The court confession of a British paedophile that he abused dozens of children in Malaysia during a span of eight years exposed the dark reality of child sexual exploitation in the predominantly Islamic South-East Asian country.
Richard Huckle, 30, confessed last week in London to sexually assaulting at least 23 boys and girls in Malaysia, aged between six months and 12 years old, during 2006-14.
“Huckle’s case jolted us out of our complacency on the problem of sexual exploitation of our children,” Aegile Fernandez, director of women, children and migrants rights advocacy group Tenaganita, told dpa.
“Many Malaysians still thought that only the children of our poorer neighbouring countries are vulnerable to exploitation, but the Huckle case proved them wrong,” she said.
Police admitted they were in the dark about the British police operations against Huckle, who was arrested at Gatwick Airport outside London immediately after he returned from Kuala Lumpur on December 2014.
Authorities seized Huckle’s computer, which contained more than 20,000 lewd images of victims, and his journal also revealed that he had abused 191 children in Malaysia, according to news reports.
Law Hong Soon, federal police director for the criminal investigation division, said police were unaware of Huckle's activities in Malaysia because he was not included in any blacklist.
“He entered the country with valid documents and came as a social worker,” he said, noting that no complaints were ever lodged against Huckle in Malaysia.
Other residents of a public housing area outside Kuala Lumpur where Huckle stayed did not find him suspicious, although some said they regard him as “weird.”
“He is always alone walking around the place with his camera and sometimes he talks to himself,” one resident who asked to be identified only as Krishnan told dpa.
Ecpat, an international non-governmental organization fighting sexual exploitation of children, noted the difficulty of detecting a sexual predator.
It said the boom in global travel and tourism has “multiplied the opportunities and venues available to travelling child sex offenders.”
“The explosion of the internet and mobile technology has afforded perpetrators anonymity and hidden pathways to groom children and seduce them via social media and internet games,” an Ecpat report released last month said.
It said sexual abuse of children in travel and tourism in South-East Asia remains prevalent, and “there exist strong indications that the magnitude is increasing.”
The Huckle case showed that children in Malaysia - one of the most-developed countries in the region - are not exempt from exploitation by foreign sexual predators, according to child rights and welfare advocate James Nayagam.
Nayagam, chairman of the Malaysia-based Suriana Welfare Society for Children, said Huckle was able to perpetrate his crime for a long time because he knew the “relaxed atmosphere in this country.”
Malaysian newspaper the Star said paedophiles like Huckle are emboldened to exploit children because the country “does not have sterling record in dealing with sexual crimes against minors.”
“We need to better protect our children, starting with treating sexual abuse of minors as a grave crime,” it said in an editorial on Sunday.
Nayagam urged legislators to pass tougher laws against sexual exploitation of children.
“Malaysia should make child pornography and child sexual abuse a severe crime with heavy penalties,” he said.
The Malaysian Association of Social Workers called on the government to establish measures for stricter screening of adults who work or volunteer to work in children's centres, noting that Huckle was able to pass himself off as one such volunteer.
“It is important that lessons are swiftly learnt from his heinous crimes so that as a society we protect our children better,” it said.
“We cannot fall into the trap of thinking this was just one depraved foreigner.”
Rohani Abdul Karim, Malaysian minister of women, family and community development, expressed hope that the establishment of a sex offenders’ registry within the year would boost prevent sexual abuse of children.
“I urge all levels of society including parents and guardians, together with ministry officials and all government agencies to work together to ensure the safety of children in Malaysia,” she said.