Malaysian police fight back in gang wars
A spate of fatal shootings, including that of a top banker, have left a nation shell-shocked and forced its government to tackle the criminals head-on
Amy Chew in Kuala Lumpur
It was 4.30am when Malaysian police made their way to an apartment on Penang Island, just off the country's northwest coast.
As they closed in, five suspected members of the notorious Gang 04 opened fire, police sources say. All five were killed after the police fired back in the August 19 shoot-out that lasted 30 minutes.
Ballistics tests on three firearms seized from the scene revealed the five had been involved in at least 12 shooting cases in three states, with 04 members being linked to protection rackets, robberies and murders as well as carrying out professional assassinations.
Lethal shootings have taken place across the country almost every day since July - a spate of violent crime that has unnerved this usually peaceful nation of 28 million people.
The deadly response from the police was what the Malaysian public had been waiting for. "The strike to eliminate the threat has started," said Professor P. Sundramoorthy, a criminologist from the University Sains Malaysia (USM).
"If there is too much heat from the police, the criminals may stay low temporarily," he said. "We need to observe if the trend still continues. If it slows down considerably, it's very possible the police have got the right target."
The government crackdown was prompted by the death of Hussain Najadi, 75, the founder of the Arab-Malaysian Bank, who was gunned down in broad daylight on a busy Kuala Lumpur street on July 29. The brazen, cold-blooded killing of a man of Najadi's stature sent shock waves through the nation.
In the minds of the public, if a man known and respected by the country's leaders could be gunned down, then what hope for ordinary citizens with no access to the corridors of power?
Several people were arrested in connection with the shooting, but Najadi's assassin remains at large. "We are zeroing in on him," said Royal Malaysia Police spokesman Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf.
Najadi's death stirred the media and netizens to monitor and publicise almost every known shooting, placing pressure on the government to act.
The crackdown was launched on August 17. To date, 783 individuals have been detained, according to the official Bernama news agency.
Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi attributed the upsurge in crime and shootings to the release of 2,600 criminals last year, following the abolition of a law known as the Emergency Ordinance, under which people could be held for up to two years without trial.
Scrapping of the law followed allegations of abuse and calls from the public and opposition parties for greater civil liberties. According to Hamidi, the spate of shootings were a result of turf wars waged by suspects formerly detained under the ordinance.
A security source told the South China Morning Post that some of the released detainees were engaged in battles to regain their former territories which had been taken over during their detention. "They are also fighting for new turfs," he said.
Areas of criminal activity masquerading under the common euphemism of "providing security" - in areas such as construction sites and housing estates - are among those being fought over, he said. "I can tell you, I don't feel safe right now with the security provided in the place where I live," he added.
The inflow of guns and ammunition, blamed on the porous northern border between Malaysia and Thailand, further exacerbates the violence.
"That is why you see firearms being used even in petty thefts of items such as smartphones and iPads," said the security source.
Police and criminologists believe repeal of the Emergency Ordinance has emboldened criminal groups such as Gang 04, as they know law enforcement officers can no longer detain them without hard evidence.
Supporters and members of the gang held a grand funeral procession for three of the slain members, blocking off several roads and lighting firecrackers along the way. The march to the crematorium brought traffic to a standstill, with hundreds of gang members on motorcycles revving their engines.
After the funeral, graffiti with the words "04, R.I.P" and the swastika sign was sprayed on 12 locations in the state of Selangor, including a police post and a bank.
Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar said the force would not tolerate any criminal group or gang trying to intimidate them."No criminal will win against the authorities," Khalid was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper
The graffiti attacks are seen as a sign of defiance against the authorities and a way for gangs to mark their territory and gain publicity, according to Professor Sundramoorthy.
In the course of his work, Sundramoorthy has come across victims of crimes who have had their ear or finger chopped off.
"Despite their severe wounds, the victims will not testify against the perpetrators as they are terrified," he said.
The government is currently considering introducing new laws similar to the Emergency Ordinance, but with safeguards against rights abuses, to combat the soaring crime rate.
The government may designate a panel of police officers, judges and lawyers to determine who gets detained, as opposed to giving sole discretion to the home minister, as happened in the past, Hamidi said in an interview with Mingguan Malaysia newspaper last week, which was posted on his website. But introducing tougher laws is a sensitive issue, with the opposition People's Justice Party (PKR) strongly against such a move.
The PKR argues Malaysia already has enough laws to prevent crimes. The weakness, it says, lies is in the enforcement of them, and in providing and maintaining surveillance such as CCTV and patrol cars, as well as having enough trained police officers on the streets.
Last Thursday, the Home Ministry categorised 49 organisations as being "secret societies" with a total membership of 40,313 people, and banned them, according to the Bernama.
Home Ministry secretary-general Abdul Rahim Mohd Radzi said the "secret societies" were involved in activities which could "threaten public order" such as drug trafficking, criminal intimidation and creating chaos. Among these was Gang 04.
"At the moment, the police-to-population ratio is at 1:275 - very near to international standards," said Nurul Izzah, the PKR's vice-president and daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
"It is clear that what we need is more police to prevent crimes, not just sitting in the office or being burdened with the task of spying on BN (the ruling coalition National Front) political opponents," she said.
According to statistics from government sources, about 30 per cent of the Royal Malaysia Police's officers are placed under managerial, administrative and logistics departments.
"If the government is serious in combating crime, PDRM (Royal Malaysia Police) needs to be restructured - with the bulk of the police workforce stationed in the crime prevention department," said Nurul.
"Providing enough crime prevention tools and enough police on the ground are the basics that need to be prioritised for an efficient and effective crime prevention plan," she added.