18 January, 2008

MALAYSIA: Rampant Crime Turns Main Election Issue

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 18 (IPS) - As election fever grips the country, with polls widely expected mid-March, the country's seemingly unstoppable escalation in violent crime is turning into the main plank of the opposition's campaign.

Opposition parties have now launched a nationwide ‘Good Cops, Safe Malaysia’ campaign distributing leaflets, organising forums and holding ‘meet-the-people’ sessions to persuade voters to show their displeasure at the upcoming polls.

Several recent public opinion polls also indicate that crime has turned the voter's number one concern, followed by rising food and fuel prices.

For most Malaysians the country's racial and religious differences, that usually hog the domestic and international headlines, is not as worrying an issue as was previously thought.

"I am more worried about the safety of my children than ethnic strife," said accounts executive Melissa Chong, who works for a local bank.

"The crime rate has jumped 45 percent since Abdullah (Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi) took over in 2003," she told IPS when met at an opposition organised forum on safe living in the capital.

"The statistics show nine girls and women are raped every day," she said. "This is the scariest situation ever since independence 50 years ago."

Across the country ordinary citizens are forming voluntary neighborhood patrols called ‘Rukun Tetangga’ while others are cordoning off their areas with barbed wire and hiring private guards and guard dogs to keep safe.

The government, aware of the emotive impact of crime that affects all Malaysians irrespective of race or religion announced a raft of new measures this week aimed at bring down the escalating crime graph.

But opposition lawmakers say the measures are lukewarm and politically motivated in anticipation of the early general election.

"In 50 years of electoral politics this is the first time the opposition is putting crime as the top issue during an upcoming election," said parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. "Discrimination, race, poverty and religion are all issues that have been in society for a long time but uncontrolled crime is now the top issue," he told IPS.

"Abdullah has failed miserably to curb crime which has almost doubled during his term as prime minister," Lim said adding that Badawi also holds the key finance and interior portfolios.

"Heavy responsibilities have overwhelmed him. He should give up the home ministry and appoint a dedicated crime fighter to curb rising crime," Lim said.

According to Lim the key reason why crime is rising is because of police corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability. "All these are part of the rampant crime problem which has become a top political issue," Lim said adding police have lost the ground to criminals.

Officials said the government is worried because crime has become an emotive issue and one that affects all races.

In an event widely reported by the country's mainstream newspapers, Badawi visited police headquarters, held discussions with police top brass and announced that he has taking personal charge of combating crime.

He also announced new measures like hiring more policemen, freeing others from office duties to patrol the streets, buying better equipment, and closed circuit TV surveillance cameras and rehiring retired police personnel.

But he has not offered any solution to combat corruption in the force and the lack of skills to fight crime -- two setbacks experts say is fueling the escalation in violent crime.

Under Badawi’s premiership the crime index worsened from 156,315 cases in 2003 to 224,298 cases in 2007 -- a rise of 45 percent over the past four years. It rose 13.4 percent in 2007 alone.

As if to mock Badawi’s measures, a five-year-old girl was abducted last week by an infamous serial killer and sexual predator. His fifth victim was abducted in the same depressed Kampung Medan area of the capital as the fourth one, sparking a massive public outcry.

Despite mobilisation of the national police force and technical help from the intelligence agencies, the killer is loose heightening the fear felt in many households that rampant crime has become unstoppable.

"The strategies announced are too little, too late and lack seriousness. The political will to bite the bullet is missing," said human rights lawyer Ramu Kandasamy. "When Mr Abdullah became Prime Minister in 2003 he pledged to curb crime but instead crime jumped 45 percent during his tenure," Kandasamy told IPS.

"This is a country with a modern economy and first world infrastructure and first world ambitions. It is sad but we will soon become the crime capital of Asia,’’ Kandasamy added.

Many experts say a key reason for the crisis is Badawi’s failure to set up an independent police misconduct commission, and follow a key recommendation made by a royal commission in 2005 to overhaul the police force.

In December, Badawi offered a heavily watered-down version of a independent oversight commission which was heavily criticised because senior police personnel would be running it.

"The key issue is who polices the police… surely not the police themselves," said opposition lawmaker Murugesan Kulasegaran. "It has got to be done by independent, non-police persons of high caliber and integrity."

"More policemen and more CCTVs are not going to automatically bring down the crime rates," he said. "These measures are aimed at the symptoms; it will not cure the infection."

"Police have lost the streets," Kulasegaran said. "They have to get it back by being better cops -- fast, efficient, skillful and free of corruption."

(By Baradan Kuppusamy)

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