How the crimes of British paedophile Richard Huckle exposed Malaysia’s dangerous silence around abuse – and shocked authorities into action
Many in Malaysia are asking how Huckle could have gotten away with such abominable activities for so long in these close-knit communities.
In the shadows of Kuala Lumpur’s gleaming high-rises, a non-governmental organisation has started holding workshops on sexual abuse for children of a poor Indian community, once a haunt of convicted British paedophile Richard Huckle.
It took weeks to convince the 200 families in the community, which cannot under law be named in order to protect the identity of Huckle’s victims, to allow their children, some as young as four, to gain some sex education.
“A lot of them are in denial. That’s still pretty much what is going on with the communities,” said Mariza Abdulkadir, interim executive director of Protect and Save (PS) the Children, the NGO conducting the workshops.
The NGO wanted to start the safety workshops much earlier, but they were able to get the consent only recently. She said residents told her: “Why are you here? The victims are not among us, it’s other people.”
Asked what he learned in the sex education classes, one five-year-old boy in the neighbourhood said: “No one can touch our private parts” and about “safety rules and feelings”.
Through the workshops, the NGO is hoping to get the children to talk about any abuse they might have suffered so they can get counselling and therapy, since the British police cannot disclose the identities of the victims.
Huckle was given 22 life sentences in a London court on Monday after admitting to 71 charges of sex abuse against children in Malaysia and Cambodia from the ages of six months to 12.
The 30-year-old Briton posed as a freelance photographer, English teacher and Western philanthropist over the past decade to gain access mostly to impoverished communities.
Many in Malaysia are asking how he could have gotten away with such abominable activities for so long in these close-knit communities.
Huckle himself may have provided the answer in a posting he reportedly made on the “dark web”, an encrypted network on the internet, after a trip to India.
“If I were to transfer my skills learned from India and tried to use them in the West, I wouldn’t last a month before I found myself in a cell; my freedom relies on the hush mentality of the locals on this kind of thing,” Huckle said in postings online, according to British media reports.
Freelance journalist Mahi Ramakrishnan, who met with one of the victims, said in some instances where children complained to their families about Huckle, they paid no heed.
Mahi said this was clear in the case of one girl and her two cousins, who Huckle allegedly abused for years in their own home, even after the children told their grandmother he had taken photos and videos of them urinating.
“The word paedophile is so alien in [Malaysian] vocabulary that it just flies off from the top of the heads of people,” she said.
Those who knew Huckle said he was friendly and polite, always roaming with his camera. He participated in the neighbourhood Hindu temple’s religious festivals and sports competitions, and even learnt the Tamil language.
“When I first heard about the child abuse allegations against Huckle, I was shocked. I thought he was a nice boy,” said community leader Sunderam Vadivelu, his grandson beside him, as children ran and bicycled in the street around him.
In another neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur that Huckle frequented, Pastor Paul Pakianathan said Huckle occasionally brought a few Indian children along with him to his church. But when the pastor asked to meet the parents of the children, Huckle’s visits stopped.
“The downtrodden, lower income group ... they see a foreigner and see them as a godfather,” Pakianathan said. “Maybe he found that an easier way to get them.”
Malaysians have expressed outrage on social media over the apathy shown by law enforcement and government officials. British police said this week they told their counterparts in Kuala Lumpur about Huckle’s suspected behaviour more than 18 months ago. But under current Malaysian law, police do not have a lot of leeway to investigate child abuse.
Not all forms of child abuse are necessarily a crime under Malaysian law: people can be charged only for rape – defined as penile penetration – and incest.
“The incidents of child sexual abuse are very, very high,” said PS the Children’s Mariza. “[The police] cannot do anything much because the legal definition is so limited.”
She said Malaysia has convicted only three or four people for child sexual abuse over the last 17 years. Malaysia has no official statistics on child abuse.
Senior police officer deputy commissioner Datuk Law Hong Soon said efforts were continuing to identify Huckle’s victims.
“At the moment, we have identified the places and have gone to several locations that he had visited.,” he said. “We are also looking to locate the children for rehabilitation purposes.
“We are in the process of recording the statements of those who had been in touch with Huckle while awaiting Britain’s National Crime Agency to share more information of his paedophilic activities.”