Crime spreads - on the net at least
Jennifer Pak in Kuala Lumpur
The crime rate in Malaysia has been steadily declining over the past four years but Malaysians feel less safe.
Chin Xin-ci counts herself among the lucky ones.
The 24-year-old managed to escape after two men abducted her from a shopping mall car park just outside Kuala Lumpur in May.
Chin was shoved into the back seat of her car while one of the men took her keys to drive. His accomplice pressed a meat cleaver to her neck and began making sexual advances towards her. That's when it hit her.
'Oh my god,' she later wrote on her Facebook page. 'This is really happening. I'm being kidnapped and I think I know what they want.'
Her story of how she escaped an abduction and rape was shared online more than 51,000 times over the past six weeks.
Since then other attacks against women at luxury shopping centres have been featured prominently in local media and shared on social networks.
Most of the victims were robbed. Those who fought back suffered knife wounds to the head. Another had a finger severed.
Crime has become a major public concern in the big cities.
Visitors to the capital are usually warned by well-intentioned Malaysians to be on alert for snatch thieves, where people on motorbikes grab handbags from women on the pavement.
Equally common are thieves who smash the windows of cars stopped at a traffic light to take handbags or other goods from the passenger seat.
When asked for a response to the recent attacks, Interior Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said social media was helping to create a perception that crime was on the rise. But he flatly denied this, saying the opposite trend was true.
Government statistics showed a 40 per cent drop in street crime from 2009 to 2011, while general crime rates decreased 11 per cent.
'As part of the Malaysian government's transformation programme, more CCTV and street lighting has been installed, more police have been deployed strategically in crime hotspots and more offenders brought to justice,' a government spokesman said.
The crime statistics were audited by international accountants, he added.
This response has done nothing to calm Malaysians' nerves and accusations that the government manipulates the numbers.
'People are angry,' said analyst Ong Kian Ming. He said there was a perception that more resources were being put into publicising government efforts than into fighting crime.
'Most people don't believe the statistics that crime has gone down, because they've had personal experiences and friends who have been victims of crime,' he said.
Ong himself was a victim of an attempted break-in just hours before speaking to the Post.
But he believes his attackers targeted him as an act of intimidation for being critical of the electoral system.
Ong posted the details on Twitter. It was quickly picked up by the alternative online news sites and later reported in the mainstream press.
The way social media is driving the news agenda in Malaysia is a change that the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has struggled to adapt to.
Traditional media are all linked directly or indirectly to the government. Since independence in 1957, the country has been governed by the same coalition. This was made possible, according to opposition party members, because BN controlled the media and therefore the message.
But to attract foreign investment in hi-tech industries, the government pledged not to censor the internet. This allowed an alternative press to flourish online. And it played a significant role in helping the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat or People's Alliance, grab one third of the seats in Parliament and take over five states in 2008.
In the meantime, concerned citizens are banding together to fight crime. A group calling itself Malaysians Against Rape, Assault and Snatch recently kicked off an online petition lobbying for safer car parks and streets. Founder Dave Avran says he is angry with the non-action of politicians in certain crime hotspots.
He has recorded an average of two attacks against women at shopping malls every week since Chin's escape from her abductors.
But Avran believes the government that crime rates are falling. He says the opposition is more social-media savvy and taps into people's emotions especially when it comes to crime, whereas the federal government prefers to spread 'dry facts'.