, publicly questioning the official crime data.

"The number of cases may have gone down, but the perception is that it is still a serious problem," said Ibrahim Suffian, head of top polling firm Merdeka Center.

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