How safe is it to visit Malaysia?

Joshua Jervis
Regional Associate Consultant – APAC

Dr Adrian Hyzler
Chief Medical Officer

In the latest of our “how safe is it to visit…” series, we shed light on the risks involved when travelling to Malaysia.

Malaysia situation report

Malaysia is considered a LOW risk country (ranked second-lowest on Healix’s five-tier scale), and the majority of visits pass without incident. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is a growing business and tourism hub, and is reportedly the seventh most visited city in the world. Elsewhere, Malaysia is home to the likes of Penang, Langkawi and Malaysian Borneo, all of which are popular domestic and international tourist destinations.

The only exception to the country’s LOW risk rating is the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE) and its surround, which pose MODERATE security risks (ranked third-highest on Healix’s five-tier scale). This area poses a significantly increased risk of kidnapping; militant groups operating in the southern Philippines, notably those operating in south-west Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, have been known to operate in the area. These groups have previously carried out kidnap-for-ransom attacks, as well as incidents of piracy, impacting both local and foreign nationals. The most renowned group operating in the area is the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), who have previously carried out cross-border raids in Malaysian waters. This area is now heavily policed by the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), who implement periodic curfews and travel restrictions.

Primary risks

Crime

There is a MODERATE risk of crime in Malaysia, with the predominant risk being petty and opportunistic criminality. Bag and phone snatching, as well as pickpocketing, remain the most common forms of crime reported by foreign nationals. In recent years, there has been an increase in reports of criminals using motorcycles to snatch bags and phones from both pedestrians and vehicles before escaping. Moreover, stationary vehicles stuck in traffic have also been targeted by ‘smash and grab’ crimes. The risk is elevated in major urban centres, notably Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, as well as in busy tourist destinations.

Violent crime is less common and, when it does occur, typically impacts local nationals. There have been reports of individuals having their drinks spiked in bars or nightclubs before being mugged. Such incidents remain infrequent, but do still occur. Criminal gangs do operate within the country, and are known to be embroiled in robbery, drugs trafficking and extortion. Incidents of violence tend to target rival gang members, or those associated with illicit dealings. While any inter-gang violence will likely remain localised, there remains an incidental risk to foreign nationals in the vicinity.

Societal and Cultural Issues

There is a MODERATE risk associated with societal and cultural issues within Malaysia. While relationships between the Malay Muslim majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minority communities are generally harmonious, upticks in racial hostilities may occur periodically. Many political parties run on race-based platforms and advocate for advantages towards a given community, which can lead to spikes in hostilities. Moreover, there have also been periodic upticks in religious tensions; this was last evidenced in the 2018 Selangor temple riots.

Also linked to societal and cultural issues is LGBT rights, which are not protected within Malaysia. Colonial penal codes remain in place in the country, which make homosexuality illegal and punishable; punishments can ranges from fines to corporal punishment or imprisonment of up to 20 years. While such legislation is sporadically enforced, its presence remains a factor in considering the risks to LGBT travellers. Moreover, the law is reinforced by prevailing social attitudes that are generally intolerant towards LGBT communities. No framework is in place to protect LGBT communities from discrimination.

The official religion within Malaysia is Islam and, to an extent, Islamic traditions and norms have an influence on society. Malaysia has generally followed a moderate form of Sunni Islam, though rising conservatism has been noted in recent years. Conservative dress may be expected in many settings, particularly for females; a large proportion of Malay women will wear a hijab or headscarf. While generally not the case in major cities and tourist destinations, foreign nationals may be expected to adhere to stricter dress codes in more conservative areas. There are a number of states within Malaysia where a more conservative interpretation of Islam is followed, such as Kelantan and Terengganu, where elements of Sharia law remain in place for Muslims.

Terrorism

There is a LOW but latent risk of terrorism in Malaysia. Militant groups are not known to have a coherent or significant capability in-country, and no large-scale terrorist attacks have occurred in recent years. The Malaysian security forces retain strong intelligence capabilities and have been successful at disrupting domestic militant cells and plots. While this is indicative of their capabilities, the increasing frequency of these exercises is also indicative of the increased risk of a potential attack within the country.

However, a significant number of Malaysian nationals are thought to have travelled to the Middle East to fight alongside the Islamic State (IS) militant group. There are ongoing concerns about the potential security risk these individuals may pose if they return to Malaysia. There have also been a number of arrests in Malaysia that indicate potential domestic radicalisation; typically, these are individuals who have followed online propaganda or who sympathise with the ideological aims of such militant groups. As IS face a decline in their capabilities in the Middle East, there is a risk that a renewed focus may be placed on expanding capabilities in other areas, including Southeast Asia.

However, the limited capabilities of these militant cells at present mean that any successful attack would likely be unsophisticated and have a limited impact. This can be evidenced by the first ever IS-claimed attack in the country in 2016, when a grenade was thrown into a busy bar in Puchong, Selangor state, wounding eight people.

Additional risks

Scams and fraud are also a risk to foreign nationals within Malaysia. Scams may include goods and service providers charging inflated prices, taxi drivers taking longer routes on metered fares, or the sale of fake goods under the guise that they are legitimate. Other scams have also involved scam artists posing as government or security force officials, and demanding ‘on-the-spot’ fines for supposed violations.

ATM skimming devices have been known to be installed in order for criminals to obtain credit card details. These devices are more likely to be installed on less secure or remote ATMs such as those at petrol stations, than at those in banks or major shopping centres. Credit card fraud is also common, with smaller shops known to clone card details.

HEALIX HEALTH AND SECURITY RISK MAP

An invaluable visual aid that helps you to better understand the local risk environment of your operations.

Healix advice

  • Travel to all the islands off the coast of eastern Sabah in the ESSZONE should be conducted with robust security precautions owing to the risk posed by militant groups. Additional security measures should also be implemented for all seaborne journeys in the area.
  • Travel to other areas within the ESSZONE can continue, though it may be worthwhile organising logistics through an accredited local fixer or reliable tour company. It is important to abide by all official directives issued by the ESSCOM, including curfew hours and travel restrictions.
  • Avoid overt displays of wealth and maintain a low profile. If it is not necessary to carry valuables on your person, leave them somewhere secure, ideally in a hotel safe. Alternatively, if they do not need to be used while in Malaysia, leave them in your home country. Valuables, such as mobile phones and wallets, should be kept in a secure front pocket or bag, and should not be left unattended at any time.
  • If wearing a bag, wear the strap across your body and, where possible, keep a distance between you and the pavement edge. In the event of being accosted by a criminal, do not attempt to resist or antagonise them; criminals may be armed and may be more liable to use force if resisted.
  • Only use ATMs in secure complexes and check the machine for any signs of tampering. Avoid any ATMs in remote or poorly-lit areas. Remain vigilant to anyone around you who may be observing you or acting suspiciously.
  • Exercise situational awareness and remain alert to any suspicious behaviour. Be aware that criminals may work in small groups, and may use distraction or confidence tricks to carry out petty crime. If you feel uncomfortable in the situation, remove yourself from the vicinity.
  • Where appropriate, dress modestly and remain sensitive to cultural norms. This is particularly the case around religious holidays or festivals, such as Ramadan.
  • Remain vigilant to any suspicious behaviour or packages. Anything untoward should be immediately reported to the security forces. Increased awareness should be exercised in the vicinity of potential targets, including government buildings and military infrastructure, as well as ‘soft’ targets, such as hotels, bars and shopping centres.
  • LGBT travellers should exercise discretion. While major urban centres and tourist destinations are generally more liberal, public displays of affection may still attract unwanted attention and increases the risk of verbal or physical harassment. In more rural areas, and in locations known to have more conservative or religious leanings, the risk of harassment or discrimination increases significantly.

Health risks

Healthcare provision in Malaysia operates under a two-tier system consisting of a widespread, universal national system and a co-existing private healthcare system. There has been significant investment into the medical infrastructure by the government and this has brought the standards on a par with well-developed countries, with well trained staff operating in both public and private systems and excellent facilities. The national system is only for Malaysian nationals, and therefore all expats and travellers should ensure they have reliable medical insurance. The majority of doctors speak excellent English and many have studied in western universities. There is of course a difference in quality of healthcare between KL and the more rural areas.

Anyone travelling to Malaysia should ensure that all national immunisation schedules are up to date, including tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis and MMR – measles is a growing problem in many parts of the world at the moment and everyone should be immunised. All travellers should be aware of safe water and food hygiene to avoid such illnesses as typhoid, cholera and travellers’ diarrhoea – only drink bottled or boiled water and eat well-cooked food. Visitors should see a health professional and discuss the option of Hepatitis A vaccine – this is well tolerated and affords long-lasting protection – as well as Cholera and Typhoid vaccines. Consideration should also be taken to vaccinate for: Hepatitis B for travellers who may have direct contacts with local residents, especially if the visit is for a prolonged period. Rabies is reported in domestic animals and is prevalent in bats, but is considered low risk unless you are travelling extensively or visiting more remote areas, when vaccination should be considered.

Mosquito borne diseases are prevalent in Malaysia:

  • There is no risk of yellow fever in this country; however, there is a certificate requirement. Under International Health Regulations, a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers over 1 year of age arriving from countries with risk of yellow fever transmission and for travellers having transited for more than 12 hours through an airport of a country with risk of yellow fever transmission.
  • Japanese Encephalitis occurs countrywide with year-round transmission in Sarawak, but predominantly October to December in the rest of Malaysia – a vaccine is available and it is particularly recommended for the long term traveller in rural areas, or for those who may be engaged in unprotected and extensive outdoor activities in rural areas, even if for short trips.
  • There is low risk of malaria for travellers to mainland Malaysia and thus the recommendation is for bite avoidance unless there are special conditions that would make you more vulnerable in which case you should consult a travel medicine specialist. There is no risk in KL, Georgetown or Penang but antimalarials may be considered for rural stays.
  • Zika and dengue are both prevalent in Malaysia and are transmitted by a day-biting mosquito. An outbreak of dengue in the first 6 weeks of 2019 resulted in over 22,000 reported cases. Pregnant women should take particular care of recommendations regarding Zika. There are no vaccines for these infections and therefore strict bite avoidance should be practiced.

FIND OUT MORE

Healix International can deploy at short notice to conduct Project Risk Assessments, Site Security Audits, Evacuation Planning, Emergency Response Planning, Threat and Risk Assessments and Training, as well as offer Embedded Security Managers upon request (see Security Consultancy & Bespoke Services). If you are interested in commissioning these services, or would like to request a capability statement for your country of operations, please email us at GSOC@healix.com.

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