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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Malaysia 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Malaysia. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Malaysia page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.


Travel Advisory


The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Malaysia at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. Exercise increased caution in the eastern area of Sabah State due to crime and terrorism.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation


The U.S. Department of State has assessed Kuala Lumpur as being a HIGH-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. This includes around-the-clock street crime that occurs primarily in densely populated urban centers and affects locals and foreigners alike. The most common crimes include petty theft (particularly purse snatching and pickpocketing), smash-and-grab thefts from vehicles, and residential burglaries. Violent and more serious crimes are considerably less common. Other types of common non-violent criminal activity include credit card fraud, ATM-skimming, and cybercrime. 


Most purse snatching incidents involve thieves on motorcycles who stalk victims from behind before grabbing their purse, phone, or other valuables. Pedestrians distracted by their children or mobile phones are also more vulnerable. These types of thefts can occur at all hours, in front of large groups of witnesses, even in upscale neighborhoods expatriates frequent. Hotel driveways and valet areas have become favorite sites for thieves, even in the early morning hours.


Zip purses and shoulder bags closed, and tuck them under your arm. Do not to wrap the strap around your arm or shoulder; victims have been injured and even killed after thieves on motorcycles grabbed their bag, causing them to fall, and dragging them along the pavement by their purse straps. Immediately give up possessions if confronted. More recently, thieves carrying knives have slashed at and cut the hands of victims in order to shock them into releasing valuables. Increasingly, large groups of thugs physically confront victims.


While most streets are safe to walk, downtown entertainment areas near bars and clubs see a higher volume of crime after midnight. This is particularly true of the alleys and side streets just off the main commercial zones. Prostitution is illegal but common in these same areas. There have been reports of foreigners drugged at nightclubs and targeted for robbery and/or sexual assault.


Taxi drivers in downtown Kuala Lumpur have been complicit in violent crimes perpetrated against foreign tourists and local residents. This is especially true in the early morning hours after nightclubs close.


Smash-and-grab thieves most often target motorists stuck in traffic. Typically, a pair of thieves on a motorcycle identifies a lone passenger whose valuables are in plain sight. The thieves smash the window of the car with a crowbar, grab the bag, and speed off. Reduce your vulnerability by keeping valuables out of sight.


Residential break-ins are common, and single-family homes are the most commonly targeted. Thieves are generally non-confrontational, and most often target properties while tenants are away. While uncommon, the possibility of confrontation does not deter some burglars, who will detain residents and threaten them with violence. Gated high-rise apartment complexes with 24-hour guards and electronic access control systems have a much lower burglary rate than other types of housing. Major international hotels typically have adequate security and low rates of crime. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.


Debit and credit card fraud is prevalent. While it is generally safe to use credit cards in larger department stores or grocery chains, exercise caution when making purchases at smaller restaurants and with local merchants, where there is less employee accountability. Watch retailers closely, and maintain positive control of credit cards. Monitor account transaction activity for fraudulent charges, as unauthorized charges may not appear for months.


ATM cash withdrawals are generally safe as long as the ATM is affiliated with reputable Malaysian or international banks in secure locations. Avoid ATMs at less secure locations, such as at gas stations or convenience stores. A police report is necessary for the Embassy to help follow up on incidents of crime. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.


Cybersecurity Issues


U.S. nationals and organizations continue to be the victims of scams originating in Malaysia. Scammers and con artists contact U.S. nationals through the telephone and internet, including through online dating sites. There have been cases of U.S. organizations defrauded by investment scams. Be very cautious about sending money to people you have not met in person, and who claim to be U.S. citizens in trouble in Malaysia.


Individuals who believe they have been the victim of a scam originating in Malaysia, and who wish to make a formal complaint, can report it to the nearest Malaysian embassy or consulate, which will accept the report (in person or via e-mail) and transmit to the Malaysian police for follow-up. You can also report the crime to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Find resources in the Department of State's publication, International Financial Scams, at StopFraud.gov (a service of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force), and from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.


Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?


Other Areas of Concern


Exercise caution when traveling to eastern Sabah due to the threat of kidnap-for-ransom and violence from terrorist and criminal groups, including the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group. In addition to incursions into coastal or resort islands themselves, criminal or terrorist groups may attempt to intercept boats ferrying tourists from the mainland to resort islands. Due to these safety concerns, U.S. government employees traveling to eastern Sabah east of the north-south line drawn from Kudat to Tawau, including all islands, must first obtain official written permission from the Embassy.


The Malaysian government has designated the entire eastern portion of Sabah as the Eastern Sabah Security Zone, and established the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) to coordinate security. There is significant police and army presence in the area, and road checkpoints have increased. The government has also enhanced efforts to patrol its maritime border with the Philippines. Malaysian law enforcement has enacted land- and water-based curfews in the coastal areas of eastern Sabah. Travelers to eastern Sabah should monitor local media or ask local police for the most recent curfew information.


Transportation-Safety Situation


Road Safety and Road Conditions


Road safety is a very serious safety concern. Malaysia averages approximately 19 traffic fatalities a day, placing it among the top 20 most dangerous countries in which to operate a vehicle worldwide. Undisciplined motorcycle and motor scooter operators are the principal cause of traffic accidents, and constitute nearly two-thirds (62%) of all traffic fatalities. Motorcyclists tend not to obey traffic laws, and often travel without regard for their safety or that of other motorists. As such, use turn signals well in advance of turning to alert motorcycles.


Malaysian driving norms can be difficult to understand. Local drivers can be aggressive and unyielding, but seldom use their horn or get upset over the actions of other drivers. The situation can change quickly, however, if another driver uses their horn or displays hostility. This is particularly true with motorcyclists. Reports of road rage are rising. Drivers who become involved in an accident with another vehicle should avoid becoming confrontational and, if threatened, should leave the scene and report the incident to the local police within 24 hours.


By law, passengers must use seat belts regardless of where in the vehicle they sit, and drivers may not use cell phones while driving without hands-free capability engaged; however, authorities seldom enforce these two laws, and driver cell phone use is pervasive throughout the country, even by motorcyclists. Malaysia is a left-side drive country. Turning left at a red light is not legal unless marked. Police strictly enforce laws against drinking and driving, which carry serious penalties. Police operate sobriety checkpoints in many entertainment districts expatriates frequent. At these checkpoints, all drivers must submit to alcohol breath tests; police arrest those who fail.


Commuter traffic is quite heavy in larger cities. Street flooding can occur quickly during the monsoon season due to issues with inadequate infrastructure and drainage issues.


Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.


Public Transportation Conditions


There have been serious, sometimes fatal accidents involving long-distance tour buses, particularly at night and/or during inclement weather. Choose a reputable company and avoid overnight routes.


Before entering a taxi, confirm that there is a license (with a photo) on the dashboard or seatback, and that the driver matches the photo. Taxis may not stop and pick up additional passengers. Some drivers, particularly in tourist areas, refuse to use the meter despite the legal requirement to do so. Travelers should book taxis in downtown shopping areas by phone, rather than hailing taxis from the street, particularly after dark. Immediately report any problems with taxis to the Land Public Transportation Commission (Suruhanjaya Pengangkutan Awam Darat, SPAD) via phone (+6180-088-7723), email, or the internet.


Rideshare service like Grab are popular and are generally safe, but visitors should review the 2019 Uber U.S. Safety Report for security awareness and to understand the risks associated with rideshare services.


Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.


Terrorism Threat


The U.S. Department of State has assessed Kuala Lumpur as being a MEDIUM-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Malaysia experienced its first ISIS-related terrorist attack in 2016, when a grenade attack at a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur injured eight people. Since 2013, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 400 ISIS supporters, including many individuals who planned to travel to Syria and Iraq to participate in fighting.


The U.S. Department of State remains concerned about the possibility of more terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens in Malaysia. Regional extremist groups have demonstrated the capability and intent to carry out attacks in locations where Westerners congregate. Threat actors do not appear to distinguish between civilian and official targets. Unsophisticated attacks in public areas, tourist sites, and upscale shopping venues are of greatest concern.


The Malaysian government characterized an incursion into the state of Sabah in 2013 by several hundred gunmen from the southern Philippines who were asserting a territorial claim as terrorism. Authorities have convicted dozens of suspects for waging war and other national security offenses. Kidnap-for-Ransom (KFR) activity in the waters off the eastern coast of Sabah remains a key concern linked directly to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization based in the southern Philippines.


Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence


The U.S. Department of State has assessed Kuala Lumpur as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. In 2018, Malaysia experienced its first democratic transition of government in 61 years. While tensions were high, there were no acts of violence or attempts to keep the new government from taking power. Public protests occur in Kuala Lumpur, but local law prohibits non-Malaysians from participating. Most demonstrations are peaceful and well organized, but some are arranged hastily via social media and conducted “illegally” (without a permit). Police coverage is adequate at most demonstrations.


Avoid demonstrations and exercise caution near any large gatherings, protests, or demonstrations. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence with little or no warning. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest


Post-specific Concerns


Environmental Hazards


Protected by Indonesia and positioned far from any tectonic boundaries, peninsular Malaysia seldom experiences typhoons, earthquakes, or tsunamis. 


Flooding is Malaysia’s primary natural hazard. The tropical monsoon season lasts from November through March, when heavy rains and thunderstorms occur almost daily. Urban areas with poor drainage and other low-lying areas often suffer flooding. In rural areas, flooding can cause dangerous mudslides.


Economic Concerns


Do not buy counterfeit or pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are these goods illegal in the U.S. and Malaysia, individuals who purchase them encourage criminal activity.


Drug-related Crimes


Malaysian legislation provides for the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers. The law presumes individuals in possession of 15 grams (one-half ounce) of heroin or 200 grams (seven ounces) of marijuana to be trafficking in drugs. These penalties notwithstanding, drug use and drug-related crimes associated with synthetic drugs or New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) appears to be on the rise.


Personal Identity Concerns


Malaysia’s penal code criminalizes homosexual acts, termed “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” leading to punishment of up to 20 years in prison and/or whipping. Several states in Malaysia have instated Islamic Sharia laws, applying to male and female Muslims, criminalizing same-sex activity with up to three years imprisonment and whipping. Authorities have arrested transgender individuals and charged them with "indecent behavior,” levying fines and prison sentences of up to three months. LGBTI individuals may face discrimination or even violence especially in more conservative rural areas. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.


The Government of Malaysia does not mandate accessibility to transportation for persons with disabilities, and few older public facilities are adapted for such persons. New government buildings generally contain a full range of facilities for persons with disabilities. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.


Kidnapping Threat


Consider the risks associated with travel to coastal eastern Sabah due to the threat of kidnapping, and violence from terrorist and criminal groups. The requirement for U.S. government employees to receive permission before traveling to these areas highlights significant safety concerns, and underscores the persistent threat of kidnapping and piracy operations in the region.


In 2019, KFR activity continued, with Indonesian fishing vessels and tourists on resort islands being the most common targets. With the fighting in Marawi, Philippines now over, it is possible that Sulu Sea-based kidnappers and regional terrorist groups will engage in KFR activities on the islands and waters just off eastern Sabah in an effort to generate revenue.

Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics


Police Response


Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States. Authorities may fine, expel, arrest, or imprison anyone violating the law, even unknowingly. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs are severe; convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Malaysia actively enforces immigration regulations and may levy high fines or incarcerate foreigners with prolonged overstays. The court system is typically very slow and there are often lengthy delays in trials.


The Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) does not routinely inform the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of private U.S. citizens. Detained or harassed U.S. citizens should contact the American Citizen Services unit at the U.S. Embassy immediately.


The emergency line in MALAYSIA is 999. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure. In tourist areas, RMP “Tourist Police” stations assist tourists in the event of an emergency.


Police/Security Agencies


The Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) is a well-trained and equipped federal police force. RMP provides good law enforcement support to the U.S. Embassy, and has responded favorably to the needs of the U.S. private sector and to U.S. citizens in general. The RMP is sometimes limited in its effectiveness in investigations.


Medical Emergencies


Medical facilities and services are adequate in the larger cities, where travelers can usually find Western-trained doctors. Kuala Lumpur has modern medical facilities generally comparable in terms of quality of care to those in the United States. In an emergency, immediately transport the patient to a hospital.


Malaysian ambulance emergency response times can be slow, and the quality of care varies widely. By dialing 999, callers will connect to the local emergency response team, which will direct patients to whichever hospital the dispatcher chooses. Long-term travelers with known health problems should research private ambulance services associated with private hospitals.


Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the U.S. Embassy to Malaysia’s Medical Assistance page.


Doctors and hospitals expect immediate payment for health services, though most hospitals in larger cities accept major credit cards. Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization or medical evacuation to the United States can cost thousands of dollars. Verify the validity of medical insurance and overseas coverage before traveling to Malaysia, and consider purchasing a private travel insurance policy, to include medevac insurance. The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.


Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance


Remain vigilant, destroy and prevent mosquito-breeding areas, and use mosquito repellant. Dengue fever is endemic and cases occur throughout the year. The Malaysian Ministry of Health reported over 65,000 cases in 2018 alone, including at least 100 deaths. An annual spike in dengue after the rainy season is common. There have been no known outbreaks of Zika infection since 2016, although the disease is endemic to Malaysia.


Since 2017, people have died of rabies in Sarawak state; authorities there are in the midst of a statewide dog vaccination effort. Consider rabies immunization before travel.


During periods when farmers in Malaysia and nearby countries burn vegetation (generally March-June and September-October), air quality can become unhealthy, particularly for those with existing health conditions. Children, older adults, and people at risk of respiratory illness should avoid outdoor activities and wear N95 respirators during periods of increased air pollution.


The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Malaysia.


Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad


OSAC Country Council Information


The Kuala Lumpur OSAC Country Council meets quarterly. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s East Asia & Pacific team with any questions.


U.S. Embassy Contact Information


U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur, 376 Jalan Tun Razak, 50400 Kuala Lumpur


Hours: Monday-Friday, 0745 - 1630 (except U.S. and Malaysian holidays)


Website: https://my.usembassy.gov/


Embassy Operator: +60-3-2168-5000

Emergency calls after normal business hours: +03-2168-5000

American Citizen Services: klacs@state.gov

State Department Emergency Line: +1-202-501-4444


Helpful Information


Before you travel, consider the following resources:


·         OSAC Risk Matrix

·         OSAC Travelers Toolkit

·         State Department Traveler’s Checklist

·         Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)


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