Nip in the bud of the dangerous world of drug trafficking through prevention

More pro-active implementation and enforcement strategy is needed to replace the current thinking that has been there for the past forty years.


Published in AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

Conventional drug abuse (cocaine, ganja) remains an issue in Malaysia and on the policy radar despite the fact that not much intense public attention has been accorded to it over the last decade – where other forms of social ills were on the rise or emerging like baby dumping, gangsterism, bullying, etc.

Despite more than four decades of combating the so-called “war on drugs” in Malaysia, drug-related issues such as drug abuse/drug addiction as well as drug trafficking are still rampant.

Drugs can be classified into synthetic drugs (heroin, cocaine, ecstacy, fentanyl) and natural drugs (kratom/ketum, marijuana, opium). Synthetic drugs are manufactured in the lab and some of them are made to treat medical conditions.

The World Drug Report 2022 estimated that around 11.2 million people injected drugs in 2020 worldwide (see, “World Drug Report 2022 – Booklet 2: Drug Demand Drug Supply”). In our country, as reported in the Crime Statistics Malaysia 2022, published by the Department of Statistics (DOSM), there were 108,220 drug-related cases and 129,604 drug-related arrests in 2021, down 11.2% and 11.3%, respectively.

For the cases involving drug suppliers and the number of related arrests, there was a rising trend from 14,823 in 2020 to 16,629 cases in 2021 and from 23,536 in 2020 to 25,277 cases in 2021, respectively.

Malaysia has been focused on the preventative approach which targets high-risk addiction areas in the country to be transformed into safe zones.

However, the pre-existing prevention strategy seems to be in need of bolstering. Hence, a more pro-active implementation and enforcement strategy is needed to replace the current thinking that has been there for the past forty years.

Drug Trafficking in Southeast Asia

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the report “Synthetic Drug in East and Southeast Asia: Latest development and challenges 2022” stated that the drug industry has expanded continuously in these regions where both production and trafficking in 2021 broke the previous record with one billion methamphetamine (meth) tablets having been seized.

Drug syndicates are also evolving especially in Southeast Asia with Malaysia serving as a key distribution hub – being located south of the infamous “Golden Triangle” as the area where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand converge. This makes Malaysia an eminent transit point.

In addition, the wider Asian continent clearly leads when it comes to the size of the heroin and synthetic drug markets, while Southeast Asia ranks first and second for these markets overall, with Myanmar largely accounting for the high scores (see, “Framing the issue Countering the synthetic-drug market in South East Asia”, John Coyne, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, June 17, 2022).

According to the UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas said Malaysia has been utilised extensively for the trafficking and transiting of drugs into Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and New Zealand while Laos became the shipping point for trafficking into Thailand and other countries along the Mekong and in the Asia Pacific (see “Record-high meth seizures in East, Southeast Asia last year – UN”, Harakah Daily, May 31, 2022).

Digital Drug Trafficking

The global pandemic has forced drug trafficking to go digital to serve customers during the lockdown. Amid the pandemic situation, drug syndicates still stand strong and keep going with their activities of drug dealing and trafficking that has moved from the streets to the online platforms to fulfil the orders through encrypted messaging and use of (legitimate) delivery services to deliver the products to the customers.

Drug online trafficking takes place via countless channels and platforms including social media (Telegram, Facebook, Instagram), e-commerce and pseudonym networks, i.e., the dark web. For recruitments, drug dealers makes use of job vacancy advertisements online to offer high-paying work.

Based on the Darknet Cybercrime Threats to Southeast Asia 2020 Report, as of December 2019, out of all the products and services available on the dark web marketplaces, drugs are the most traded product category on the TOR (The Onion Router) Darknet.

Drug Mules as Transporter

Of course, one can’t ignore the problematic of the drug mules which remain a constant threat and a social concern.

Drug mules refer to the victims of drug traffickers – used to carry drugs across international borders and are believed to be the weakest link in the supply-chain.

Due to Malaysia becoming the ideal country to transit the drugs and the global reputation of our passports which allows for entry into 179 countries without a visa (according to the VisaGuide Passport Index), the number of drug mules being recruited to carry or transport the drugs could be growing.

Hence, Malaysians are more likely to be recruited as drug mules for drug trafficking jobs across Asia.

Drug syndicates often target vulnerable groups to be recruited as drug mules. And nowadays, with the growth of the online drug trade, the younger generation are the most vulnerable.

Drug cartels often target young people since they’re considered to be still naïve and impressionable, and those that have socio-economic problems such as being trapped in poverty and lacking in education. This makes them the ideal target in the eyes of the recruiters since the potential drug mule victims are desperate to earn the money for their own and family survival.

They become criminals while being victims of criminal organisations. As it is, they – the small-time drug mules – are sentenced to long years of imprisonment while many drug syndicate bosses are still free.

Apparently, drug trafficking using drug mules is still going strong in Malaysia with a number of drug cases reported by the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM).

From 2013 until October 2018, there were about 425 Malaysian drug mules that have been apprehended by the authorities in 19 countries, according to the Bukit Aman Narcotics Criminal Investigation Department (NCID) Principal Assistant Director SAC Zulkifli Ali (see “425 Malaysian drug mules detained abroad since 2013”, New Straits Times, December 23, 2018).

Additionally, almost 30 Malaysians were detained in Hong Kong over the past year for trafficking drugs on behalf of foreign organisations. However, the numbers might just be the tip of the iceberg which doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual number of detainees.

Death Penalty

In Malaysia, drug mules were treated as being no different than the drug lord where possession of a certain amount of drug such as more than 15 grams of heroin or 200 gram of marijuana (see “Criminal Penalties in Malaysia”, Country Reports) will attract capital punishment – death penalty prior to the 2018 moratorium and pending the finalisation, i.e., the enactment of the bills abolishing mandatory death sentence.

The death penalty has been proven to be an ineffective deterrent not just in Malaysia but also around the globe. Malaysia has been practicing the mandatory death penalty for drug offences for four decades now.

But as cases of drug offences and arrests continue to rise unabated, the mandatory death penalty seems reduced to serving as a band-aid solution only.  

Under the “Special Screening Ops” (Ops Tapis Khas), the PDRM successfully arrested 28,710 people involved in various drug offences nationwide, which clearly shows that the death penalty is not effective in preventing drug offences in our country. Drug addicts and peddlers occupy the top statistics where 16,433 and 4,498 were arrested in the ops, respectively.

Malaysia’s move to finally put in alternative laws to mandatory death penalty has received a lot of support from international NGOs.

Amnesty International Malaysia’s Executive Director Katrina Jorene Maliamauv said that, “[we] applaud the government’s decision to abolish the mandatory death penalty and to grant judges discretion in sentencing. It’s a welcome step in the right direction, and we urge it to go further and work towards full abolition of this cruel punishment”.

Azalina Othman, the Law and Institutional Reform Minister, said that the death penalty law will be amended in February this year. The amendments will not abolish the death sentence completely, but will allow the courts the authority to determine a suitable punishment.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) finds that the use of the death penalty on serious crimes such as intentional murder, use of firearms, and trafficking a considerable amount of drug is supported strongly by Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) (see “MHA: Very strong support among S’poreans on use of death penalty for serious crimes, including drug trafficking”, Mothership, October 19, 2022).

Back in Malaysia, it’ll not be surprising if many Malaysians are still supportive (emotively so) of retaining the mandatory death penalty.

Be that as it may, we should push forward with a holistic preventative strategy that addresses both the threat of illicit drug trafficking to national security and the need for effective rehabilitation of drug mules post-abolition of the (mandatory) death penalty.

EMIR Research would like to recommend the following policy proposals:

  • Strengthening border security

Regional and international collaboration must augment national attempts to combat drug crimes in Malaysia by widening international cooperation within Asia and around the globe.

First, detection technology used by federal, state and local law enforcement needs to be enhanced to improve the quality and promptness of interdiction activities along the borders.

Second, security at the border areas must be bolstered and beefed up by the construction of multi-layered manned and unmanned systems, physical and virtual wall barriers, land and air-based sensors – as these places are identified as hot spots for many illegal activities including drug trafficking.

The deployment of drones and helicopters should be also be deployed on a systematic basis. For example, one helicopter can control up to 4 drones at one time – the latter serving as an extension of the former.

  • Coordinating criminal justice reforms by ministries

Ministries play a pivotal role in pushing for and coordinating reforms of the criminal justice system.

With the abolition of the mandatory death penalty, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) should be focusing on the actual drug traffickers (masterminds and henchmen) and coming up with policy schemes such as mimicking Singapore’s issuance of a “certificate of substantive assistance” to drug mules for providing information that’s critical in disrupting, e.g., the nerve and nodal centre of the distribution channels – but in lieu of life imprisonment.

The Ministry of Women, Family & Community Development (MWFCD) can complement by promoting rehabilitative schemes in lieu of a longer life imprisonment sentence.

The Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) can work with both the MOHA and MWFCD to provide life skills training and upskilling to former drug mules whilst in prison and post-prison to enable them to find employment quickly.

  • Creating awareness among the youth

In line with Anti-Drugs Agency Act 2004, the National Anti-Drug Agency (NADA) should do more to create awareness about the harmful impact and the reality of drug dealings among the younger generation by sponsoring films, documentaries, TikToks, etc. and organising roadshows (including in rural areas) alongside sharing sessions by former drug dealers or drug mules.

Additionally, NADA should also intensify efforts to reach out to pupils and students at primary and secondary schools, respectively, by classroom sessions alongside extra-curricular activities including slogan contests, parent-teacher association (PTA)-related events, etc.

Farah Natasya is Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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