Are pickpockets targeting tourists at Johor's night markets?

Of the most talked about cases is the one involving a Singaporean tourist who lost S$3,000 to thieves there in July.

A composite image of a pickpocketing incident and a Johor night market.
The Night Market, or Pasar Malam, is a destination that many go to for cheap goods and food. It is also a place that is targeted by pickpockets. (Photo: Getty Images)

by Min Hani

The Century Garden Night Market near KSL City Mall in Johor Bahru is a popular destination for both locals and tourists. There's a lively atmosphere, colourful stalls, lots of food and a positively buzzing vibe.

News reports, however, suggest that tourists are not the only ones flocking to the Monday-night pasar malam. It has also allegedely become a favourite haunt of pickpockets.

Of the most talked about cases is the one involving a Singaporean tourist who lost S$3,000 (RM10,281) to thieves there in July. However, hawkers at the night market reportedly claim that there have been many more incidents, specifically targeting foreign tourists.

This has also resulted in a petty traders association saying it is collaborating with authorities to monitor the situation and patrol the market.

But is crime really on the up in Century Garden and surrounding areas of Johor Bahru? And should tourists be wary?

Anita Perreira, a Singaporean who frequently travels across the Causeway from her home on the island, admits the recent cases have made her anxious.

"I visit Johor a lot because I've a lot of family there, and I also enjoy the food. But I'm increasingly worried about becoming a victim (of crime)," she said.

Perreira's concerns, however, are not shared by those living around Century Garden. In fact, one resident suggests that it is not so much that crime has increased, rather, it is that tourists often make themselves easy marks.

"You can easily spot a tourist based on how they talk and act. This makes it easier for pickpockets to target them," said Aminah Ramlan.

Isolated incidents

To be clear, Johor Bahru has made the news before for being unsafe. It was even condemned as being among the world's most dangerous cities.

However, those claims have been proven false. And more importantly, recent statistics reveal a significant drop in crime in Malaysia's southern state.

Thus, the incidents at the pasar malam may not be reflective of the situation city- and state-wide.

Police in Johor say that that is, in fact, the case and add that thefts, including pickpocketing, are under control.

"Cases like (the pickpocket incidents at Century Garden) happen now and then, but we wouldn't say they have been increasing," said an officer from the state's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) who declined to be named.

"Sure, there are some profiling similarities (in regard to the victims). But (these crimes) are all about opportunity. Furthermore, it isn't easy for criminals to identify a target's nationality unless it's apparent. What does happen is that (pickpockets) often go for any easy target — usually, people who are distracted."

Vigilance pays

Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat, a criminologist from Universiti Sains Malaysia, concurs with the view that while several tourists may have fallen victim to pickpockets in Johor, it does not follow that criminals are inclined to target foreigners over locals.

Rather, she said research reveals that three main factors contribute to pickpocketing, specifically opportunity, a lack of capable guardians and suitable or attractive targets.

Additionally, a perpetrator might consider how easy it is for them to get away with the crime.

"This also means wearing jewellery or looking affluent doesn't make you likely to become a victim. It's more about how some people portray themselves.

"Are they spacey or look distracted? Are they alert about their surroundings like when shopping in crowded places during a sale or walking about in areas that provide easy access to pickpockets?" she said.

Importantly, too, Dr Geshina notes that it can be challenging to identify a person's nationality based on appearance alone.

"Also, many locals have fallen victim to pickpocketing. Some lodged reports, and some didn't. So (the Century Garden cases) might have been (blown out of proportion) due to victims feeling aggrieved. Like 'how dare the pickpockets target me'?"

As such, rather than concentrate on who is apparently being targeted, the criminologist says that everyone, both locals and tourists, should remember that criminals thrive on taking advantage of situations.

In short, it pays to take necessary precautions when visiting certain places, whether in Johor Bahru or elsewhere, keep your wits about you, and always stay vigilant.

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