June 8, 2010

Safety in the Cities

Posted in Malaysia, Selangor, Tricia's Writings at 9:17 pm by egalitaria

As usual I have been very undisciplined in keeping my blog active. Sorry, peeps. Well here is my column from the Penang Economic Monthly 🙂 This time, on safety in the cities… They’ve also put it up on The Malaysian Insider here

Safety In The Cities

A horrific incident occurred in April in Shah Alam, Selangor, that will sadly be merely an additional statistic in the growing list of police shootings recorded in recent times.

Fifteen-year-old Aminulrasyid Amzah was shot to death by police manning a roadblock. He was driving without a licence at 2am and, to avoid the police check, he reportedly backed into several policemen instead. He was shot dead whilst a passenger in the car managed to escape. The death of this teenager sent shockwaves throughout the country.

Whilst it is true that the public has been clamouring for greater police surveillance to improve safety and security in the cities, the “trigger-happy” behaviour by our men in blue is not helping to combat crime. In fact, it hurts further public confidence in our law enforcers.

In a survey conducted by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research released in January 2010, “crime and public safety” was listed as one of the top five concerns in Peninsular Malaysia. In November 2009, the Home Ministry’s website opinion polls showed that 97 per cent or 9,729 out of 10,060 respondents felt unsafe because of the high crime rate, and 95 per cent felt that their safety was not guaranteed. This has been a consistent concern, corresponding to the alarming rise in crime figures over the last 10 years. For example, violent crime increased by 8.7 per cent in the first five months of 2007 compared with the same period the previous year. Violent crime increased by 85 per cent between 2003 and 2006. Rape cases increased by 95 per cent in 2009. Selangor records the highest crime rates for both petty and violent crimes.

There is also a worrying increase in house burglaries in 2009, a year that recorded a relative jump of such crimes taking place in broad daylight compared to night-time.

The “Crime Index”, a measure kept by the Royal Malaysian Police, rose by 45 per cent between 2003 and 2007 from 156,315 to 224,298 cases. (Note: It was not possible to obtain more recent crime index figures). Crimes that are reported with sufficient regularity and given sufficient significance are considered meaningful to the index. An occurrence is considered a crime when it is reported either by the victim or a witness, or on the initiative of the police upon discovery of a criminal activity. The index describes two categories of crime, namely violent and property crime, with snatch thefts being considered a separate and unique category due to its frequency. Although this index is the only possible means of measuring crime in the country, the police also recognise “dark figures”, which is the gap between reported and unreported crime.

The government’s efforts

Given our dire situation, how should policies be shaped to ensure safety in our cities?

In response to the very real concerns its population has over the issue of safety, the government has adopted crime reduction as one of its National Key Result Areas (NKRAs). This is divided into three parts: street crimes, improving public perception of voluntary organisations such as Rela (the People’s Voluntary Corps) and upgrading the performance of enforcement agencies. Street crimes are a targeted area as they made up 17 per cent of the 2008 crime index. Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Penang and Johor recorded 72 per cent of overall street crimes that year. The government’s target is to reduce street crime by 20 per cent and lower the Crime Index by 5 per cent by the end of 2010. According to latest statistics released by the government, street crime rate has fallen by 7.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009 and Kuala Lumpur’s crime rate has dropped by 30 per cent in the first two months of 2010.

One of the initiatives for crime deterrence taken by the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) is to increase the number of police at 50 hotspots, backed by 3,000 trained Civil Defence and Rela personnel and 500 closed-circuit cameras in those areas. The Home Ministry has a “nerve centre” operations room that is streamed with data and visuals of crime hotspots which are linked to police stations nationwide. The team has also attempted to reach out to the public, with an NKRA crime lab Facebook page, and intends to work with local councils in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Penang and Johor, with auxiliary policemen roped in.

The role of state governments

In the New Economic Model, part one of which was recently unveiled by the government, “decentralisation” is prominently featured throughout, stating the need to change the archaic policy of centralised decision-making and to ensure that state governments and local authorities are given more say. This means that every policy should be closely discussed and implemented with state and local governments, regardless of political leanings.

One way is to double-check crime figures between authorities, especially when there is conflicting data. For instance, in January 2010, the police announced that Penang’s street crime rate had dropped “dramatically” just before New Year’s Eve, with only 30 reported crime cases compared to the daily average of 55. However, street crimes, which make up 40 per cent of all crime in Penang, increased by 27 per cent in 2009. All in all, 3,786 crimes were recorded that year compared to 3,523 cases in 2008. Crimes such as motorcycle thefts, snatch thefts, robbery and illegal racing contributed to this increase. Certain areas in Selangor, like Ara Damansara, have apparently seen its crime rate drop by 30 per cent after more CCTVs were installed. An updated statistic on overall crime in 2010 has not yet been released.

Since the federal government desires to devolve powers to state and local governments, one would think it necessary for state governments to have greater input in both the planning and implementation stages of the NKRA on crime reduction. Since crime is local, it is the local authorities that would be most familiar with the issues involved within their jurisdiction.

However, the central government seems reluctant to do so in reality. For example, the Petaling Jaya City Council (Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya, or MBPJ) applied recently to the Royal Malaysia Police for approval to set up an Auxiliary Police Force in the Petaling Jaya area. This was turned down by the Inspector-General of Police, who cited “overlapping responsibilities” as the reason. Similarly, the Penang government wrote to police headquarters to request for auxiliary police for the City Council (MPPP) in George Town but was rejected without any reason being given. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai, or MPSP) already has a police-help unit tied to its municipal court.

Despite the rejection, the MPPJ took it upon itself to independently announce the setting up of the auxiliary police unit under the enforcement department. After all, Petaling Jaya has the highest crime rate in Selangor (together with Klang), and the council had already approved RM4.29mil from its 2010 budget for the unit, covering emolument, services equipment, assets and other expenses. The application is being resubmitted, the outcome of which is expected soon.

Both the Penang and Selangor state governments do not seem to feature prominently in both the planning and implementation of measures to combat crime. Their powers they possess are limited to the approval of additional CCTVs at selected hotspots. The Selangor administration allocated a total of RM3mil in its 2010 budget for the installation of CCTVs in suitable locations within each district in the state.

The right solutions?

The direction taken by the government to solve security woes in Malaysia seems to be simply to increase surveillance via additional personnel and CCTVs, although there has been no research to confirm that the latter can sufficiently reduce overall crime rates. Whilst these are certainly welcome moves, and the public looks forward to positive reports of crime reduction, the reality is that people are still very much living in fear. The number of gated communities has rapidly increased in Selangor and Penang. Foreign expatriate communities cite safety as a primary concern for their families. This affects decisions by foreign experts on whether or not to move to Malaysia, and a bad reputation on safety certainly affects foreign direct investments.

Image problems that enforcement agencies suffer do not help. Stories about Rela members extorting foreign migrant workers and refugee communities continue to circulate (see this issue’s cover story). Rela’s membership stands at 682,749 today and its role will continue to expand, given the NKRA’s goals for the year. This in itself is an area of concern, for Rela members require little qualification, receive inadequate training, yet are allowed to carry firearms and are entrusted with the heavy task of assisting the police. The reputation of the police also suffers as a result of deaths in custody cases. In 2008, 82 persons were killed while being apprehended by the police; 50 died in 2009, and the Selangor police have been charged with acts of criminal intimidation.

Sadly, the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) proposed by the highly reputed members of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police was rejected by the government. In its place, a Special Complaints Commission was formed, which was later changed by Parliament in 2009 to the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission.

The vision we all — both state and federal governments — have of Malaysia is one in which our cities are safe and relatively free from danger. Today, women clutch their handbags in fear, parents are anxious about their children’s safety, and families fork out hard-earned cash to pay for extra private security guards and gated communities.

Surely, it is the role of government — any government — to ensure that its citizens live in a safe environment. It is equally justified to expect that law enforcement agents keep their cool and are not overzealous in stopping any of us driving home without a licence.

In the final analysis, citizens must simply feel safe, and not fearful, in the presence of the very policemen employed for their benefit, and paid for by their taxes.

* This article is taken from the June issue of “Penang Economic Monthly”, published by the Socio-economic and Environmental Institute (SERI), Penang, now out at all good bookshops and newsagents.

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