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Malaysia 2018 Crime & Safety Report

East Asia & Pacific > Malaysia

According to the current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication, Malaysia has been assessed as Level 1: Exercise normal precautions. Travelers are advised to exercise increased caution in the eastern area of Sabah State due to crime and terrorism.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizen Services unit (ACS) cannot recommend a particular individual or establishment, and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

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.

Please review OSAC’s Malaysia-specific webpage for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Crime Threats

Malaysia experiences elevated levels of crime in densely-populated urban centers around-the-clock. Petty crime is the main driver; violent and more serious crimes are considerably less common. The most common crimes committed against foreigners are petty theft, particularly purse snatching, pickpocketing, smash-and-grab thefts from vehicles, and residential burglaries. Other types of non-violent criminal activity include credit card fraud, ATM-skimming, and cybercrime. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud.”

Snatching activity is most common in tourist and shopping districts. Most purse snatching incidents are perpetrated by thieves on motor scooters, who stalk the victim from behind, and snatch the victim’s purse, phone, or other valuables. Women, distracted by their children or on their mobile phones, are most often targeted, but men are also frequently targeted. Hotel driveways and valet areas have become favorite sites for thieves, even in the early morning hours. Purses and shoulder bags should be zipped closed and tucked under the arm. Travelers are advised not to wrap the strap around their arm or shoulder; victims have been injured and even killed after falling and being dragged along the pavement by their purse straps by motorcycle bandits. When confronted by thieves, travelers are strongly advised to immediately give up their possessions.

Smash-and-grab thieves most often target motorists stuck in traffic. Typically, a pair of thieves on a motorcycle identifies a lone passenger and with valuables visible. The thieves smash the window of the car with a crow bar, grab the bag, and speed off. Travelers can reduce their vulnerability by keeping valuables out of sight.

More recently, thieves carrying knives have slashed at and cut victims’ hands in order to shock them into releasing valuables. Increasingly, large groups of thugs have physically confronted victims. These types of thefts can take place at all hours and often occur in front of large groups of witnesses, even in upscale neighborhoods frequented by expatriates.

Residential break-ins are common, and single-family homes are most-frequently targeted. Thieves are generally non-confrontational and most often target properties while the tenants are away. While uncommon, some burglars are undeterred by possible confrontations and 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.

Travelers should be aware that debit/credit card fraud is prevalent. While it is generally safe to use credit cards in larger department stores or grocery chains, caution should be exercised when making purchases at smaller restaurants and with local merchants where there is less employee accountability. Travelers are advised to watch retailers closely and maintain positive control of their credit cards when possible. Additionally, account transaction activity should be monitored for fraudulent charges, as unauthorized charges may not be reflected for several months.

ATM cash withdrawals are generally safe as long as the ATM is affiliated with reputable Malaysian or international banks in secure locations. ATMs at less secure locations, such as at gas stations or convenience stores, should generally be avoided. A police report is necessary for the Embassy to help follow up on incidents of crime.

Cybersecurity Issues

U.S. citizens and businesses continue to be the victims of scams originating in Malaysia. Scammers and con artists contact U.S. citizens through the telephone and internet, including through online dating sites. There have been cases of U.S. businesses being defrauded by investment scams. The Embassy strongly encourages U.S. citizens to be very cautious about sending money to people they 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 and wish to make a formal complaint can report it to the nearest Malaysian embassy or consulate, which will accept it (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. Resources can also be found in the Department of State's publication: International Financial Scams. Additional resources can be found at StopFraud.gov (a service of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force) and from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Other Areas of Concern

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

U.S. citizens are advised to use caution when traveling to eastern Sabah due to the threat of kidnapping-for-ransom and violence from terrorist and criminal groups, including the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group. In addition to incursions on coastal or resort islands themselves, criminal or terrorist groups may attempt to intercept boats ferrying tourists from the mainland to resort islands. The Malaysian government has designated the entire eastern portion of Sabah (extending from Kudat in the north to Tawau district near the border of Indonesia) as the Eastern Sabah Security Zone and established the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) to coordinate security. There is a significant police and army presence in the area, and road checkpoints have increased. The government has enhanced efforts to patrol its maritime border with the Philippines. Malaysian law enforcement officials have enacted land and water-based curfews in the coastal areas of eastern Sabah. Travelers to eastern Sabah are advised to monitor local media or ask local police for the most recent curfew information. 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 obtain official written permission from the Embassy.

Transportation-Safety Situation

For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.”

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Road safety is a very serious concern. Malaysia averages approximately 19 traffic fatalities a day, placing Malaysia in the top 20 most dangerous countries worldwide to operate a vehicle. Undisciplined motorcycle and scooter operators are considered the principal cause, comprising 62% of all traffic fatalities. Motorcyclists tend not to obey traffic laws and often travel without regard for their own or other motorists’ safety. As such, drivers should 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. However, the situation can change quickly if another driver uses their horn or otherwise engages negatively. This is particularly true with motorcyclists. Reports of road rage are rising. Drivers who become involved in an accident with another vehicle are advised to avoid becoming confrontational and, if threatened, are advised leave the scene and report the incident to the local police within 24 hours.

By law, passengers must use front and back seat belts and are prohibited from using their cell phones while driving unless it has hands-free capability engaged. Malaysia is a left-side drive country, and turning left at a red light is not legal unless marked. Laws against drinking and driving are strictly enforced and carry serious penalties. Police operate sobriety checkpoints in many entertainment districts frequented by expatriates. All drivers must submit to alcohol breath tests, and those who fail will be arrested.

Visitors should be aware that commuter traffic is quite heavy in the larger cities and that street flooding can occur quickly during the monsoon season due to issues with insufficient infrastructure and drainage issues.

For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”

Public Transportation Conditions

There have been fatal and other serious accidents involving long-distance tour buses, particularly at night and/or during inclement weather. Visitors intending to travel by bus are advised to choose a reputable company and to avoid overnight routes.

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

Taxis are not permitted to stop and pick up additional passengers. Some drivers, particularly in tourist areas, refuse to use the meter despite the legal requirement to do so. Single women travelers are advised to book taxis in downtown shopping areas by phone, rather than hail taxis from the street, particularly after dark. Before entering the taxi, passengers are advised to confirm that there is a license (with a photo) on the dashboard or seatback, and that the driver matches the photo. Any problems with taxis should be reported immediately to the Land Public Transportation Commission (Suruhanjaya Pengangkutan Awam Darat, SPAD) via phone (+6180-088-7723), email or the internet. Ride-share services (Uber and Grab) are widely-used and generally considered safe. For more information on ride-sharing, please review OSAC’s Annual Briefing Report “Safety and Security in the Share Economy.”

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Kuala Lumpur as being a MEDIUM-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

Malaysia experienced its first ISIS-related terrorist attack in June 2016 when a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur was targeted in a grenade attack, resulting in eight injuries. Since 2013, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 369 supporters of ISIS, including many individuals who planned to travel to Syria and Iraq and participate in fighting.

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

The Malaysian government characterized an incursion into the state of Sabah in February-March 2013 by several hundred gunmen from the southern Philippines asserting a territorial claim as terrorism. Dozens of suspects have been convicted of waging war and other national security offenses.

Kidnap-for-Ransom (KFR) activity in the waters offshore eastern Sabah remains a key concern and is directly linked 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.

Civil Unrest

Public demonstrations occur in Kuala Lumpur. Most are peaceful and well-organized, but some are hastily arranged via social media and conducted “illegally” (without permit). Police presence is well-represented at most demonstrations.

Travelers are advised to avoid demonstrations as best they can. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence with little/no warning. Travelers should monitor local media to keep up-to-date on planned demonstrations and areas to avoid. Local law prohibits non-Malaysians from participating in public protests.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Peninsular Malaysia seldom experiences typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

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

Economic Concerns

Travelers should 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 are encouraging criminal activity.

Drug-related Crimes

Malaysian legislation provides for the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers. Individuals in possession of 15 grams (one-half ounce) of heroin or 200 grams (seven ounces) of marijuana are presumed by law to be trafficking in drugs. Penalties for the possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Drug use and drug-related crimes associated with synthetic drugs or New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) is on the rise.

Kidnapping Threat

U.S. citizens should consider the risks associated with travel to coastal eastern Sabah  because of the threat of kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) and violence from terrorist and criminal groups. The requirement for U.S. government employees to receive permission before traveling to these areas indicates a strong concern over safety and underscores the persistent threat of kidnapping and pirating operations in the region. In 2017, KFR activity in eastern Sabah decreased considerably; however, this may be a temporary respite. With the Marawi siege over, it is possible that Sulu Sea-based kidnappers and regional terrorist groups will refocus their attention and step up KFR activities on the islands and waters just off eastern Sabah. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Kidnapping: The Basics.”

Police Response

Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the U.S. Persons violating the law, even unknowingly, may be fined, expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. 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.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

The Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) does not routinely inform the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of private U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens who experience police detention or harassment are advised to notify the American Citizen Services unit at the U.S. Embassy immediately.

Crime Victim Assistance

Victims of crimes should call the national emergency telephone number 999. In tourist areas, the RMP has established small “Tourist Police” stations to assist tourists.

Police/Security Agencies

The Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) is a national police force that is well trained and equipped. The 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

In an emergency, it is recommended that the individual be transported immediately to a hospital. Medical facilities and services are adequate in the larger cities, where travelers can usually find Western-trained doctors. Kuala Lumpur has modern medical facilities that are generally comparable in terms of quality of care to those in the U.S.

Malaysian ambulance emergency response times can be slow, and the quality of care varies widely. By dialing 999, callers will be connected to the Red Crescent, whereupon patients will be directed to whichever hospital the dispatcher chooses.

Long-term travelers with known health problems are advised to research private ambulance services and provide family and close contacts with the direct telephone number(s) of the services they prefer. If ambulance transport is required, available services include: Lifeline Ambulance (03-7956-9999), St. John Ambulance (03-9285-5294), or Red Crescent Ambulance (03-4257-8726).

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

For more available medical services, please refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.

Insurance Guidance

Doctors and hospitals expect immediate cash payment for health services, although major credit cards are acceptable at most hospitals in larger cities.

Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the U.S. can cost thousands of dollars. Travelers should verify the validity of their medical insurance and overseas coverage before traveling to Malaysia.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

U.S. citizens are encouraged to be vigilant, destroy mosquito breeding areas, and use mosquito repellant.

  • Dengue fever is endemic with cases throughout the year. The Malaysian Ministry of Health reported over 82,840 cases in 2017 alone, including at least 171 deaths. An annual spike in dengue after the rainy season is common; it is always important to be aware of the possibility of dengue and the ways it can be prevented.

  • In 2016, Malaysia recorded multiple cases of persons infected with the Zika virus during the global outbreak.

When Malaysia and nearby countries burn vegetation, especially from March-June and September-October, air quality can become unhealthy, particularly for those with existing health conditions. Children, older adults, and people with risk factors for respiratory illness are advised to avoid outdoor activities and wear N95 respirators during periods of increased air pollution.

In 2017, several people died of rabies in Sarawak state. Travelers should consider rabies immunization before travel. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report “When Wildlife Attacks.”

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

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 Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur

376 Jalan Tun Razak

50400 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

American Citizen Services hours: Mon-Fri, 0745-1630 (except U.S. and Malaysian holidays).

Embassy Contact Numbers

Main Line: +60-3-2168-5000

Marine Post One (24-hours): +60-3-2168-4959

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

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizens traveling to Malaysia should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.

Additional Resources

Malaysia Country Information Sheet