Visitors to Malaysia who behave in a relatively sensible manner should not face any major safety concerns. Those people who do experience problems normally have made themselves targets through their own conduct, such as excessive drinking or loutish behaviour. That said, there are the same opportunistic thieves, scam artists and petty villains that can be found all over the continent.
In general Malaysian cities are pretty safe, especially around the tourist areas. Gun and firearm ownership is tightly controlled, although there have been reports of armed robberies in Kuala Lumpur and also more remote areas. But as public drunkenness is prohibited there is very little petty vandalism and associated crime. The telephone number for emergency services is 999.
Foreigners in Malaysia should remember that they are required to carry their passport on them all the time with immigration officials carrying spot checks regularly. But tourists who do not want keep this essential document on their person should carry a photocopy of the details page and tell any interested party that the original has been kept by your hotel as a deposit.
Below is some advice for safety risks in Malaysia. This is not intended to scare or put off potential travellers to Malaysia which is extremely safe when compared with the rest of Southeast Asia.
Malaysia safety risks
Buses: safety can be a problem for bus passengers in Malaysia within the big cities. Overworked drivers can hurtle around corners at a fair old rate and pedestrians not aware of their intended course can find themselves getting seriously hurt. People boarding or disembarking from the raised platform can fall over and injury themselves, whilst sudden breaking for standing passengers can be hazardous if visitors have heavy bags or are not holding on properly.
Construction: development may have slowed somewhat with the global economic downturn but there is still plenty of construction work all over Malaysia. Safety standards can be a little sketchy so be extra careful when passing under scaffolding or where you see overhanging or precarious loads. While workmen will not go out of their way to injury passing tourists, every country has a few careless souls and safety training may not be up to Western standards.
Credit card fraud: this has only been slightly tempered with the rollout of chip cards and modern anti-fraud technology. As prevalent in Malaysia as the entire Asian continent, credit card fraud is one of the most prominent dangers posed to tourists in Malaysia. Keep a close eye on receipts, cover your pin from prying eyes and use cash whenever possible. If buying meals or goods from your hotel, charge everything to your room so that you only have one single transaction registered on your card upon check-out.
Drugs: seeking out or consuming illicit substances in Malaysia is extremely unwise. There are extremely severe penalties even amounting to execution for the most serious offences such as trafficking. Backpackers may occasionally smell the odd joint in bohemian guesthouses but be wary of anyone offering drugs, as they could be working with police to scam tourists out of savings. Also avoid smoking cannabis anywhere public like the beach as it is easy to get caught.
Motorcycles: motorbikes are one of the biggest causes of death or serious injury in Malaysia and should be treated with extreme caution. There can be particularly hazardous to pedestrians attempting to cross the street as sudden u-turns or other strange manoeuvres are commonplace. Expect the unexpected and remember that standards of instruction may not be of the highest standards so treat motorcyclists with added care. If renting a bike remember to always wear your helmet and never attempt to drive after drinking alcohol.
Street Crime: Western visitors should be aware that Malaysia is a nation with a huge disparity between the wealthiest and poorest elements, and wherever this is the case a criminal element has always flourished. It is important to avoid attracting undue attention by wearing flashy watches or jewellery and to keep your eyes on your belongings at all times. Keep a small quantity of small notes within easy reach for petty expenses rather than bringing out a bulging wallet for every trifle. And be careful after having a few drinks as muggers prey on wasted tourists, and snatch thieves whip handbags from passing motorcycles.
Scams: these tend to take place in the larger cities or tourist areas and normally the victims have been attempting to procure something illicit such as prostitutes or drugs. A criminal fraternity heavily control both of these contrabands which would not think twice about ripping off wealthy foreigners in the safe knowledge that they could not go to the police. Other scams include ‘discounted’ jewellery which is really fake or tourists being invited to a local’s house under some pretence, getting roped into a game of cards and then horrendously fleeced. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it undoubtedly is. And if some tells you that your hotel is closed, full or burnt to the ground make sure you check for yourself.
Taxis: are usually safe to use in Malaysia but in the big cities it can be a struggle to get drivers to use their meter. This illegal practice is widespread but should not be tolerated so try to get another. At the very least make sure you arrange a price beforehand. Wherever possible try to have the correct change as large notes can be subtly swapped for fakes when you attempt to pay. And women travellers should never sit up front with the driver as this can sometimes be misinterpreted as some kind of advance.
Women alone: women travelling through Malaysia are extremely safe as long as they take care to respect local customs. Wearing skimpy clothes such as bikinis or short skirts outside of beach ares and vulgar or drunken behaviour can attract unwanted male attention. Care should be taken when wearing high heels or platform shoes on the uneven pavements and watch out for the occasional Peeping Tom in the ladies washroom.