Malaysia’s most infamous criminal in the 80s: He was not ‘botak’ and his surname was not Chin

Praba Ganesan
·4-min read
Lim brings to light several facets about Botak Chin in the pseudo-biography ‘Wanted: Botak Chin’. — Picture courtesy of Matahari Books
Lim brings to light several facets about Botak Chin in the pseudo-biography ‘Wanted: Botak Chin’. — Picture courtesy of Matahari Books

KUALA LUMPUR, April 18 — Do you remember Botak Chin? The answer usually exposes a Malaysian’s age.

In the 1980s, it was a convenient name parents commandeered to warn children how bad decisions can lead to a life of crime and expectedly, misery.

Indeed, for the last quarter of the 20th century, the infamous armed robber captured the imagination of a nation.

It’s been 40 years since his execution, but a tale more myth than fact continues to colour the life and times of one Wong Swee Chin aka Botak Chin.

Though Generation X folks are aware of Botak Chin, little is really known about him and it is the mythical part of Wong which holds the public’s interest.

He’d fascinate younger Malaysians, not the least for his gumption for action in double quick time.

Almost 40 crimes perpetrated in effectively two years; his first a short spell in his teens and the second, from 1975-76, which cemented his place in contemporary folklore.

With the release of Wanted: Botak Chin, a pseudo-biography by Danny Lim — illustrated by Michelle Lee — a whole new generation of Malaysians can now join the discussion.

Filmmaker, publisher and purveyor of stranger Malaysia, Amir Muhammed is consultant and it is his Matahari Books which published the 40-page hardcover.

So, it surprises not that the book opens with the caution, “Most of what follows is... true.”

Because even after a read, more questions emerge.

Was he merely a criminal or a hero who led the weak to fight the powerful or just a young man lost in a cruel world? Thanks to the information gap around Botak Chin, he means different things to different audiences.

But Lim brings to light several facets about his subject matter, not the least about a naïve lad from Sentul who resorted to brazen crimes including against other gangs and criminals.

Botak Chin does not gradually graduate to serious crimes, he begins with firearms from the start, which was what sent him to prison the first time while still a teenager.

It is instructive to remember the time setting for his rise and fall in the 1970s.

A post-Emergency Malaysia was a testing time for race relations and the Chinese community’s introspection of their long-term prospects in the country.

Illustrations from ‘Wanted: Botak Chin’. — Screenshots courtesy of Matahari Books
Illustrations from ‘Wanted: Botak Chin’. — Screenshots courtesy of Matahari Books

The idea of a rampant gun-wielding ethnic Chinese evading police at every turn perpetrating gun violence troubles a city recuperating from the May 13 riots.

It may explain why information about Botak Chin’s reign, arrest and eventual execution are scarce. Police and government did not want to glorify his exploits or his apparent powers to trick law enforcement.

However, the lack of information did the opposite; it forced the public to nurture their own impression of the man. Most often romanticised his deeds and life.

Reading Wanted: Botak Chin draws eerie similarities with Australian legend, bushranger Ned Kelly. The impoverished immigrant Irishman bent on violence and murder, up against the Victorian Police in pre-independent Australia, has become a national icon.

Living a century apart, Kelly’s gang was shot down but he survived a bloody gunfight with the police — just like Botak Chin — only to be tried and hung in Melbourne in 1880. He was 35 years old. Botak Chin was 30 when the gallows in Pudu Jail ended his life in 1981.

Both men pursued criminal success while possessing deep empathy for their social class, but their crimes remain that, crimes. Misguided youthful energy ending at a noose.

Wanted: Botak Chin takes readers to the inside of Pudu Jail during the criminal’s stay and Death Row-wait, including a short stay at Hospital Bahagia in Tanjung Rambutan for a psychiatric evaluation.

The convict’s mental instability, exhibiting self-loathing and patriotism, does suggest his detachment from reality and battles with inner demons. At one point, he foils his own gang’s plan to perform a jailbreak.

The book is thin on his upbringing but centres primarily on his second stint of armed robbery, confrontations with police climaxed with a shootout and prison stay preceding his hanging.

Illustrator Lee does a great job in presenting Botak Chin as an unengaged person plagued with deep thoughts and strong convictions of his own perception of his world and the people in it. He appears removed and never smiles, revealing a troubled soul throughout.

A mall is being erected on the grounds of the now demolished Pudu Jail. Soon, crowds will be able to walk through the place that held the infamous criminal for five years till his death. But it won’t do justice to the tale of an amulet-wearing gun brandishing criminal.

Purchasing the hardcover Wanted: Botak Chin will.

It makes an excellent gift and as a coffee book certain to thrill Malaysian guests. Much of the facts, though, is lost in the mist of history. However, there’s enough material in it and the author’s juxtapositions for riveting conversations.

Wanted: Botak Chin is available directly from Matahari Books for RM35 (through Fixi or from Shopee.

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