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Neighbours on guard 

20/8/2004  The Sun By Sharon Kam

BACK IN 1996, the residents of SD9 in Sri Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, were shocked by the brutal gang-rape of a woman in her own home while on maternity leave. Sadly, she succumbed to her injuries a year later, leaving her baby without a mother.

The tragedy made her neighbours to vow "never again", and drove them to set up a neighbourhood patrol.

Leo Chan, one of the pioneers of the neighbourhood patrol cum Bandar Sri Damansra Residents' Association, said the patrol begin with just 30 male volunteers patrolling a section with about 300 houses. Membership gradually grew.

"Not only were the patrols effective in reducing crime, it also  brought the residents closer together," Chan said.

Building on the neighbourhood watch, the residents' association (RA) also organised social gatherings and family activities.

In a sense, their vigilance was too successful. The patrols stopped in 1999 as crime fell drastically and the residents felt there was no longer a need for them.

However, in the last two years, crime rates in Bandar Sri Damansara, home to about 12,000 households, was on the rise again.

Instead of neighbourhood patrols, the residents' association decided this time to collect funds from residents and hire private security guards. The patrols are expected to begin this month.

In the meantime, several neighbourhoods in Sri Damansara have already been turned into gated communities.

There is another group of residents, especially those who want added security on a budget or who prefer not to pay for hiring guards, who plan to set up a Rukun Tetangga committee.

"Both are initiated by the residents with good intentions. It is up to the residents to see what works best," Chan said.

The police themselves agree that voluntary initiatives by the community such as neighbourhood patrols and Rukun Tetangga (RT) have been a big help to the police in preventing crime.

In Seberang Perai, Penang, the crime rate was cut by half after the introduction of neighbourhood patrols by 23 RTs in the area. This prompted a proposal to revive neighbourhood patrol units, especially in 234 crime hotspots in the country.

The public is now more aware of the need to take an active role in creating their own safe havens.

They have long realised that they cannot rely solely on the police to keep crime at bay.

Not that they blame the police, but there is no longer any doubt that the police need all the help they can get.

At the last dialogue with the police in June, the Bandar Sri Damansara RA members were told about some of the problems the police face.

The Sungai Buloh police station, which covers 15 housing estates including Bandar Sri Damansara, has only 53 personnel, who work on three shifts, and one official multi-purpose vehicle for police patrols.

The lack of resources is a constraint that limits the long arm of the law.

The entire police force currently consisted of 88,938 personnel but only 62,391 are directly involved in operations. The rest are engaged in administrative and management work.

Deputy Internal Security Minister Chia Kwang Chye said the government aims to meet the international standard in terms of a police to population ratio of 1: 250.

The current ratio in Malaysia is 1: 408. And for the police to have enough vehicles, the shopping bill is a hefty RM200 million, according to a recent report.

Such inadequacies may have led to a general perception that the police force is weighed down by inefficiency. To make things worse, the public's sense of insecurity heightens with every news report of a violent crime or crime-related fatality.

With the crime index rising almost 5% between 2002 and last year, the public may believe that crime is not only growing but becoming more violent too.

Considering the situation, the role of the community is crucial, the Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF) executive for neighbourhood outreach Norazila Ramli (pix) said.

Residents' associations and RTs not only serve a security function but nurture neighbourliness, racial integrity and national unity, she said.

Neighbourly ties can help prevent crime as neighbours look out for each other, she said.

"When you balik kampung for instance, your neighbour can help keep an eye on your house. But for most urbanites, with our hectic lifestyles, we hardly get to see, what more to know, our neighbours. So we need  neighbourhood activities where such ties can be fostered." she said.

RAs also help establish closer ties with the local authorities and the police which can lead to things getting done faster.

According to Norazila, RAs are usually set up in upper middle to higher income group areas as they are able to fund them on their own and because they are the usual targets of criminals.

On the other hand, RTs which are funded by the government, are usually set up in middle to lower income residential areas.

Although neighbourhood initiatives have much going for them, it is no easy task getting residents to join in.

Neighbourhood watches get better support when crime hits close to home, as the Bandar Sri Damansara experience showed. There is no denying that only when residents feel threatened do they see the need to act.

"It is usually the ones who have had close encounters with crime who are more committed," Chan said.

Hence, other than neighbourhood patrols, which demand loads of commitment, time and effort on the part of the residents, the other more recent alternative is to turn residential areas into gated communities.

Such neighbourhoods exude an aura of security. Visitors have to check in at sentry points leading into the housing area. Private security guards are on duty round-the-clock or at specific hours.

As the public feels the need to regularly look over their shoulder, demand for such security services are steadily rising.

According to the Internal Security Ministry, there are at present around 315 security firms employing 150,000 security guards in the country.

Many new residential developments are featured as gated communities in response to the demand for safer homes.

"Safety is an important aspect when people buy houses, or where people choose to stay," Norazila said.

The MCPF has a safe city programme which is aimed at raising awareness among the various parties including contractors, developers, local authorities and residents themselves on the importance of proper environmental design of housing areas in curbing crime and creating safer living environments.

Developers and local authorities should ensure that housing areas encompass security factors in their planning and design, Norazila said.

A housing developer can, for instance, provide residents with security services such as CCTVs as a feature of the development or incorporate safety into the design of its facilities.

The Bangsar zone, where the "Safe City" initiative began in 1998, is a pioneer in this regard.

Responding the recent spate of snatch thefts, the Housing and Local Government Ministry has called on local authorities to consider enhancing pedestrian safety in the form of barriers between roads and walkways and to ensure adequate lighting and to set up CCTVs in crime-prone areas.

The people can also do much in preventing crime by putting safety first and by making the local police their partners in curbing crime.

For instance, they can provide information to the police of any suspicious activities or people around the neighbourhood, Norazila said.

"Simple things like locking up your house before you go to bed help. Lack of safety consciousness makes it easy for criminals to act.

"The police force is trying hard to improve, and we have to help them," she said.

As Chan says, anyone of us can be the next victim. We should not wait until some tragedy befalls us before we decide to get involved.

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