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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 September 2005, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Meeting Malaysia's notorious triads

Ah Hing
Ah Hing says he makes deals with politicians and policemen
As part of the BBC's Who Runs Your World? series, Jonathan Kent in Kuala Lumpur looks at how Malaysia's notorious triad gangs are run.

In my attempt to find out more the triads, I made the ground rules clear from the start.

I didn't want specifics, I didn't want details and I certainly didn't want names. I just wanted to know how the gangs worked.

I have no idea what Ah Hing's real name is, but I do know that he is being groomed to take over as tai ko - big brother (a term triad members use for their bosses) - in a gang that operates in a small town in northern Malaysia.

We had chosen a room in an old shop house in which to meet. Ah Hing looked like many working class Malaysian Chinese, with heavy jewellery, cheap shoes and spiky hair. His minder collected tattoos.

"We do sell some ecstasy pills and that is how we make a living, me and my friends," he said.

"We do take girls for prostitution, and this is much easier to do than ecstasy because usually the government will not bother us when we do this."

I admit that I am a bad guy, and that I'm a gangster
Ah Hing
The triads and Malaysia's other criminal gangs dabble in any number of rackets. Some even smuggle opiated cough syrup.

Dealing drugs in Malaysia carries the death penalty. Hangmen got a pay rise earlier this year - it is an issue the government takes seriously.

Prostitution is easier to get away with, and so is loan sharking or making and peddling fake goods. Malaysia is thought to be the world's largest producer of pirated optical discs.

But Ah Hing runs girls and sells pills. The women cost the gangs between $750 and $2000 each. They are bought and sold like cattle, and the pimps want a return.

"The girls know they have to work to pay back the money we paid to buy them," Ah Hing said.

"We do find girls who refuse to work, and we will keep them in solitary confinement and give them a bad time until they tell me they want to work," he said.

Ancient rituals

The triads have their roots in a 17th Century movement dedicated to restoring China's Ming dynasty to the throne, but over time they degenerated into criminal gangs.

We have some cases where [those owing debts] have been assaulted
Michael Chong, Malaysian Chinese Association
In some places they still have rituals, as Jessica Lau, a well-connected member of the Malaysian Chinese community, found out.

When Ms Lau lived in New Zealand, her neighbour was a Hong Kong triad boss who decided to retire.

"During his very last days as the leader of the triad society, he gathered everybody from his society and in front of leaders from other societies he washed his hands in a gold basin which symbolised that from today onwards he is not going to be involved in the triad society any more, and now he is old and respectable and a free man," she said.

But Malaysia's triads are rather more prosaic than those in Hong Kong. The element of ceremony has gone, and these groups are run as businesses.

Ah Hing referred to his as "our company". It's a pragmatic affair, where deals are reached with the authorities - who set boundaries for crimes they know can never be eliminated.

"If I want to operate on a particular street and ask a politician to ask the authorities not to disturb me, the politician might say: 'It's impossible to have zero arrests, so you can operate on certain hours and we will patrol after those hours' - so it's a win-win situation," Ah Hing said.

If someone crosses him, however, it's most certainly not win-win.

"If someone betrays me personally... I will get a few gang members together and beat him up until he's paralysed or he's a vegetable, but if the matter is really big then they'll be brought before my tai ko for a trial," he said.

"If my tai ko asks us to deal with someone, even if we kill that person, we won't be worried, because if the police arrest us, my tai ko will get me out," he added.

"Last time I was taken in the front door of the [police] lock-up, and right away I walk out of the back door."

Part of society

Most Malaysians have little or nothing to do with the triads. But many poorer people have nowhere else to turn when they need to borrow money.

All too often, Michael Chong, head of public services for the political party the Malaysian Chinese Association, sees what happens when borrowers default on their payments.

"We do have cases where they run away, you know, with the family... and of course we have some cases where they have been assaulted - assaulted in the sense they have to be hospitalised," Mr Chong said.

Ah Hing makes no bones about his world and his life. "I admit that I am a bad guy, and that I'm a gangster," he said.

"So who runs your world?" I asked - to which he gave a simple reply : "The government".

"If the government doesn't want to be a bit lenient with us and if they are strict about everything, then there's no way that I can make a living. There's no work," Ah Hing said.

When the economic downturn of 1998 hit Asia, many Malaysians turned to the triads for work.

It allowed thousand to fill their rice bowls.

That in itself is reason enough for some in power to turn a blind eye to what these gangs do - that and the knowledge that the triads are there to make a living, not to cause trouble.

They may be bad men, but they're also businessmen.

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