WE were at the crowded lobby of a four-star hotel in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. That’s where the child sex predator decided to make his big move.
The man, in his late 30s, had spent most of the past hour at a cafe across the street patiently trying to convince Natalie, his 15-year-old “friend” he met on WeChat, to accompany him to his hotel room, where they could really get to know each other. She needed to “learn to trust”, he kept repeating.
Natalie, however, was reluctant, and afraid. They had only started messaging each other a week ago, and she had heard many “stranger danger” stories.
But the man knew what he was doing. He was a “groomer”, a sex predator who trawls mobile chat apps for victims, slowly gaining their trust before manipulating them to fulfill his twisted, perverted fantasies.
Throughout the conversation, he remained kind, yet persistent, until Natalie finally caved, agreeing to walk with him to the hotel lobby, nothing more.
When they got there, he made his big play. He made it clear he wanted to have sex, along with an altogether more horrifying confession.
“You’re not the only young girl I know. There are many,” he said.
“Do all of them do this with you?” she asked.
“I’ve done it with girls from Form One to Form Six! The one that is in Form One (aged 13) is from a school in KL. There’s another one in Selangor, but she’s in Form Four now.”
(Details have been generalised to protect the identity of the minors involved).
What the man didn’t know was that R.AGE journalists were stationed all around the hotel, listening to his every word, filming his every move.
And Natalie was actually a 26-year-old R.AGE undercover journalist, disguised to look like a schoolgirl.
Our journalist was walking a tightrope. She had to find out as much about the man as possible – particularly if he has committed other crimes against children – without spooking him off. She had to keep his attention, without ever saying anything remotely suggestive.
But she had heard enough. She told the man she didn’t think it was a good idea, and she had to leave soon.
“But all we need is 30 minutes,” was his desperate reply. So much for getting to know each other better.
For the R.AGE team, it was just one of several similarly chilling encounters we’ve filmed undercover and compiled evidence on over six months, all initiated on mobile chat apps.
We’ve kept all the obscene photos they’ve sent, and all their chat messages propositioning underage girls for sex.
But what’s even more horrifying is that according to Malaysian law, these men have hardly done anything wrong. Malaysia still has no laws against sexual grooming.
So until and unless these predators sexually or physically abuse their prey, there’s very little the police in Malaysia can do. These men can continue to exploit – and even extort – young children.
The police’s D11 unit, which handles sexual crimes and crimes against children, has been working tirelessly to find ways to put these men behind bars.
“Technology moves so fast these days, so we really need to empower our law enforcement agencies,” said Asst Comm Ong Chin Lan, assistant principal director of D11.
“We have already drafted (grooming laws) and submitted them to our bosses to forward to the Attorney General’s chambers for review. But to propose a law, and to pass it, takes a long time.”
The case of British paedophile Richard Huckle, who is believed to have abused up to 200 children in Kuala Lumpur, has recently created an uproar; but Ong knows all too well that there are countless other sex predators who have been operating unchecked in Malaysia, especially since the rise of mobile chat apps.
“There are many stages in trapping a child,” said Melissa Mohd Akhir, senior advocacy officer of the Penang-based Women’s Centre for Change (WCC).
“Grooming is the preparation for the bigger crime. If you don’t address the issue from the outset, then it may already be too late.”
‘Shooting fish in a barrel’
Mobile chat apps (WeChat, BeeTalk, Facebook Messenger, etc.) seem to have become the most popular tools for sex predators in Malaysia.
Statistics we secured from Bukit Aman showed that over the past two years, 80% of reported rape cases involving sex predators were initiated online.
And it’s not just a few bad apples out there trawling these apps. Our undercover journalists activated the “people nearby” functions on these apps regularly in different parts of the Klang Valley, and without fail, we would always get a few predators trying to groom us.
The first time we tried the apps, one journalist said it was “like shooting fish in a barrel”.
Within a day, she received over 20 obscene messages and photos, even though she made it clear she was 15 – and that’s excluding the more innocuous grooming messages.
Some were even bold enough to use their real names, and we were easily able to profile them through some research. An officer at D11 once told us: “Maybe they’re so confident they can get away with it, they don’t even bother with fake profiles!”
But invariably, their modus operandi would involve grooming – not many ask about sex straight off the bat. They usually start out exactly like the man at the hotel – perfect gentlemen, only interested in being friends. They are kind, caring and always available, the kind of friend they know many teenagers crave. Just like Huckle.
The R.AGE team confronted one of these men, a 28-year-old self-confessed sex addict from one of the country’s top public universities, and he revealed how men like him operate.
“It’s a numbers game,” said the Masters student. “On WeChat, you can search for people nearby, and filter them based on gender. After I filter out all the men, I just send messages to as many girls as possible.”
And then things escalate. Their remarks to these girls become increasingly sexual, but are carefully worded to avoid scaring the victims.
One of the most common phrases is “do you touch yourself?”
Another man, a who works in the media industry, never once said anything inappropriate and our journalist almost decided to stop talking to him. Perhaps he was simply interested in befriending teenagers, nothing more.
But suddenly, his tone changed when he asked if she wanted to meet up. She said she was having tuition and could only meet at night. He replied that he was already near the tuition centre. It was 3pm, and he insisted she meet him right away.
We were able to search for info on him quite easily. We knew which organisation he used to work for, we knew he was married, and we could tell by the beautiful baby on his Facebook cover photo that he was a father.
He demanded the young girl skip tuition to have sex with him. The grooming was over; his urges were getting the better of him. The best he could muster was “If you’re not comfortable, we don’t need to have sex. I can just give you a massage. We can do some other ‘light’ stuff.”
Criminologist Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat said young victims often fall for this kind of grooming simply out of curiosity.
“They think, what is this taboo all about? What is sexual intimacy and why can’t we know about it until we’re older?
“Then they get baited. They get reeled in. Their resistance to wrongful sexual behaviour reduces, until they’re hooked.”
Rape victim Lina (not her real name), 15, was one such child, groomed into sexual relationships she wasn’t ready for by men on Facebook.
By the time she was 14, she had already sent nude photos to more than 20 men (as far as she can recall), and she told us she had sex with one of them around the same time.
It started when she befriended an American man on Facebook, whom she eventually came to see as her boyfriend.
He was always emotionally available, but that didn’t stop him from emotionally exploiting her, barely 14 at the time, for nude photos.
“I started to think that if I didn’t send him the photos, he would stop being friends with me,” she said.
Laws that deal specifically with sexual grooming have already been passed in Singapore, Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States, criminalising intent to sexually exploit a child even when no physical abuse has taken place.
In some of these countries, the victim doesn’t even need to be underage. As long as their communications show that the perpetrator believed the victim was underage, the perp could be charged – even if contact was initiated overseas via a chat app.
Family law practitioner Honey Tan said Malaysia has no specific laws on grooming or sexual exploitation, and that the government is “focused on dealing with other issues”.
Unless someone can show that this is an emerging issue, and there is a push from the population, the government’s not going to move on it.”
The Malaysian Penal Code actually does have a section that addresses child grooming, section 377E – inciting a child (defined as under 14) to an act of gross indecency.
But as Tan explained, more “nuanced” legislation is needed to deal with the complexities of online child sexual exploitation. Section 377E is literally just four lines long, and as Tan points out, there are children aged 15-18 who could be exploited as well.
“Even if you’re trying under section 377E, you’ll face a lot of evidentiary problems. Unless you have a constant video link, how can you tell if the person messaging the victim on the other end is the accused?” she said.
Some predators we chatted with, for example, were only interested in getting underage boys or girls to send them nude photos or videos; they weren’t interested in meeting in person.
For all we know, they could have been soliciting these photos or videos using a stolen online identity.
“So besides the big problem of having no substantive crime being committed (since grooming is not illegal), there are also procedural and evidentiary problems.”
Shockingly, the conviction rate for sexual crimes involving children in Malaysia was below five percent as recently as 2013, according to a Malaysian Parliament report.
We need an entire act dedicated to the issue, said Tan, but that would only be half the equation.
“The focus should only be maybe 40% on legislation, which sets a standard to say these acts are unacceptable and punishable.
“But the other 60% is changing people’s perceptions, and that’s far more difficult. That could take eons,” she said.
Let’s talk about sex
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ong, talking about their official child sexual crimes statistics.
This is despite D11 having recorded a staggering 300% increase in Internet-initiated rape cases between 2010 and 2015. The manager of the shelter where rape victim Lina is living in told R.AGE that almost all the cases they handle now are related to social media.
And with just a five percent conviction rate, it’s no surprise victims in Malaysia are choosing not to report the crimes.
But that leaves victims open to “revictimisation”, and it emboldens the perpetrators, said Melissa.
She said WCC has come across repeat offenders who seem to think that because no action was taken, they will get away with it again.
There is evidence that 80% of children who were victims of sexual predators at a young age, without proper intervention, will perpetrate the same crime when they grow older, said Dr Geshina.
“As for the victims, if they find they’re being victimised for the second time or third time, they won’t report. Revictimisation is a strong reason not to report,” said Melissa.
“So we have to change the message. It’s worth it to make a report – you have the right to justice, you’re not alone when you’re trying to get justice, and we should put a stop to it so it doesn’t happen to someone else.”
Perhaps the toughest pill to swallow is when child victims are prevented from reporting sex crimes by their families, just to save face.
Dr Geshina said many families are reluctant to go to court because they’re worried it would be a long, potentially embarrassing process. They worry the child would be stigmatised. Some even think it’s the child’s fault.
And yet, it is the family that plays the biggest role in making sure cyber sexual crimes against children don’t happen in the first place.
Malaysian parents are still reluctant to talk to their children about sex, so the children end up turning to other “irresponsible” sources to satisfy their curiosity, she said. Sources like that man in the hotel, who promised to show Natalie how to have sex for the first time.
All our team could do that night was get our journalist safely out of the hotel, and pass all the evidence to the police.
It could take months to build a case against him, and even then, there’s no guarantee there will be a conviction.
But right now, he’s still out there. Just like the nearly 70 other men we uncovered.