Social Crisis in Malaysia’s Rural Heartlands

Over recent years, crime, domestic violence, incest and rape have afflicted Malaysia’s rural kampungs, creating a domestic and social crisis in the heartland. There are concerns that decades of state neglect and politicization of infrastructure at the very grassroots of society have been accompanied with a decay of morals and ethics, with critics sounding concerns that sexual abuse of girls and women is destroying the social fabric of society.

The long term solution is a shift in Malay culture, which would meet great resistance within society as the current balance of power favors chauvinistic males who hold the reins with little female intellectual input. There is no better example than the case of former Malacca Chief Minister Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik, who in 1995 was charged with having sex with a 15-year-old girl. When the opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Guan Eng brought the matter to the attention of parliament, Lim was instead charged with sedition and the 15 year-old girl was arrested as well.

Police have been accused of suppressing crime figures, and the government of suppressing additional problems. Ministers have denied that this is a “Malay problem” and religious authorities have put the blame on the victims. Incest, rape and pedophilia are not even mentioned in the Government’s transformation initiative to fight crime.

The brutality of some cases is shocking. Just recently, a 17 year old girl, Intan Suraya Mawardia, was raped and had her throat cut, allegedly by her security guard boyfriend in Balik Pulau, a rustic township on the back side of Penang Island. A security guard with possible accomplices gang raped, sodomized, and strangled to death an 8 year old girl in the Tanjung Putih orangutan preserve in Johor. A bus driver, Hanafi Mat Hassan raped and a strangled computer engineer, Noor Suzaily Mukthar in a bus at a remote site in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam.

Over the past decade or so, cases of children raped by close relatives who should be trusted protectors of children are horrific.

Betraying children

A man with multiple wives sought their assistance to rape five of his daughters aged between 12-15 years repeatedly over a period of 18 months until one of the daughters reported him to the police. Two became pregnant and had abortions.

A stepfather had repeated sex with an underage stepdaughter who gave birth to a stillborn child at school. Another stepfather raped his 11 year old stepdaughter when her mother and elder sister were not at home.

A girl was locked up by her father in a room where she was repeatedly sexually abused with objects.

A grandfather and uncle together repeatedly raped their granddaughters and nieces while they were looking after them over a two year period. It was only when one of the children became pregnant the mother found out and made a police report.

Many cases of incest involve adults as well. There are many cases of fathers and daughters having consensual sex. In Kelantan a 47 year old mother and 22 year old son were fined and jailed for incest.

A rape is reported every two and a half hours in Malaysia. However there could be as many as 40 rapes a day occurring across the country.

A 2013 Parliamentary report recorded more than 3,000 cases of rape and incest, of which 1,424 directly involved rape. 90 percent of these rape cases involved underage girls, with 80 percent of the accused perpetrators known by the victim. It is estimated that only 20 percent of rapes and incest are reported. In only 20 percent of those reported are the accused actually charged, with only 3 percent actually convicted.

Contact abuse, voyeurism, self-exposure, and child pornography are not included in the above statistics.

In many of these cases, rapes were carried out not by strangers, but by people close to the victims. The perpetrators were people who were supposed to be protectors of the victims – fathers, stepfathers, brothers, uncles, and even mothers. Most go unreported until a pregnancy occurs.

The majority of perpetrators of these crimes come from low socio-economic rural environments, many from plantations, are relatively uneducated and earning below average wages. Some 66 percent of the perpetrators were Malays, 82 percent were over 50 years old, while the victims were under 16. Perpetrators often claim sex is their right from a daughter and that the acts are consensual. They often claim that the victim was manja (affectionate), and the act occurred because of ‘suka sama suka’ (consent), even though she was a child. Some claimed the children were temptresses and “ripe for the plucking.”

A prison department director-general, Zaman Khan once asked a father why he had raped his own daughter. He reported that the man replied: “As a father, I had planted the seed before my child was born. Thus I am rightfully the person to taste the fruit before anybody else.”

Research indicates that many perpetrators believe “‘women were created to fulfil men’s dreams,” that men are “meant to lead women” and “women need to be taught and shown the right way”. Some have said their daughters were motivated by lust and that by satisfying them at home, their daughters were less likely to stray.

Many perpetrators have a proprietary attitude of ownership over their children according to Universiti Sains researcher Rohana Ariffin, and Rachel Samuel of UiTM Melaka. The study said men often used persuasion, coercion, manipulation, the power of their relationship, and religious dogma to have sex with their victims. Some believe that the Quran allows them ownership over their daughters and claimed they are rightfully their sex slaves according to Islam.

The perpetrators didn’t see sex with their daughters, granddaughters, or nieces as rape, because no violence was used. Boyfriends blamed the girl’s parents, stating that the parents didn’t like him. Others blamed pornography and uncontrolled lust.

Many committed incest while their wives were pregnant and unavailable for sex, or were going through menopause.

One of the major problems in rural areas is that the young children themselves have no idea that these acts of incest are actually morally wrong, as they trusted the perpetrators word. Mothers are very hesitant to report incest crimes because of the stigma involved in a small community and the fear of losing a breadwinner, if the husband is jailed.

No institutional sympathy

Some victims feel guilty about what happened, especially if the father is punished and imprisoned and blame within the family put on her. This often makes the victim feel degraded and humiliated. Some become pregnant and either have abortions or become mothers, creating great stigma and feelings of shame. Many become withdrawn from others. They develop low self-esteem and a feel worthless. This can affect their relationships with others during their lifetime, where they may become mistrustful of others. They may also develop distorted views on sex. Some become suicidal.

Religious leaders and politicians have created myths that men are enticed by women’s dressing styles and try to shift the blame away to the victims. Recently, the Selangor Islamic Department (Jais) prepared a Friday sermon urging women to cover their bodies to prevent themselves becoming victims of sexual crimes like rape and incest.

An Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia earlier this year made statements that when a man marries a woman, there is no need to get consent for sex. At a seminar held in Bangi recently on fundamentalist Islamic law, Ustaz Hakim Othman claimed that “most sexual cases involve false accusations.”

This attitude is also developing within the younger generation. Munirah Bahari, a vice president of the National Islamic Students Association of Malaysia stated that the white baju kurung (school uniform) was transparent and thus too sexy and lured rapists. These ideas are little help in solving such a serious problem facing Malay society today.

Thus the problem of rape and incest in the rural heartlands needs more attention. Yet, although the country has one of the highest rates of rape and incest in the world, the problem has received very little government attention.

Amending laws will not solve the problem, given the deep educational, economic, and social issues involved. People in poorer rural areas feel powerless due to the lack of opportunities around them. According to the researcher Rohana, a culture of poverty has been created in the heartlands, with children growing up resenting others and transferring their aggression on the easiest victims they can find.

The strict and repressive moral codes publicly enforced may have created some form of psychological rebellion where people are escaping this repression through lewd acts of sexuality. The dogma and manipulated repression by those who utilize Islam for their own ends must be fought through education.

Parks, recreation facilities, lonely roads, and other remote places have become rife with couples engaging in sex throughout the country.

One potential cause of the problem could lie within the patriarchal system of Malay culture itself, where women are taught to be gentle, sweet, and submissive to elders, which allows elders to take advantage.

Rape and incest could be seen as a result of uneven feudal power relations and a distorted perception of women within Malay rural society. Rohana’s research indicates that many cases occur because of manipulation, coaching or coercion

Girls are still being treated as lesser members of the family and provided with dolls and play tea sets, and taught to cook, look after households, and be emotionally dependent upon males. There is an unequal balance of power between the genders in rural Malay society, with husbands not to be questioned.

Women are still culturally oppressed. This can be seen in the number of parliamentary seats women hold and the way women are treated within the civil service. With these hangover attitudes, it will be very difficult to teach boys to respect women as equals – the generational solution to the problem.

The educational system, mosques, and grassroots organizations like KEMAS must begin a massive information dissemination program to deal with these problems where they are happening. Better education, social and economic opportunities are required to enlighten and bring rural folk into modern Malaysia. Rape and incest statistics hint at a major rural development policy failure on behalf of the government.

Finally the government needs to take a strong moral stand rather than a legal stand. It has to convince people that rape and incest is taboo, and the lowest form of life. Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik’s escape from statutory rape charges more than a decade ago indicates the poor moral stance the Malaysian government has taken on the issues.

Murray Hunter is an Australian academic and development specialist with wide experience in Malay culture. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.