Dealing with Malaysia's gun violence

Malaysians have reason to be unnerved by an unexpected surge in shooting incidents, with 20 deaths in 35 cases reported since April.

Unlike drive-by handbag snatch theft, housebreakings and armed robbery, against which many people have become resourceful at protecting themselves and their property, they are unprepared for this level of gun violence.

Not since the pre-independence communist insurgency of the Emergency years, perhaps, have guns become a public concern.

Discharging a firearm is a capital offence. Even possession of guns and bullets without permit attracts severe penalties. How could guns have proliferated in spite of sanctions? Has organised crime sprouted international links, beyond Chinese secret societies and Indian parang gangs?

Obviously the public needs reassuring that this is not the beginning of a new wave of sustained violent crime.

Coming on top of the street crime of recent years, a leap to gun violence would make life in urban centres intolerable.

When motorists look around fearfully at traffic light stops and people think twice about patronising open eating places, it would seem fear has taken over. It is not an image Malaysia could live with.

The government is aware of the ill effects it could have on societal morale apart from business and tourism, as indeed the tourism minister has warned. The people await a response, to get at the source of the gun epidemic and to reinforce a sense of safety.

The police say that the repeal under public pressure of laws on preventive detention and restricted residence released into the community unreformed criminals and gang members.

Removing these powers was always a risky proposition, given that legislative changes are best guided by sound principles based on society's interests and consequences over the long term.

Released detainees could have gone on to exact reprisals and to resume gangland activity to reclaim old turf, police think.

It is also suggested international drug syndicates have been importing weapons across the wide-open Thai-Malaysian border. It has not helped that the crime-fighting units of the Royal Malaysian Police have been chronically undermanned.

Initial government reactions have included a suggestion that detention without trial be reinstated, subject to professional oversight. It possibly could gain some public support in the current climate.

An alternative recommends itself: Boost police numbers and investigative capabilities, at both federal and state levels, and strengthen supervision and accountability.

The police force has been a subject of considerable debate but it cannot act alone, of course. The community needs to be engaged as a partner in crime prevention.

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