Malaysia safest country in South-East Asia. Really?

(Also published on Malaysiakini)

The issue of crime, especially in the urban areas, has once again surfaced as a hot political issue.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was quoted as saying that the fear of crime is a result of ‘public perception’ while Pemandu chief executive officer Idris Jala was reported as having asked the media to focus more on the crimes that have been solved, rather than those which have been committed.

Meanwhile, DAP MP for Petaling Jaya Utara Tony Pua seems to have been given conflicting sets of crime data on Selangor and has called for Pemandu and the Home Ministry to release detailed crime statistics by the type of crime and the places where they were committed.

It is very difficult to question the validity of the crime statistics since this data is collected, compiled and later disseminated to the various ministries and later the public at large by the police. An in-depth audit is required in order to get a better handle on the veracity of these statistics.

However, what we can do is to take a closer look at some of the international indexes which the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and various ministers including the prime minister, the home minister and the Pemandu CEO have used as ‘external validation’ that the National Key Results Area (NKRA) on reducing crime is working as planned.

This ‘evidence’ falls apart upon closer examination.

1) Global Peace Index

Take the Global Peace Index (GPI) as an example. The 2011 Government Transformation Programme Annual Report says:

“In the fifth edition of the Global Peace Index (GPI) released in May 2011, Malaysia was declared the most peaceful country in South-East Asia and the fourth safest in the Asia Pacific region behind New Zealand, Japan and Australia.

“The country rose three spots to 19th place, supplanting Singapore as the highest-ranked South-East Asian nation.

“In its GPI rankings, the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace also placed Malaysia as the 19th safest and most peaceful country out of 153 nations worldwide. This is the fifth successive year that Malaysia has improved on its GPI score.”

None other than Prime Minister Najib Razak has used Malaysia’s ranking on the latest 2012 GPI to argue that “one of our country’s achievements that we should be proud of is our ranking by the Global Peace Index, which ranked Malaysia as the safest country in South-East Asia.”

NONEBut what should be made clear is that safety and security is only one of the three broad themes which the GPI is concerned about – the other two being ‘the extent of domestic or international conflict’ and ‘the degree of militarisation’.

This index is made up of 23 sub-indicators out of which only six have direct connection to crime and safety.

These are: (i) level of perceived criminality in society, (ii) number of internal security officers and police per 100,000, (iii) number of homicides per 100,000, (iv) number of jailed population per 100,000, (v) ease of access to small weapons and light weapons, and (vi) level of violent crimes.

All the other indicators have to do with military conflicts and military expenditure and political and civil violence. Out of the six sub-indicators which are linked to crime, only one – the number of jailed population per 100,000 – have improved since 2007.

(We are jailing fewer people as a percentage of the population which doesn’t necessarily mean that crime has fallen. We may be less efficient in catching criminals and putting them behind bars).


The rest have remained the same. Where we have made improvements is by decreasing military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, the number of armed personnel per 100,000 and in our relations with our neighbours (below). All are laudable achievements but have nothing to do with the state of crime and safety in our country.


The GPI cannot be used as evidence that Malaysia has become ‘safer’ than Singapore under the GTP.

Yes, Malaysia became more ‘peaceful’ than Singapore in 2010 according to this index. But this was driven largely by a significant increase in the number of military imports to and exports from Singapore, which obviously has nothing to do with crime and safety.

In the latest 2012 GPI, Malaysia is ranked 20, three spots ahead of Singapore, which is at 23. It would a very brave (or ignorant) man to say that Malaysia is safer than Singapore from a crime and safety perspective.

And in fact, this is not what the index is trying to say since crime and safety is less than one third of the total indicators. It is therefore misleading for to use this indicator in the GTP 2011 Annual Report as evidence that the NKRA on reducing crime has been successful.

It is even more misleading for Najib to equate the Global Peace Index to safety and then make the leap to claim that Malaysia is the safest country in Southeast Asia.

2) Positive Peace Index

Sadly, the prime minister forgot to read the second part of the Global Peace Index (GPI) where details of a new index, the Positive Peace Index, were unveiled.

According to the GPI report, “the Positive Peace Index (PPI) is a measure of the strength of the attitudes, institutions, and structures of 108 nations to determine their capacity to create and maintain a peaceful society.”

It is important to note that the PPI is not a measure of crime and safety but rather, it describes ‘the optimum environment for peace to flourish’.

The components of this index include the following domains: (i) well-functioning government, (ii) sound business environment, (iii) equitable distribution of resources, (iv) acceptance of the rights of others, (v) good relations with neighbours, (v) free flow of information, (vi) high levels of education, and (vii) low levels of corruption.

According to the PPI, Malaysia is ranked at 47 out of 108 countries.

More worryingly, Malaysia is flagged as one the top 10 countries with the largest positive peace deficit, which is the difference between a country’s GPI and PPI rank.


These countries with a high positive peace deficit are described as “relatively peaceful but theoretically lack the institutions to adequately deal with external shocks or move closer to peace”. These high deficits also “suggest that while these countries have relatively moderate levels of violence, they comparatively lack positive peace”, meaning that they are “vulnerable to external shock or violence”.

In the Malaysian context, for example, this deficit, which points to shortcomings in the rule of law and respect for democratic rights and due process, may indicate a future rise in violence in the event that there is a transition in power at the federal level.

3) World Justice Report’s Rule of Law Index 2011

According to the GTP Annual Report 2011, “the World Justice Project (WJP)’s Rule of Law Index 2011 too has ranked Malaysia safest among 19 upper-middle income countries and 12th globally.

“Malaysia’s 12th position out of 66 countries covered under the WJP’s assessment on ‘Order and Security’, has placed the country ahead of the United States (13th position), followed by Britain, Belgium and France.”

But only one in three of the components of the ‘Order and Security’ factor have to do with crime and safety. The WJP assessment on the extent to which ‘Crime is effectively controlled’ is the most relevant component.

‘Civil conflict is effectively limited’ is an assessment of the extent of armed conflict and terrorism in the country, which Malaysia is thankfully free from but is also not directly related to crime and safety. A drug-infested area, for example, may have little civil conflict but would have a high crime rate.

‘People do not resort to violence to redress personal grievances’ is the third component of this factor and while we should be thankful that vigilante justice is not practiced in Malaysia, this is not a measure which directly touches on crime and safety. Malaysia’s ranking for these three components are 37, 1 and 6 respectively (out of 66 countries).

NONEIn other words, Malaysia’s ranking of 12 out of 66 in this index is largely driven by the fact that we do not have any serious civil conflicts and that we do not practice mob or vigilante justice or revenge killing.

For the one component which actually relates to crime directly, Malaysia did poorly, coming in at 37 out of 66, putting it at sixth position in South-East Asia – behind Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

The GTP Annual Report also fails to highlight the fact that Malaysia was ranked 33 out of 66 on ‘Effective Criminal Justice’, the other crime and safety-related indicator in the WJP Rule of Law Index 2011.

NONEWhile Malaysia’s ranking on some of the sub-components are commendable, e.g. 18th for ‘Crimes are effectively investigated’ and 14th for ‘Crimes are effectively and timely adjudicated’, its performance on other components which contribute to the overall crime and safety environment are quite appalling, for example, 49th for ‘The correctional system is effective in reducing criminal behaviour’ and 57th in ‘The criminal justice system is free of improper government influence’.

4) World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Report

The GTP Annual Report 2011 says: “In the 2011 Global Competitiveness Report (GCR) conducted by the World Economic Forum in the sub-category of ‘Business Costs of Crime and Violence’, Malaysia’s ranking improved by 30 positions from 93rd in 2010 to 63rd place in 2011.”

Malaysia’s ranking in the ‘Business Costs of Crime and Violence’ sub-category did improve by 30 places from 93 in 2010-2011 to 63 in 2011-2012. Indeed, Malaysia’s ranking on the ‘Organised Crime’ ranking also improved from a high of 83 in 2009/2010 to 54 in 2011-2012.

NONEBut if these rankings are to be used as ‘external validation’ for the success of the ‘Reducing Crime’ NKRA, then an explanation also has to be provided as to why Malaysia’s ranking for the reliability of police services, at 39, although an improvement from the 50th ranking in 2010/2011, is still worse than the 2008-2009 ranking of 37.

‘Publicity first, deception now’

It is frankly silly to erroneously quote indexes as ‘evidence’ that Malaysia is safe country from a crime and safety perspective, especially if the index in question – the Global Peace Index – only partly measures crime and safety.

For indexes such as the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law 2011, an examination of the components of the ‘Order and Security’ factor shows that Malaysia does poorly in the only component which measures crime and safety.

police crime roadblock frontimageEven for the Global Competitiveness Report sub-category rankings which measure crime and safety, one important measure – ‘the reliability of police services’ – actually shows a result that it is worse than the 2008-2009 figure.

If street crime has dropped by 40 percent since 2009 as reported in the GTP 2011 Annual Report and if these results are genuine and can be sustained, the public would naturally feel safer and perhaps even have the confidence to terminate the services of the private security companies which patrol most of the middle-class neighborhoods in the Klang Valley.

If it was truly ‘People First, Performance Now’ rather than ‘Publicity First, Deception Now’, the people will validate the results by voting with their feet by walking on the streets without being scared of snatch thieves and robbers.

Indeed, there will be no need for ‘external validation’ to tell the people what they are already experiencing for themselves.

ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University. His house was attacked by three thugs while he was doing research for this article. His account of the attack can be read here.