Features — August 1, 2013

Gun killings on the rise

Photograph: Wes Peck/Flickr

Photograph: Wes Peck/Flickr

Gun deaths are on the rise in Malaysia. What is going on?

By Nicholas Chan

Businessman Tan Kok Soon was having dinner with his wife and two sons in a restaurant in the Oakland Commercial Centre in Seremban on April 14 when a gunman wearing a full-faced helmet walked up to their table and fired three shots into his back. Just two days earlier at a nearby traffic light junction, James John was shot and killed in his car by two men who discharged up to 12 rounds into their victim at close range.

These are among the rising number of people shot to death this year, some of whom have been high profile personalities. On April 26, Customs deputy director general Datuk Shaharuddin Ibrahim was fatally shot on his way to work at Putrajaya by the pillion rider of a motorcycle.

These premeditated firearms murders generally have three common elements: (i) the killer knows exactly who the target is and the kill plan as well as the escape plan, i.e. the murder is calculated and is neither a crime of passion nor a spur of the moment decision; (ii) guns are usually the weapon of choice; and (iii) most of these cases occur in public places.

The MO
The modus operandi (MO) in most of these cases has haunting similarities. The killer first trails the intended victim. When the timing is right, most likely when the victim is in a still position, the killer approaches the victim and executes at close range. He then leaves the scene in a vehicle (usually stolen or one with a false number plate), often driven by a getaway driver.

This cold but systematic execution of murder resonates with what one would refer to as a professional hit. It is worth exploring whether there is actual cause for us to be concerned or if the perception is a result of sensationalised reporting.

Murder by the numbers
Without official statistics [1] that can clearly point towards premeditated murder with firearms in recent years, we can only depend on media reporting and foreign statistics. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) data for 2006 puts cases of murder with firearms in Malaysia at 13.4% (64 cases) of the total murder cases in Malaysia, but if filtered for the described MO, that percentage will probably be lower.

Just news reports alone from January to April 2013 put the number of cases that fits the premeditated firearms murder criteria at 38, or an average of two cases per week. In the same period in 2012, there were only 10 such cases! More strikingly, that number almost equals the 39 cases with the same MO for the whole of 2012. And this only four months into 2013!

Number of premeditated firearms murders recorded from the media, January-April 2012 & 2013

Figure 1: Number of premeditated firearms murders recorded from the media [2], January-April 2012 & 2013.

Although the number of cases may raise a red flag, that is not a measure of safety per se. For murder or intentional homicide cases as termed by the UNODC, the standardised method for comparison is to use the number of cases per 100,000 people. With this measure, the murder rate has been hovering between 2.0 and 3.0, which is on the lower end of the spectrum globally.

It is also worth noting that from 2008 to 2011, the murder rate had actually been sliding downwards. So why the sudden surge in 2013? “Although the murder rate in Malaysia has been quite consistent for the past 30 years,” said P. Sundramoorthy, professor of criminology at Universiti Sains Malaysia, “the right question to ask is: is this particular type of murder on the rise?”

The commonalities of a “not-so-common” crime
Aside from the “hit and run” MO, a study of the cases reveals a common pattern:

• Most of these cases happened in urban areas, including the Klang Valley, Seremban, Miri and, surprisingly, Bukit Mertajam;
• Both the victims and assailants (according to eyewitnesses) are predominantly Chinese and Indian. The victims usually have a criminal history; and
• There is no particular time or day of the week at which such killings tend to occur, they are just as likely to occur in broad daylight as in the darkness of the night.

Sharuddin incidentally is not the first high-ranking government official to be assassinated in Malaysia; in 2000, former Lunas assemblyman Dr Joe Fernandez was gunned down in Bukit Mertajam, and Tenggaroh state assemblyman Datuk S. Krishnasamy was shot dead in a lift at the Johor state MIC headquarters in 2008.

A license to kill and a ticket to escape
Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat, a criminologist at Universiti Sains Malaysia, attributes the seemingly easy occurrence of these crimes to the availability of firearms on the black market. Furthermore, the police also reveal that firearms rental service is now being provided by criminal gangs [3]. The guns are believed to be rented at a price of RM3,000-RM5,000 a piece. Police statistics also corroborate with the firearms theory, demonstrating an increase in the number of firearms retrieved over the years.

Comparison of rate of murder (cases per ‘000 population) in Malaysia to other countries.

Table 1: Comparison of rate of murder (cases per ‘000 population) in Malaysia to other countries.

Discussions on rising crime seem to sway the issue back to legislative weaknesses, as both the police and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi have blamed the repeal of preventive laws like the Emergency Ordinance 1969 (EO), Restricted Residence Act (1933) and the Banishment Act (1956) in late 2011 in causing the rise in crime. Many experts have regarded this belief as being highly contentious and over-simplistic in addressing crime as a multifaceted problem.

However, ASP Mohd Naim of the Serious Crimes Division of Penang agrees that the release of thousands of suspected criminals must have in some way contributed to the rising of premeditated firearms murders as turf wars intensify with the return of these “hardcore” criminals. He thinks the number of cases will go down soon, with the police monitoring the released detainees of the EO and gang conflicts cooling off after the current post-EO repeal spike.

He also believes, speaking from his years of experience as a serious crime investigator of Penang, that only a few of these murders are actually committed by professional killers. In a case on March 2 near Tesco Rawang, police also say the killers were amateurs because of their poor marksmanship (the victim was only hit six times out of 12 shots fired) and their choice of firearms was a gun rare to Malaysia, making it easily traceable [4].

Number of firearms retrieved by the police in the past three years

Number of firearms retrieved by the police in the past three years

That said, Naim concedes that cases like this are harder to solve. With the power of the preventive laws taken away from them, he says the police can do little about these suspected offenders, because proving their guilt is difficult in court although there are times the police would know from their investigations who the perpetrator is.

This is understandable because forensically, little can be used to identify the killers as they are unlikely to leave behind any fingerprints or DNA evidence. These killers always wear protective clothing (e.g. gloves and dark jackets that conceal blood stains well), hide their faces and are able to flee the scene quickly. The only viable forensic evidence that can be collected would be the bullets and their casings, which would only be useful if the same weapon is traced to another case.

The difficulty of solving these cases is reflected in an Australian study on contract killings between 1989 and 20026. The study categorised the murders based on motive, and noted that the unsolved ones were most likely related to organised crime (80% of the cases were unsolved at the time of study) or to drugs (50% of the cases were unsolved at the time of study), conforming to the pattern in Malaysia.

malaysian police carrying a body bag

Photograph: Kwong Wah Yit Poh

The police have to send a message
Apart from the very valid query whether this particular kind of crime is on the rise, the other question is what message the police want to send to these murderers and to the general public.

The most straightforward way of sending a message is simply through solving these cases. Of course, this is much, much easier said than done, as explained earlier. And to be fair, a cross-check of media reports reveals that the police have made arrests in some of the cases.

Besides improving investigation techniques through better forensic technologies and deeper connections within the criminal organisations for intelligence gathering, gun control must also be tightened at the borders as well as on the black market. With severe laws penalising arbitrary gun ownership in the country, it would be a mockery of the law if people could still brandish their firearms and shoot someone in public.

Nevertheless, re-enacting laws that allow detention without trial to deal with firearms violence is a step away from modern policing, and we should never allow criminals to cow us back to the days of the 1969 Emergency.

Nicholas Chan is a socio-political research analyst at the Penang Institute and is a forensic scientist by education. He believes there is a truth in everything – it all depends on whether we want to see it or not.

[1] The police only release murder rate statistics; these figures are not broken down into murders with firearms and so on.

[2] Media refers to The Star, New Straits Times, Bernama, The Borneo Post, Sinar Harian, Berita Harian, Utusan, Nanyang, China Press, Kwong Wah Daily, Oriental Daily and Sinchew.

[3] “黑社会供应 聘专家管理 5000元租枪干案”, Nanyang Siang Pau, www.nanyang.com.my/node/545700?tid=460

[4] “半路轰毙菜农 枪手非职业杀手”, Oriental Daily News, www.orientaldaily.com.my/index.php?option=com_

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