Malaysia’s bag snatching epidemic

Malaysia is not amongst the safest countries in Asia, but it’s not amongst the least safe either – statistically it falls somewhere in the middle. But in recent years, street crime – and in particular bag snatching – has been on the rise.

In the past month I personally know of three women who have had their bags snatched. One in Petaling Street (Chinatown) who wasn’t injured (fortunately she let go of her bag), one in Petaling Jaya near the PJ Hilton – she didn’t let go of her bag and was dragged along the ground suffering cuts and bruises – and one near Sungai Wang in the city. The last victim was walking with her boyfriend, but that didn’t stop a motorcyclist from grabbing her bag. Unfortunately she didn’t let go and is still in hospital with head injuries.

She is lucky to be alive though because several victims have died in the past few years from hitting their heads on the kerb or the road when they were dragged along by the motorcyclists. Incidents such as those that lead to fatalities are usually reported in the press, but most of the others aren’t – unless the victim is a local politician or show biz personality.

If I personally know three victims from the past month, the number of bag snatchings that are happening every day in the urban areas of Malaysia (I guess they don’t happen so much in rural areas where there are fewer strangers around) must be in the dozens – perhaps even hundreds.

The offenders are rarely caught as most bag snatchings are done by two men on a motorcycle – one to ‘drive’ and one to snatch. As soon as they have the bag in their hands, they disappear at high speed through the traffic. Sometimes they will slash the bag strap with a knife – and risk slashing the victim’s arm as well – but often they drag the victim along the road until she can hold on no longer – and it is these cases that sometimes lead to fatalities. (Moral: let go of your bag – whatever you have in it is not worth your life).

Apart from the few fatalities that are reported (and that may not be all of them), the local papers seem reluctant to devote much space to reporting bag snatchings. Perhaps that is because the government (which controls the local media in Malaysia) believes that reporting on the bag snatchings would frighten away tourists.

A few years ago, the local media was not allowed to mention the existence of the annual smoke haze from Indonesia for fear of frightening away tourists – but eventually that restriction had to be dropped because the government couldn’t control the international satellite channels reporting on it.

But wouldn’t it be better for first-time visitors to the country to be warned so that they can be aware of the problem and take the necessary precautions? Surely that is better than visitors becoming victims and returning to their home countries to relate their traumatic experiences in Malaysia (two of the three victims that I know were visitors).

There’s no easy solution to the problem of bag snatching because the perpetrators are usually unemployed youths, illegal immigrants or drug addicts – so it is a reflection of wider social problems in the community – but making visitors and ordinary citizens more aware of the scale of the epidemic would go a long way towards raising awareness of the situations that have led to bags being snatched.

The online Malaysia Travel Guide says this about street crime in the country:

“In every street crime incident there are always three aspects - a victim, an offender and an opportunity for a criminal. The criminal is always on a look out for easy target, if you are showing precaution to put off his intentions, he will move on to someone else. Thus best way of breaking the ‘triangle of street crime’ is to remove the opportunity.”

The grammar’s a bit rough but the advice is spot-on. Remove the opportunity and there will be far fewer potential victims for the bag snatchers.

In my view, the local media should be playing a more pro-active role in raising awareness.

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