KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia's population has tripled over the past four decades. Its largest city, Kuala Lumpur, a place once so sparsely populated that it looked like a botanical garden, has exploded into a cosmopolitan metropolis of shopping malls, luxury hotels and sprawling suburbs.
But with modernity and urbanization came an unwanted corollary: a soaring crime rate that has blighted Kuala Lumpur, previously considered one of Asia's safest cities, and other urban areas across Peninsular Malaysia. It is hard to find someone in Kuala Lumpur today who does not have a story about a purse snatching, a burglary or worse.
"Whatever defense we put up is not enough," said Chong Kon Wah, a British-trained engineer who was burglarized twice at his home in the Kuala Lumpur suburbs and robbed once while in his car -- all within 10 days in August.
Residents in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods have begun to gate their communities, often without local government permission. And the demand for personal guards has soared, with the number of certified security companies nationwide more than tripling over the past decade to 712 from 200, according to the Security Services Association of Malaysia, which trains guards.
Last month, the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur sent a warning to American citizens here: "Remember to carry your backpack or purse on the shoulder AWAY from the road to prevent having it snatched by motorbikers."
The possible reasons for a higher crime rate are a matter of debate -- some say the country's ethnic-based policies that favor majority Malays are partly to blame; others say the police force is corrupt and ineffectual. Even the extent of the crime wave in this country of 29 million people is in question.
Despite the widely held perception of a sustained crime wave, the government says that after doubling from 2000 to 2009, the number of reported cases of violent crime nationwide has declined sharply since then. Government officials say they have achieved the drop by adding police officers on the streets and security cameras and barriers along roads to deter thefts by people on motorbikes, as well as by studying policing methods in cities like New York.
But a series of high-profile crimes this year -- including some against government officials or their relatives -- have led the authorities to begin to acknowledge the depth of the problem. Since August, the police have arrested more than 11,000 people suspected of being gang members. And in a reversal of earlier changes meant to shed some of the country's authoritarian legacy, the government last month passed laws that would give the police the authority to detain suspects without trial.
As worries rise, the opposition says the government is manipulating the statistics. Critics note that, after years of providing the public with data on murders, rapes, thefts and other crimes, the government has changed the way it presents crime statistics, focusing on what it calls "index crimes" rather than giving a detailed accounting. Tony Pua, an opposition member of Parliament, said he had "no confidence at all" that the figures were accurate.
The Malaysian government has also stopped providing crime statistics to the United Nations, according to Enrico Bisogno, the official responsible for compiling crime data at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
But in response to a request from The New York Times, the Malaysian police provided detailed crime statistics that show the number of homicides over the past 12 years has remained relatively unchanged at about 600 a year. The data also show wide swings in some categories of crime, including a reduction in robberies using a firearm to 17 cases in 2012, from 722 cases nationwide in 2000. Another category, gang robbery, fell to 110 cases in 2012, from a high of 1,809 in 2010.
One crime that did show a steep rise was rape, with the number reported from 2000 to 2012 doubling to 2,964 cases.
Teh Yik Koon, a criminologist at the National Defense University of Malaysia, says it is widely accepted that crime rates are higher than reported, and she says one problem is a sense of hopelessness that the police can solve crimes.
"There are a lot of people not reporting crimes," she said, "because they feel there's nothing the police can do."
In a country that has long relied on foreign visitors -- investors and tourists -- for a good share of its economic growth, Malaysia's paternalistic government had consistently minimized the crime problem.
"If you try to make a fuss out of one or two cases, it will only worsen the situation and create a picture that the country is not safe," Hishammuddin Hussein, who was home minister at the time, said last year.
But in the months since Mr. Hishammuddin made those comments, the string of high-profile cases in Kuala Lumpur and other cities has brought crime to the top of the political agenda.
Close relatives of the deputy prime minister and the chief of police were burglarized in separate crimes last May. The former head of a local bank was killed in July, and a top executive of one of the country's most successful companies, AirAsia, was killed during a robbery in August.
When the house of Khairy Jamaluddin, a prominent politician and government minister, was burglarized in June, Malaysians got the straight talk from a government official many had been hoping for.
"The burglary is a reminder to all of us that crime is a serious problem in Malaysia," Mr. Khairy wrote on his Facebook page.
This month, the home minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, highlighted the government's new get-tough approach in a speech in which he said it would "no longer compromise" with criminals, according to the news Web site Malaysiakini.
And in comments that drew outrage from the opposition, he said the police should "get the evidence" and "shoot first."
Human rights groups say they are alarmed by a number of recent cases of criminal suspects who died in police custody.
Critics of the government's approach say that amid what they call an obfuscation of crime statistics and the sudden crackdown, any real discussion of the roots of Malaysia's crime problem is being lost.
They blame not only a police force that they view as corrupt and ineffectual, but also income inequality and the alienation of ethnic Indians who represent 7 percent of the country's population, yet, according to the police, make up two-thirds of gang members.
Some suggest the government needs to modify the country's seemingly inviolable preferential policies for Malays, who receive scholarships, cheaper housing and government contracts as part of a policy dating from the 1970s.
Ahmad Ghazali Abu Hassan, a professor at the National Defense University of Malaysia says the system of preferences for Malays "should be modified to address inequality within our society, without identifying race."
Particularly in need of help, he said, were ethnic Indians. "I still believe that poverty is the root cause of this," he said.
As the debates continue, Malaysians have begun trying to protect themselves.
Mr. Chong, the engineer who was burglarized twice, helped pay for a guard booth and two security guards for his neighborhood several years ago. Thieves stole the television inside the booth while the guards were on patrol.
"We told the police, 'This is serious. The thieves are everywhere,' " he said. " 'Something has to be done.' "
A restaurant across from Kuala Lumpur's domestic airport hired an armed security guard in May to deter would-be thieves after attacks on several restaurants in the area.
"A lot of people think it's a gimmick," said Terence Wong, the restaurant's manager. "It's too expensive to be a gimmick. And my customers say they feel more secure."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 20, 2013 2:01 PM