Crackdown on loansharks after debtors found chained and tortured in Malaysia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 June, 2009, 12:00am

The horrific ordeal of three debtors who were chained to a wall, beaten and starved for two months has prompted a crackdown against loansharks in Malaysia.

Their plight, which came to light last week when they were rescued by police, has sparked an outcry against loansharking syndicates run by traditional triads and newer gangs.

The victims, whose names have been withheld, were held in a makeshift prison run by the loansharks, known as ah longs, for failing to repay their debts.

Police said they had not seen such a long-term, organised tactic enacted as retribution by loansharks, who typically break their victims' limbs or splash their homes with red paint.

Police said the men were held captive in a shop lot that had been converted into a private jail as their families tried to raise money to secure their release. All three were skilled construction workers who lost their jobs in the economic downturn and had borrowed between M$1,500 (HK$3,300) and M$4,000 to make ends meet, the wife of one said.

'We just wanted some money to tide us over until our husbands got new jobs,' said the wife, who gave the name Madam Guan.

'I knew where they were held but dared not call the police,' she said, adding she feared the syndicate might find out. The men were freed last Wednesday and images of them, gaunt and chained, hit the front pages the next day.

'I have never seen anything this scandalous in my 30 years as a helper,' said Michael Chong, 60, who runs a support centre for people in distress, including those fleeing from loansharks.

Mr Chong, who mediates between loansharks and their debtors, said: 'This case shows loansharks have really gone overboard. They are a menace and must be eradicated.'

Prime Minister Najib Razak joined the clamour expressing shock and ordered the police to crack down on loansharking, which experts say has grown into billion-dollar enterprises structured like modern financial corporations.

The chief of the national police, Musa Hassan, said loansharks had grown 'big and bold' and were connected with secret societies, criminal groups and gangsters.

'They charge high interest and are willing to use force because the business is very lucrative,' he said, urging people in need of loans to use licensed money lenders and financial institutions such as banks.

Police have released photographs of four syndicate bosses whose arrest would cripple loansharking.

Besides going after the bosses, police have been tearing down the ubiquitous posters offering cheap loans and say they are pursuing those who put the adverts in newspapers.

But opposition lawmakers and crime journalists have scoffed at the police crackdown, saying the loansharking syndicates are well connected with the law enforcement agencies and the political establishment, and are unlikely to be eradicated any time soon.

Older triad organisations such as Sio Sam, meaning Three Little Emperors, newer gangs like K9, and criminal groups identified by numbers such as Gang 08, 21 and 24 are involved in the business of loans.

'The syndicate bosses often hold legitimate business as fronts and some are even members of ruling political parties,' said a senior editor with a Chinese-language daily who declined to be identified.

'Each time there is a national outcry the police launch an operation, arrest a few fellows and soon everything quiets down and it is back to business as usual.'