Thursday, March 22, 2007

ANALYSIS - Malaysia's rising crime mars govt's rosy picture

Sunday March 18, 12:38 PM (Reuters)

ANALYSIS - Malaysia's rising crime mars govt's rosy picture

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - With an eye to early elections, Malaysia is beating the drum about its healthy economy, but surging crime levels offer a stark reminder that the government has yet to deliver on key law-and-order promises. Malaysia expects to host more than 20 million tourists this year as it marks its 50th anniversary of independence, but burglaries, shootouts in shopping malls and motorcycle-borne bag snatchers are just some of the hazards visitors could face.

Kuala Lumpur resident Simonetta Roma, 35, was returning from church one evening when two men on a passing motorbike grabbed at her handbag. The next moment, she was being dragged along the street.

"I saw these two guys passing by on a bike, and the next time I saw them I was on the road," said Roma, an Italian who was seven months' pregnant at the time. "It all happened so fast."

She escaped with just cuts and bruises, but many are not so lucky: often bag-snatch victims are dragged head-first into the pavement with such force they are either killed or left with injuries such as skull fractures or broken bones.

In recent months, public attention has been riveted by the murder of a Mongolian model whose body was feared to have been blown to bits and the theft of a cargo of $13 million worth of computer chips in northern Penang.

Police figures show that crime in Malaysia rose 14 percent last year to 225,836 incidents against 198,017 in 2005, and the proportion of serious crimes, such as murder, rape and armed robbery, grew 26 percent.

Though the government paints a rosy picture of the economy, crime is being fuelled by a volatile mix of factors that includes a huge migrant labour force, the rising cost of living and a vast gulf of deprivation between rich and poor, one analyst said.

"Having a more effective police force would help," said political analyst and activist Chandra Muzaffar, adding that crucial reform steps suggested in 2005 by a sweeping inquiry into Malaysia's police force had yet to carried out.

"That is a pity and it shows a lack of political will and an inability to exercise one's authority," he said.

Opposition politicians say the government has not fulfilled election promises to rein in crime and cast doubt on police data, saying they do not reflect the true problem because people lack confidence in the force, and leave many crimes unreported.

"In the 2004 election, Abdullah had promised his government would reduce crime to make Malaysia a safe country, but streets, public places and homes have become even more unsafe under his premiership," said Democratic Action Party chief Lim Kit Siang.

To fight crime, police chief Musa Hassan wants the government to expand his force by a third, or roughly 30,000 officers.

Another plan aims to improve the quality of investigations by retaining retiring senior officers to train younger officials.

More controversial is a plan to confine foreign workers, who are often blamed for crimes, to work sites during off-duty hours, which has sparked protest from rights groups, because police say they committed just 2 percent of crimes last year.

With Malaysians reluctant to take up menial jobs, the country is one of Asia's largest importers of foreign labour, which makes up a quarter of a workforce of roughly 10.5 million.

Home-seekers worry about security, said an official at one of the country's largest realty firms, who did not want to be named.

"Clients always prefer gated properties, because if there is a break-in, the manager has to replace what is stolen," he added.

Yet there is a bright spot -- the crooks see only fast bucks. "I was worried the thieves would go online with my credit cards and buy things," said snatch-theft victim Simonetta Roma.

"But my bag was found with cards intact, though everything else was gone."

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