KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - High-profile shootings and a surge of deaths of suspects in custody are stoking public anger in Malaysia, piling pressure on the government to tackle crime and clamp down on police corruption and brutality.
An execution-style hit on a former bank chief executive in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Monday and the weekend shooting of an anti-crime campaigner have forced Prime Minister Najib Razak's government to respond, less than three months after it scraped through a general election with a depleted majority.
Najib called on the police on Tuesday to take "immediate and serious" action to restore public confidence. The government has also fast-tracked plans to submit a new security law to parliament this year that would replace a draconian Emergency Ordinance Act that Najib abolished in 2011.
"We cannot allow the situation to persist," Najib was quoted as saying by state-run Bernama news agency.
"Immediate and serious action must be taken by the authorities to bring back public peace and confidence."
But rights groups say the government is failing to tackle a culture of impunity and corruption in the police force that is a major root of the problem.
Since the beginning of the year, 12 people have died in police custody in the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian country, compared with just nine for the whole of 2012. According to media reports only three policemen, all related to a single custodial death, have been charged.
The campaigner shot and seriously wounded on Saturday, R Sri Sanjeevan, had said he had evidence of police involvement in illegal gambling and drugs, among other criminal activities, and said he had received death threats related to his work.
The chairman of the MyWatch anti-crime group was reportedly shot by a motorbike-riding gunman as he drove his car.
"Malaysia should be doing better. They are increasingly a first-world economy with a fourth-world police force," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Police and interior ministry spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.
National chief of police Khalid Abu Bakar, responding recently to concern about crime, said police were closing in on smugglers bringing firearms into the country.
CRIME PERCEPTION GAP
According to information given in parliament, 230 people have died in custody since 2000.
"The police enjoy almost complete impunity in these cases," Amnesty International's campaigner on Malaysia, Hazel Galang, said in statement last week.
Robertson and other rights campaigners say Malaysia needs to set up an independent commission to investigate police abuses. That step was recommended by a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 2005, but has never been implemented.
Citing one global survey, Najib said last year that Malaysia was the safest country in Southeast Asia, an assertion that is widely disputed by urban dwellers weary of muggings and burglaries.
The government, which has made fighting crime one of its priorities under Najib's flagship "Economic Transformation Program", says overall crime has fallen 27 percent since 2009.
In the latest incident to shock Malaysians, the retired founder of the country's sixth-largest banking group, AmBank, Bahrain-born Hussain Ahmad Najadi, was gunned down after a lunch meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. Police say they suspect it was a contract killing linked to a business deal.
Lim Kit Siang, a senior opposition politician, called on the government to show its seriousness about crime by setting up an independent police complaints commission.
"The official claim of success in reducing the crime index ... cannot hide the fact of a growing gulf between the police's claims and the people's perception and fear of crime," he wrote on his blog page.