He doesn’t wear a cape. Doesn’t fly or leap from one building to another. Malaysia’s very own crime-busting superhero is as ordinary as they come but, hey, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Trust issues. Who is trustworthy, who is not? Everyone is trying to work through theirs, but safety activist Captain K. Balasupramaniam, a. k. a. Bala, says that having some could help save your life.
“I’ll tell you whom you can trust,” he says to the roomful of caffeine-buzzed ladies. “It’s the person in the mirror. Me, myself and I.”
Throughout his 18-year career, Bala, 36, has come across hundreds of girls and women who were raped, terrorised or abducted by someone they knew.
Case one: A little girl was abducted and her family had to negotiate the ransom over the phone. Unbeknownst to them, one of the perpetrators was their cousin. He was sitting among them, spying on their every move.
Case two: After discovering scratches on her car and receiving threats on her phone, a woman turned to Bala for help. After a week of investigation, he found out who the culprit was. Her husband.
But, wait, there’s more. As Bala flips through the projector slides of his case studies, a collective shudder shook the crowd. Very few of the women were used to the pitiful and macabre visuals of girls with their hands bound, girls in ditches, girls with skull fractures 10in deep.
“That’s Audrey Melissa. She was abducted, raped and strangled to death while on her way to school,” Bala says, pointing to the picture of a beaming 17-year-old. “And Canny Ong, who was abducted from a carpark, raped, stabbed, strangled and set on fire. That’s Shee Shean Fang. She was raped and buried alive. Her case was never reported.”
The amount of top-secret information he has gathered on criminal behaviour is astonishing. And Bala is now on a mission to spill the tactics and secrets of perpetrators. In short, Bala is a ladies’ man. Literally.
The invites to his urban survival training programme reads: “You Don’t Have To Be Buff To Be Tough” and “Strictly For Women”. More than 100,000 females have already sat in on one of his talks, and some more than once. But the statistics remain grim: there are millions more who haven’t.
Beating the odds
After commanding the attention of the room, Bala waves a bright-yellow door stopper for all to see. A shrill sound rang throughout the room as he pressed down on it, prompting several women to cover their ears with their hands.
“In addition to pepper sprays, this is one of the gadgets that you can use to deter your attackers,” he says.
“Don’t think that criminals only target homes; they’re known to break into the rooms of five-star hotels as well. This is one of several misconceptions. The other is that they bring their own weapons. Well, sorry to disappoint you, but many don’t. They use what is available, be it a lanyard, a necklace, a tudung, a cardigan, a bra, a knife in your kitchen. That’s why I keep those in padlocked drawers at home.
“If you also think that they only target pretty women, you’re wrong. They don’t care who you are. You can be an 80-year-old grandmother, a six-year-old pre-schooler or a girl with Down syndrome. Canny Ong had a black belt in karate. They don’t care.”
Women, he says, can suss out danger levels by determining which zones they’re in. Green zone means you’re safe, yellow denotes a potential risk and red means highly risky — “get the hell out as quickly as possible”.
“Let’s say you’re in the office at 4pm and it’s full of people — that’s the green zone. But 6pm comes, and one by one your colleagues start to leave. But you can’t because you’ve got a deadline to work on — that’s the yellow zone. And then, before you know it, it’s 8pm, and you’re all alone, and you notice that one of the janitors can’t keep his eyes off you — that’s the red zone,” says Bala.
While crime can happen at any time, Bala claims the likelihood of perpetrators striking increases dramatically from 5pm to 9pm. They also favour rainy days, because the sound of a storm can easily conceal the grinding of saw on metal or the shattering of glass.
“Anything can happen to you,” he says. “But you should and could survive. That’s my life philosophy.”
Bala is where he is today because of what happened in 1994. He found himself lying on a road, unable to move and barely able to breathe. He had been in a motorcycle accident and passers-by thought he was dead.
“They had already brought out the body bag,” he recalls. “They were prepared to zip me up, but I managed to whisper: ‘Help me.’ Thankfully, somebody saw. He jumped and yelled: ‘He’s still alive’!”
“God gave me a second chance,” he was once quoted in an interview. “I am a free thinker, but I believe in His existence. I believe that some things are meant to happen. It is these unexpected little twists in life that give me a purpose.”
Today, wearing his signature all-black ensemble comprising of a utility jacket, T-shirt, cargo pants and rubber boots, Bala looks ordinary enough. If not for his high-tech safety gadgets, which he lugs in a black, shockproof case, he would have attracted scant attention.
However, Bala has organised and participated in wide-scale rescue missions in places like Bam, Iran, Banda Acheh, Indonesia and Sichuan, China.
He has amassed awards such as Young Humanitarian 2005, Outstanding Young Malaysian 2004 and Anugerah Belia Negara 1999.
Man in black
Like all public figures, Bala is not without controversies. In 2007, he caused an uproar when he commented in a newspaper that the parents of murdered eight-year-old Nurul Jazlin should be held responsible.
He speaks candidly about it: “In my mind, they were also criminals. Why else would you let your little girl go to a pasar malam unchaperoned at 8pm at night? Child abductions weren’t new, even then. We’ve seen it happen to 10-year-old Ang May Hong. She went out to the market by herself at 10am to get breakfast and never made it home.”
Bala’s forthright nature did not dissuade many from joining him in his campaign, however. There are currently 56 volunteers in the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Association (MVFRA), a group he founded. There are also a handful of other Good Samaritans who are actively involved in the Community Care Network (CCN), which, he established in order to assist women in trouble.
One of them is Michael Chong, 41, who left his job as a safety trainer in the construction industry in 2003 to become Bala’s right-hand man in CCN.
“Joining Bala has been the best decision I’ve made in life. We help rape and abuse victims, provide them with information, teach them self-defence . . . you should see their faces when we’re done. I get the type of satisfaction that money cannot buy,” says Chong.
Which brings us to Malaysia’s other perennial problem: the mistreatment of maids. The CCN has not just assisted troubled wives and mothers, but also the powerless and the destitute.
“Do you remember looking at a picture of a maid who was trying to escape from her employer’s apartment unit on the 18th floor?” Chong asks.
“She had fashioned a rope by tying some clothes together. But two floors down, she realised that it wasn’t enough to support her weight. The blurred figure standing behind her was Bala, who was trying to rescue her from the windowsill.
Several days later, people started burning rubbish outside of the Malaysian Embassy in Indonesia to protest. The embassy, in a desperate attempt to quell their anger, hung a gigantic poster of Bala on their walls.”
But Bala’s achievements aren’t always trumpeted. He was extremely discreet when working on what he calls his “most successful case to date”.
“I met this aunty who works outside a public toilet collecting entry money. She looked so sad. When I asked her why, she told me she it was her last day at work because she has to look after her 12-year-old daughter who had been raped and was now several months pregnant. The family did not know whom to turn to.
“So I went to see the girl myself to talk to her. She looked so innocent it broke my heart. I vowed to track down the rapist myself, and I did, without any help from the police. He told her that if she ratted on him to anyone, he’d kill her baby.”
The perpetrator is now in jail. The girl and her baby are in safe hands. But Bala is far from being complacent.
“Like the Farah Deeba case,” he points out. “Syed Mohamad Faizal, the 17-year-old boy who raped and murdered her, has been released after a short sentence, although all the evidence points to him (the police found her blood-stained clothes in his closet). He’s now working at a fast food restaurant, free as a bird until he strikes again. This is how it usually goes. Eight out of 10 times, rapists are released back into society to live and work among us.”
But it’s not just empathy that drives Bala. He has a deep-rooted respect for women, particularly his mother.
“We Chetty people from Malacca always say that if you make your mum cry, you’ll never be successful in life,” he explains.
“Still, I see girls who take their mother’s sacrifices for granted or run away with some good-for-nothing boy. And to these girls I say: what kind of a daughter are you? As for the boys, I’ve seen some as young as 17 or 18 buying micro-sized cameras to stick in their rooms, so they can blackmail their girlfriends later. Syed Mohamad Faizal was supposed to be Farah’s friend, but see what he did to her.”
“I’m not a hero,” Bala insists.
“People tend to forget who the real heroes are. They are the mothers who drop their kids right in front of the school gates, the stranger who jumps in to help if he sees somebody snatching a lady’s bag, the husband who protects his family from parang-wielding burglars with his life. I only arrive after disasters happen. I’m just doing what any responsible citizen would do if God were to put him in that place and that time.”
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