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Is Malaysia Safe?

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Most of us have been in a situation – perhaps a job or a relationship – and couldn’t see how unhealthy or damaging it was because we were just too close to it. Only after extricating ourselves and looking back from a distance do we grasp what was probably fairly obvious to everyone else already.

So it is with expat living. Afforded the opportunity to look at our home country from afar sometimes changes our perspective. We start to see it perhaps as others always have… the good and the bad. I often wonder if other expats look back towards their home with a different eye.

In a familiar conversation, when mentioning to folks back home in the US my travels throughout Asia, or dropping the bombshell that I actually live in Malaysia, I am often asked, “Isn’t it scary?” or “Don’t you feel nervous or unsafe?” And I answer that, curiously enough, the only time in the last four years that I’ve been keenly aware of my surroundings and indeed felt apprehensive was on a visit back home in 2009, as I traversed the dark, mostly empty parking lot of a Walmart store late one night. That feeling of trepidation is literally something I have never felt as I’ve wandered the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, or Singapore. Once I got a late bus back to Jakarta from Bandung and was dropped in an unfamiliar place close to midnight in the middle of one of the most populous cities in the world. And the only source of unease I felt came courtesy of a large rat who, at 10 metres away from where I sat on the curb, was still too close for comfort.

And that’s the simple truth of it. I’ve never felt unsafe here. Now, that’s not to say that crime – even violent crime – doesn’t occur here in KL. Of course it does But no other fully developed, industrialized nation on the planet sees its citizens shot as prolifically and frequently as my home country. In the US, it seems it’s never long between reports of mass shootings, in particular. The most recent one to make international news occurred in my home city, at a movie theatre in which I have personally sat. In a span of seconds, 70 people were shot by a lone gunman, 12 of them fatally. Perhaps among the greatest tragedies, a six-year-old girl was killed, and her young mother, pregnant with her second child, was shot and injured, consequently suffering a miscarriage. Many other of the wounded are still in critical condition as of this writing, but within a week of the shooting, it had slipped from the news. Another mass shooting took place less than a week later, as well, this time in Pennsylvania, where a man confronted his estranged wife over the custody of their young daughter and in the end, fatally shot the woman, her boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s mother. A week after that, a gunman in Wisconsin went on a rampage at a Sikh temple and killed six before turning the gun on himself.

And the thing is, there’s nothing terribly unusual about any of this. In the 13 years since the Columbine school shooting – which, though not the first mass shooting, was the most shocking to date, and put this type of violence on international radar – the United States has averaged 20 mass shootings per year. The gun murder rate in America is 20 times higher than that of the next 22 wealthiest countries in the world combined. The statistics, any way you look at them, are absolutely stunning. And yet the slaughter continues unabated. And here in Malaysia, my friends and colleagues wonder why: Why do Americans accept this? Why are guns such a problem? To be certain, gun politics in America is a hotly contentious issue, easily as polemic as abortion, gay rights, or religion. Most astute politicians won’t touch it. But by remaining deferential or silent on the issue, they are implying their acquiescence. They’re basically saying they’re quite okay with the status quo, in which some 12,000 Americans’ lives are claimed each and every year by gun violence, which doesn’t even include the considerably higher number of suicides by gun.

The reason for all this is 27 confusingly written words in the US Constitution that state, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In the late 1700s when this was written, there was a need for citizens to be armed so that a militia could be called up from their ranks in the event the British returned to start trouble, or the fledgling country was otherwise invaded, hence the prefatory clause explaining the rationale of arming the populace. Today, apparently it means you can legally stockpile a personal arsenal of handguns, automatic weapons, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

I write about this as an American who, now that I can see my home country from afar and with the clarity that only distance can afford, joins the many “outsiders” who cannot fathom why such a great country is so incapable of figuring out that gun violence is directly related to guns, and why that country is so unwilling to do anything about what is inarguably a serious problem.

And I find it easier and easier to answer people back home when they ask, rather ignorantly, how I’m coping with the anxiety and uncertainty of living in such a “dangerous” place as Malaysia.

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