Crime has become familiar. It has casually slipped into our shopping malls, jogging routes, neighbours’ houses. What used to be passed down as urban horror anecdotes are now published on social media sites, corroborated with personal testimonies and uploaded in snapshots that hit us harder with their sense of intimacy.

While we scroll through our own news feeds and try and figure out how to handle the creeping paranoia, some have learned to channel it into surprisingly organised grassroots movements against crime.

In neighbourhood kopitiams and pasar pagi spots across the Klang Valley, some very passionate individuals are gathering and leading the way in anti-crime grassroots movements. Two such groups include MALCRIME (Malaysian Crime Awareness Campaign) and Safer Malaysia. MALCRIME consolidates relevant news articles, videos and blog posts so that people stay aware and vigilant, while Safer Malaysia aims to connect the people to administrators in order to push for security reform at a government level.

Meeting the people behind these groups, one can see how the frustration at the lack of effective action against crime has driven these ordinary folk to take things into their own hands – and it’s not necessarily an ugly picture. In fact, it is quite heartening to see apparently personal fears uniting pools of like-minded individuals who share a communal purpose. But how effective are the measures of such groups? Are they simply a salve to community fears, rather than a solution?

Treating the symptoms

As much as they want success from their efforts, organisations like Safer Malaysia and MALCRIME (Malaysian Crime Awareness Campaign) are careful as to how much responsibility they put on themselves. While they encourage civil action, ultimately they acknowledge the government needs to take the leading role and do what they are being paid taxes for.

 

Official anti-crime campaigns have encouraged us to constantly look behind our backs – even to the point of not carrying handbags in public

 

“Let’s face it, we all have lives to live” says Mykel Lai, a member of Safer Malaysia, and many others would agree. In the wake of the recent surge of street crimes that have gained media visibility, the public has been inundated by a flood of advice on how to avoid, how to run from and how to prevent themselves from falling prey to crime. Many official anti-crime campaigns have encouraged us to constantly look behind our backs – even to the point of not carrying handbags in public, as Perak police chief Datuk Mohd Shukri Dahlan recently advised women. But this is not the type of posture anyone would want to adopt: and it often gets in the way of living the lives that we want to.

Safer Malaysia frequently hold group meetings in public places like kopitiams

Drawing from research of how previous anti-crimes campaigns have succeeded in other countries, Richard Wee, co-founder of Safer Malaysia, says that the focus needs to be redistributed. Perhaps we are too heavy handed on victim-oriented campaigns and not aggressive enough on offender-oriented ones. This creates deeper problems than we’d like to think in terms of societal behaviour. Being taught to distrust authority figures and ignore pleas for help in the name of watching one’s own back sound like good preventive measures but they don’t sound like healthy states of mind to be in for long periods of time.

Another grassroots group that has been consciously working to bridge the gap between the public and those who are paid to prevent crime is SS20’s Rukun Tetangga (RT). Set up back in 2008 and still running, SS20’s RT boasts pioneer status of what the government calls “community policing” – an initiative to foster a partnership between the police and the community. Police are stationed within the SS20 area for 24 hours and residents join them on twice-a-week night roundings as well as occasional sit-down meetings. Residents can contact officers anytime they see anything suspicious.

The SS20 Rukun Tetangga aims to bridge the gap between the public and the police

“The whole thing boils down to communication and coordination with the police,” says Suresh Martin, a founding member of SS20’s RT. In their concerted efforts to have better communication, the RT has even provided the police with mobile phones and rest cabins. With their planned out system of distress calls and controlled exits and entrances, Suresh shares that the crime rates within their area have definitely dropped. Over the years, the residents and the police have also forged some kind of relationship, making the collaboration less strained and more personal. At a time when so many dismiss the police as incompetent or apathetic, the SS20 RT’s lack of cynicism is refreshing.

At the same time, members point out that they can still only do so much: “We need the lawmakers, we need lawyers in, we need expertise because we are laymen,” says Eileen Thong, one of RT members. In this sense, SS20’s RT is like all the other groups we have met. All of them acknowledge that their current activities – be it community policing, organising self-defence classes or getting malls to install more security cameras – are merely treating the symptoms of a greater disease.

Finding the cure

As passionate as these groups are, they all willingly concede that their efforts are short-term solutions that are limited to civilian means; efforts that are likened to mopping up water from a leaking cup. Research on how to fix the leak and what to fill it with have been done. But the mending requires resources and authoritative enforcement that can only come from a bigger hand – the government.

The anti-crime grassroots movements have a delicate balance to strike. Publish anything that is too angry and they can come off as a hotbed for parties with political axes to grind to ramp up anger amongst the people for their own agendas. Groups that are serious about making bigger, national changes are keenly aware of this potential negative outcome and are doing their best to curb it. Opposition leaders have predictably been forthcoming with help but the people behind these movements have taken great pains to remain neutral; sometimes having to take the longer route for the sake of being so.

 

In a country that so often pushes racial harmony to the forefront of national campaigns, the issue of analysing crime demographics is delicate

 

One of the rather controversial suggestions some movements have brought up is that of criminal profiling. In a country that so often pushes racial harmony to the forefront of national campaigns, the issue of analysing crime demographics is delicate. But in order to stop crime, it is of paramount importance to know who is committing the crimes and why they do it.

With a handbook that’s more than 300-pages thick, Safer Malaysia seems to be the most prepared (and willing) movement to meet the necessary officials with implementable ideas. Citing examples in the US, Safer Malaysia states that its long-term goal is to see the country improve its “expertise in the study of the criminal mind” with the help of psychologists and criminologist as a preventive measure. As un-politically correct as it sounds, if there is a certain demographic prone to committing a particular crime, we need to find out why so that their motivations and intentions can be changed.

Another long term plan that most of us can actively work on is the stopping of corruption. Corruption – a more commonplace word than we’d like to admit – is the key to why we’ve lost faith in the police. When the knee-jerk reaction of most civilians is to offer duit kopi to an officer when being pulled over for exceeding the speed limit, law enforcement has lost the battle. If the average man on the street knows how to offer a bribe to get off, what more a criminal? Laws that are iron stiff will strike no fear when the lack of stern enforcement takes away the brunt of it.

How crime is changing us socially

Trouble brings people together in all sorts of fashion. Besides the mushrooming anti-crime groups, we’ve seen some private security firms move into neighbourhoods.

As one pays a gardener to mow their lawn, one should be able to pay someone to watch over their house. Or should they? Some argue that private security firms eventually lead to a slow move of those who can afford better security to ”safe” areas. The rest (who will most likely come from the lower-middle income bracket) will then be sectioned in unguarded areas, leaving them more vulnerable to robberies, snatch thefts and other crimes. This does nothing to lessen crime. It merely shifts it to people who will feel a sharper pain from encounters with it.

 

On the one hand, we are forced into a closer community with those who live geographically near to us. But on the other hand, we are extremely wary of those from ‘the outside’

 

It seems that crime is changing us. On the one hand, we are forced into a closer community with those who live geographically near to us. But on the other hand, we are extremely wary of those from ‘the outside’. In the name of safety, many cries for assistance can be easily brushed off. The high crime rate has created the perfect climate for the forming of self-protective bubbles that allow us to keep heads low and helping hands tightly folded up. We think twice about giving directions to a questioning stranger. We sometimes even refuse help out of suspicion.

Those involved in community policing will tell you that all that is true and then proceed to confirm that they have, nevertheless, been forced to get to know their neighbours better because of their commitments to the safety of their neighbourhood. Crime has actually been the reason people have taken time to get to know each other and started looking out for each other. “I think it gives you the opportunity to change a disadvantage to an advantage,” says SS20 resident David Yoong. “If not for this reason, I think everybody will be busy with our own lives.”

 

A new residential model is being tested – a kampung within a city

 

So as urban neighbourhoods like SS21, Seksyen 5, Seksyen 17 and a few other residential areas in Petaling Jaya go back in time and explore what it’s like to really know your neighbour, a new residential model is being tested – a kampung within a city. The closeness of a village with its inhabitants depending on each other to survive is almost alien to some who have grown up in condominiums or mind-you-own-business housing areas.

As you read this article, groups that were previously striving in isolation are now making steps towards merging under a bigger umbrella. Hopefully cooperation between them goes smoothly enough to transition into a collaborative effort with the authorities. The grassroots groups know only too well that they need to reach up to the lawmakers and enforcement in order to get any real change. The police, too, seem increasingly aware that their jobs are easier when residents communicate with them.

Getting grassroots groups, police and law-makers into effective, open discussions is the tough part. But whether at a community level or at a policy level, the communication is beginning to happen – and it’s something we can all be a part of. Citizen voices have to be heard in order to register on the radar of security administrators. Numbers need to show up in statistics and polls to lend support to these independent groups. Safer Malaysia writes in their vision that they are “not naïve” but that having to constantly look over one’s shoulder is not what living in Malaysia is about. That is something that we can all agree on, and fight for.

Photos courtesy of SS20 RT and Safer Malaysia.

Find it:

Malaysia Crime www.malaysiacrime.com

Malaysian Crime Awareness Campaign (MALCRIME) www.facebook.com/Malcrime

Malaysian Mothers Against Crime www.facebook.com/mumsXcrime

Safehom www.safehom.com

Safer Malaysia www.facebook.com/SaferMalaysia

SS20 Rukun Tetangga http://ss20petalingjaya.blogspot.com

Street Fight Secrets www.streetfightsecrets.com