The Question I Hate: Is it Safe?

Is it safe?

Will I be kidnapped?

Taken hostage by terrorists?

My favorite one: could I be sold into slavery like that movie with Liam Neeson [1]? On a side note, wouldn't it be hawt if he was the one to save you from Eastern European gangster scum?

I hate these questions. There, I said it out loud. Not because these questions are stupid, but I often wonder where they come from.

I tend to fire back with, what source did you read? How old is the information? Do you believe this image is the entire country?

Someone recently asked me about Malaysia. I spent a quick, but satisfying weekend there recently. Oh dear, that sounds like a fling I just had.

Let me rephrase, I had a memorable time and connected with people I will see again. The culture in Kuala Lumpur appeared mostly innocuous. I didn't clutch my bag in fear, never felt that my taxi driver (metered I might add) was threatening or leering at me at all. I actually had an informative conversation with him about the government and the development of Kuala Lumpur. The only thing to watch out for are motorbikes hopping the sidewalk behind you during rush hour traffic. The Malaysian people? Some of the warmest I've ever encountered. The end.

The question posed to me was, "Is Malaysia safe? I read reports of American women being kidnapped, terrorist groups, etc."

It went further. "I've heard about Al Qaedea-esque groups. Taxis being problematic, US state department website advises against east Malaysia travel."

These are valid questions, hands down. But I must admit I was lost at first on how to respond. The question conjured images of a country I had not visited, some lawless nightmare where people don't live, work and love. That the only events that happen are gunfire, terror and physical violence.

The person's concerns concentrate on this part of Malaysia:

That's a very small area of a country with a total land mass of 329,847 square kilometres (127,350 square miles), that's separated by the South China Sea and has two sides to explore.

I really had to break down the rest of the question to get it solid in my mind:

1.  Kidnapping - Quite true, a recent incident happened when a husband and wife from Taiwan were attacked in their hotel room at a luxury resort located in eastern Sabah [2]. The husband was murdered and the wife kidnapped, but they aren't American. The Taipei times have reported that the Malaysian police believe the Islamist separatist group, Abu Sayyaf is responsible. This is concentrated on the map I have posted above, an area that is not the whole of Malaysia.

2.  American women victimized - I had to search for this one, but I figured my questioner might have been referring to a case from  March 2013. A 24 year-old American woman was raped by a taxi driver and two accomplices [3]. But my search brought up no other cases about Americans. Sure, there were a few about Koreans getting robbed. The American case was 7 months ago, certainly something to take into consideration, but a reported case doesn't equate to all taxi drivers being evil.

3. Al Qaedea-esque groups - The most active group that operates in and around eastern Malaysia is actually from the southern Philippines. They are called Abu Sayyaf [4], and their numbers are as low as 200 and high as 2,000. Their aim is to establish an independent province in the Philippines through armed conflict. The two essential leaders, both brothers, were killed in separate gunfights with government forces many years ago. The group has resorted to kidnappings, but usually it's motivated by money, one of the ways to fund their activities. Several kidnappings happened at high end resorts, so my obvious recommendation? Stay away from high end resorts in eastern Malaysia.

4. Taxi drivers - There's no way for me to comment on the character of Malaysian taxi drivers, but this is what I'd do: ensure the one you flag down doesn't have a secondary passenger (some taxi drivers do this to make extra cash fast, by picking up 2 passengers in one haul) and be certain he has a working meter. Finally, ensure he resembles the picture ID that is usually posted in the taxi somewhere (dashboard).

Oh my, reading all that doesn't exactly put one's mind at ease, does it?  But I encourage you to review again, because when you really look, it's a tiny portion of Malaysia (Sabah) to be aware of with a couple of cautionary tales thrown in. Does that amount to the entire country being unsafe? Uncivilized? Absolutely not.

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