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Kelantan, A Hotbed for Drugs, Sexual Crimes And A Flurry Of Social Issues

Darul Naim, meaning “a state of delight,” is the honorific title for Kelantan, located on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Despite its name, Kelantan has been the centre of troubling headlines hinting at various social issues affecting its population of 1,792,501.

As a primarily rural and agrarian state with an economy based on rice, rubber, tobacco, fishing, and logging, Kelantan has a poverty rate of 12.4%, making it one of Malaysia’s poorest states according to the 2020 census. In 2023, Kelantan recorded a total of 67,772 poor and hardcore poor families, the highest number in Peninsular Malaysia[1].

Uniquely, Kelantan is one of the few states in Malaysia that incorporates Islamic values into its state governance, with 95% of its population being Malay Muslims. The strong adherence to Islamic values aims to curb hedonistic tendencies, including the prohibition of drug use[2], premarital sex, and entertainment with excessive music. 

Despite proposed stricter punishments under Hudud laws in 2015[3] by the ruling political party, these measures alone have not been sufficient to address the growing social issues.

Kelantan can be the perfect case study to dispel the notion that immoral activities can be curbed simply by controlling entertainment. We do not even have cinemas here. – Tan Ken Ten, Kelantan MCA deputy chief[4]

High Unemployment Plague Kelantan

Unemployment in Kelantan goes beyond financial strain. It affects self-esteem and well-being, especially among youth[5]

Kelantan faces a pronounced unemployment crisis, with statistics revealing a significant disparity compared to other regions. From 2017 to 2018, the unemployment rate in Kelantan escalated from 5.6% to 6.0%[6,7]. By 2023, this figure surpassed the national average, reaching 5.1%[8].

In 2019, data revealed that 250,000, approximately 15% of Kelantan’s 1.8 million population, migrated to more economically developed states like Selangor in search of greener pastures[9]. Generally, the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia offers better job opportunities, but the East Coast, including Kelantan, faces much bleaker prospects. 

Source: The Sun

Despite efforts to secure employment within Kelantan, many remain jobless due to selective job-seeking behaviours, with a significant portion of the workforce resorting to self-employment rather than formal employment, thereby exacerbating the unemployment rates[8]

However, for women, the narrative often diverges as many choose to forego employment to become full-time housewives. Early marriage is prevalent among women on the East Coast, primarily due to factors such as family poverty, limited access to education, and the enduring stigma surrounding unmarried older women (referred to as “anak dara tua”)[10]. Even those desiring employment encounter obstacles due to their marital status, leading many to join the informal workforce.

The Kelantan Social Security Organisation (Socso) has placed over 37,000 people in jobs since 2020 to combat unemployment.

We admit that our (Kelantan’s) physical development is slow. But it is on purpose to ensure the rakyat (people) can enjoy the development.  If we develop rapidly, adopt a more free approach, we can compete with states like Selangor, but the danger is, people might get left behind. -Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah  Kelantan Deputy Menteri Besar[11]

The ruling government has stated that development in Kelantan has been deliberately slowed down to ensure no one is left behind. However, the current cycle of unemployment leading to citizens being trapped in poverty, and the limited infrastructure are potentially the root causes of societal issues that continue to breed in Kelantan. Without a purpose and a stable income stream, the dwellers in Kelantan turned to quick fixes to solve their problems. 

The Drug Epidemic

The drug problem in Kelantan persists, with drug consumption rising each year. In 2016, there were 3,233 cases per 100,000 people, increasing to 3,700 cases in 2017. Drug-related crimes account for 70% of court cases in Kelantan[12]. Methamphetamine pills and the newly popular Yaba pills, a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine, are commonly abused.

Source: Malay Mail

Men in Kelantan tend to have higher drug usage rates than women, influenced by social and religious norms that grant men more freedom while women are often confined to domestic roles[13].

Men mix with a lot more people because they have more freedom; women have less freedom and are in the house more. – Excerpt from Emerging Drug Use Trends in Kelantan[13]

However, in recent times, the tide have turned with increasing drug use even among younger generations.

Previously, only high school students were found to be involved in drug use. However, starting in 2015, it began to spread to primary school students, and some were found to have started taking drugs as early as the age of nine. – Rohayu Ahmad, Director of the National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK) Kelantan[14]

In addition, drug trafficking have become a means to an end with children younger than 17 years old involved in syndicates. 

We believe drug trafficking syndicates target students as these groups can be easily coaxed into drugs as they find solace in drugs due to the status of their families. They are also attracted by the lavish lifestyle led by drug traffickers and they start drug peddling on a small scale. – Datuk Muhamad Zaki Harun, Kelantan Police chief [15]

Owing to the state’s geographic position next to Thailand as well as the state’s porous borders, substances such as heroin are easily smuggled through small fishing boats across the Gulf of Thailand. Some users even traverse the border to procure drugs at lower prices, selling them locally for profit. Obtaining drugs has been simplified with transactions facilitated via mobile phones[13]

All participants reported that it was very easy to obtain both pil kuda and heroin as long as they had money. They reported using mobile phones to contact drug-selling individuals by call or by text, and the drugs would be delivered within minutes. – Excerpt from Emerging Drug Use Trends in Kelantan[13]

In Kelantan, where religious laws prohibit alcohol and entertainment venues like karaoke, pool clubs, and cinemas are scarce, some individuals turn to drugs out of boredom, a desire to relax, and a need for distraction from their problems, showing little interest in other activities.

Source: The Star

Heroin gives a lot of pleasure. Three seconds in, and all your problems are solved.  – Excerpt from Emerging Drug Use Trends in Kelantan[13]

In Kelantan, efforts to tackle drug use and trafficking involve both government and non-government organisations. The Kelantan National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) plans to conduct urine screening tests on secondary school students to prevent their involvement in drugs. 

Kelantan also houses 15% of Malaysia’s methadone maintenance therapy (MMT) clinics to support drug abusers in recovery[13]. Furthermore, the police in the state have been actively uncovering drug trafficking syndicates through various operations.

Between The Sheets 

In 2024, Sik assemblyman Ahmad Tarmizi Sulaiman remarked that every state in the country needed to enforce its own Syariah laws to combat sexual crimes. However,  Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail dismissed his claim and laid the facts that Kelantan’s sexual crimes did not reflect the efficacy of ruling with Syariah laws[16]

Kelantan’s population is 98% Malay Muslim and has its own Syariah Criminal Code. Yet, it has the highest number of sexual crimes and it is on the upward trend. These numbers don’t lie. – Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, Home Minister[16]

The Kelantan government has played to its tune and applied a stricter interpretation of the Syariah law in the state. Recently it has introduced 24 new provisions in the Syariah Criminal Code, targeting offences like intercourse with corpses, witchcraft, false allegations, apostasy, distorting Islamic teachings, and sexual acts with non-humans. It is in addition to the strict regulations in dressing appropriately applied to all dwellers in Kelantan. 

Source: Sinar Daily

Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah… cases are going up whereas in Penang, it’s going down when you compare 2022 and 2023 stats. He (Ahmad) brought this issue up in Parliament after watching the police CID chief’s interview. – Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, Home Minister[16]

The Home Minister then pointed to the stronger link between poverty and sexual crimes, rather than the necessity for stricter legislation. 

Sexual offences cover a vast array of categories and most of them committing these crimes are from the B40 group, those in poor economic class. The crimes are being committed against their own family members, friends or relatives… that’s around 45 per cent. -Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, Home Minister[16]

Kelantan has also reported high number of HIV-positive cases at 11,000 from 2001 -2016 with 2,255 Kelantanese deaths due to AIDS within the 7-year period[17]. Some have attributed it to the promiscuity and the act of sodomy in the state, shifting from the trajectory of sharing needles when using drugs.

The landscape of HIV transmission in Kelantan has changed from infection through sharing needles to contagion sexually involving men or women. 80% of the new HIV infections are through sexual transmission. – Datuk Dr Zaini Hussin, Kelantan health director[18] 

In a state where early marriages are encouraged to curb premarital sex and Islamic ruling has ensured gender segregation earlier on, the rise of out-of-natural sexual acts has remained perplexing to many.

Forbidden Family Relationships

One sexual crime in Kelantan that has appeared boggling is the act of incest. Criminologist Shankar Durairaja reports an average of 15 incest cases monthly in Malaysia. In 2022, 127 incest cases were reported in just six months. A 2015 study in Kelantan found that incest was the second-highest sexual offence, accounting for 27.3% of cases at the One Stop Crisis Centre (OSCC)[18].

In response to the incest cases reported in the media,  Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, Deputy Menteri Besar has this to say[19]:

If the media does not report it, the issue will not exist. Perhaps the cases in other states had not been reported, making it look like a big issue in Kelantan. I notice that whenever it comes to an issue in Kelantan, netizens will sensationalise it despite other states also facing the same issue. They make it seem as if Kelantan must be perfect and without any issue.

Poverty, like other societal issues, is implicated in incest in the state. Lower-income families, facing tough living conditions, may inadvertently foster situations conducive to incest. Studies suggest higher rates of children sharing beds with siblings or parents due to overcrowded homes, potentially contributing to incestuous incidents. This circumstance may be a significant factor driving incestuous occurrences in Kelantan[18].

Source: Astro Awani

However, another factor behind this, is the availability of sexual material, despite the state’s best attempt to curb illicit behaviours through media censorship in the state.

An online adult video platform disclosed that Internet users in Kota Bharu spent an average of 12 minutes and 27 seconds viewing or searching for visual pornography daily. It is also suggested that incest is one of the prevalent themes in pornography. 

According to Kelantan Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia (Ikram)’s Women chief, Associate Professor Dr Dasmawati Mohamad, another main cause of incest is the use of drugs and in addressing the severity of incest cases in the state, Ikram organise seminar entitled ‘Haruan Makan Anak’ to raise awareness of incest within a household[21]

Each of us has to play a role to deal with this issue. As parents, their job is to educate children about aurat, safe touch and social etiquette. Train children to share information and not keep it secret, always listen to their complaints. Associate Professor Dr Dasmawati Mohamad, Kelantan Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia (Ikram)’s Women chief[21]

But of course, beyond religious intervention and tackling issues of poverty in Kelantan, criminologist Associate Professor Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat suggested that motivation behind sexual crimes especially against children comes from a sinister background, and is often personal[22]

Shedding Distress 

High unemployment, drug abuse, and sexual crimes paint a grim picture of Kelantan. Despite the well-intentioned integration of Islamic values to foster a moral society, deep-seated social issues persist in the state. 

Source: Malay Mail

After years of living in poverty and persistent ridicule of the water supply problems plaguing the community, the government has taken steps to liaise with the federal government, especially with the recent injection of funding to improve its dilapidated infrastructure.

Studies have shown that when a society is stuck in poverty there is bound to be social problems such as thievery, divorce, child abuse, incest, drug abuse and many other social and sexual eccentricities. Economic contentment has been found to reduce such perverseness. – Letter to Editor, Free Malaysia Today[23]

Even then, only time will tell if the state will live up to its honorific of being “a state of delight” for all its residents. 

Explore our sources:

  1. Abdullah, S.M. (2023). Kelantan highest state in Peninsular with poor and hardcore poor families – DPM. New Straits Times. Link 
  2. Kamarulzaman, A & Saifuddeen, S.M. (2010). Islam and harm reduction.  Int J Drug Policy. 2010 Mar;21(2):115-8. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2009.11.003. Link 
  3. Berita Harian. (2015). Hudud Kelantan dilulus sebulat suara. Link 
  4. Malaysiakini. (2017). PAS’ moral policing a failure, says Kelantan MCA. Link 
  5. ILMIA.(n.d.)Youth Unemployment. Link 
  6. Institute for Youth Research Malaysia. IYRES. (2017). Malaysia Youth Statistics: Data for 2017: Volume 5. Institute for Youth Research Malaysia (IYRES). Ministry of Youth and Sports.
  7. Department of Statistics Malaysia. DOSM. (2018). Graduate Statistics 2018, December 2019. Department of Statistics Malaysia. Retrieved February 4, 2020 from v1/index.php/ index.php?r=column/cthemeByCat&cat=476&bul_ id=cDJkZjM5b2hjdjJZMDlvNDlueU54Zz09&menu_id=Tm8zcnRjdVRNWWlpWjRlbmtlaDk1UT09
  8. Razali, H. (2023). High unemployment rate in Kelantan due to people being selective. New Straits Times. Link 
  9. Welsh, B. & Cheng, C. (2020). Malaysia’s youth on the unemployed frontline. Link 
  10. Zainab, I. and W.A. Wan Ibrahim (2017), ‘Age at first marriage of single mothers in East Coast, Malaysia’, Research on Humanities and Social Sciences 7, no. 24: 161–165.
  11. N. Fazlina Abdul Rahim. 70 peratus kes di mahkamah Kelantan babit jenayah narkotik [METROTV]. My Metro. Link.
  12. Ghazali, N.F. (2017). Kelantan’s slow pace of development is deliberate, says deputy MB. Malaysiakini. Link 
  13. Desrosiers, A., Chooi, W-T., Mohd Zaharim, N., Ahmad, I., Mohd Yasin, M.A., Syed Jaapar, S.Z., Schottenfeld, S.R., Vicknasingam, B. , Chawarski, C., (2016). Emerging Drug Use Trends in Kelantan, Malaysia, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, DOI:10.1080/02791072.2016.1185553
  14.  Mnh.C (2018). Murid sekolah rendah jadi sasaran terkini pengedar dadah di Kelantan.Mynewshub. Link.
  15. Malay Mail. (2023). Kelantan police chief: 30 students arrested for drug offences in state from January to October this year. Link 
  16. Chan, D. (2023). Saifuddin takes issue with Pas man’s statement, says Kelantan has high number of sexual crimes despite having syariah laws. New Straits Times. Link 
  17.  Muhamad, M. (2017). Dekat dengan Thailand antara faktor jangkitan HIV di Kelantan meningkat – Mohd Amar. Astro Awani. Link 
  18. Abdullah, S.M.(2023). 80 pct of new HIV patients in Kelantan infected through sexual activities. New Straits Times. Link 
  19. Astro Awani. (2023). [COLUMNIST] Exploring the root causes of incest. Link 
  20. Tan, Q. (2022). Kelantan’s Dept MB Blames Netizens & Media For Sensationalising Rape & Incest Cases. Juice Online. Link 
  21. Kamaruddin, H.L. (2023). Drugs, pornography main causes of incest in Kelantan. Sinar Daily. Link 
  22. Karim, K. (2023). Debunking common misconceptions: Poverty alone does not drive crime – Criminologist. Sinar Daily. Link 
  23. Free Malaysia Today. (2021). Under PAS rule, Kelantan needs to focus on bigger issues.Link

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