Motivations of an arsonist
Akhbar Satar 

Arson is the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property. Since arson involves the use of fire, it can lead to loss of life, serious injuries and substantial financial and personal hardship. It is a serious crime and the punishment is severe.

Last month, the nation was rocked by the tragedy of the fire at Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz School in Kampung Datuk Keramat, Kuala Lumpur. The fire which killed 23 pupils and two school wardens has been described as the country’s worst fire disaster in 20 years.

According to statistics from the Fire and Rescue Department, a staggering 211 fires at tahfiz schools have been recorded nationwide since 2015. The first three months of this year alone saw 30 reported cases with losses totalling RM1.4 mil. Local media reported there were more than 500 registered tahfiz schools nationwide but many more were believed to be unregistered.

However, this case was being investigated under Sections 302 (for murder) and 435 (mischief by fire) under the Penal Code. Section 302 carries the mandatory death penalty, while Section 435 carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years and a fine. 

Saleh Buang, a lawyer, stated that what was not mentioned is that if these suspects are charged under Section 436 (mischief by fire to destroy a building used for education), the penalty upon conviction is higher – up to 20 years’ jail and a fine.


Lack of safety measures

Seven students will be tried in accordance with laws such as Section 97 (1) of the Child Act 2001. However, even if the suspects are found guilty of murder, the mandatory death penalty under section 302 of the Penal Code cannot be imposed on those below 18 years of age.

The offenders may also be punished under Section 91 (1) of the Act, the penalty under which includes imprisonment, light caning and/or being sent to an approved school. In such a situation the offenders will be detained at the pleasure of the King.

Many blamed the school itself for lack of safety and security measures, and the authorities (including the local government, fire department, Federal Territory Islamic Religious Council and  Federal Territories Ministry) for not enforcing the rules and regulations for improper construction or wrongful use of premises.

Criminologists have identified the following motivations for setting a fire:

▶ Crime concealment: the fire is used to cover crime and destroy evidence such as records or documents.

▶ Economic gain: Fire is set for profit motivated or monetary gain. The arsonist may set fire to escape financial obligations, increase property value, commit insurance fraud, or to intimidate or eliminate business competition.

▶ Extremist: This type of fire setting is used for political, social, or religious reasons. The extremist arsonist takes time to select the target and is very organised. The use of elaborate incendiary or ignition devices is not uncommon. Extremism is broken down into two categories: terrorism or militant, and riot or civil disturbance.

▶ Delinquent fire-setter: This type of delinquent are youths under 17 years of age. Mostly suffering from aggression, mental disorders and with little empathy, they vandalise and set fire to abandoned or stolen vehicles.

▶ Excitement: Such arsonists set fire for thrill-seeking to draw attention to themselves and rarely intend to harm anyone. There may also be sexual gratification in fire-setting. The pyrophilia derives sexual arousal from fire or fire-starting activity.

▶ Vandalism: This is due to boredom, giving rise to mischievous or malicious acts of fire setting that cause damage to property.

▶ Revenge: This is the most common motivation for setting a fire. The fire is set in retaliation, often by someone who is angry with certain persons or perceived injustice. The types of revenge-motivated arson include causes such as personal retaliation, intimidation, social retaliation or institutional retaliation. Most offenders have previous police records, use drug and alcohol.

To further categorise, pathological fire-setting involves persons who have a psychiatric or other medical disorder whereas arson for financial gain is profit motivated.

As for young fire-setters, it is a social problem caused by socio-environmental factors. Very likely such perpetrators come from broken families and have poor upbringing, and suffer abuse or neglect by parents. In addition, there is lack of positive input in their lives (including rich parents), negative interactions within families, lack of apathy in community, poor economic life, peer group influence, drug abuse, and victims of violence, mental illness, underachievement and being school dropouts.


Tackle socio-economic problems

To improve the situation, the authorities have to view war on juvenile delinquency with the following measures:

• Tackle the socio-economic problems faced by the poor.

•  Build more suitable houses – crowded homes encourage youths to stay out. Staying home would also prevent them from mixing with wrong peer groups.

• Rebranding and revisiting religious and moral studies in schools – incorporate more subjects related to ethics and good behaviour.

•  Schools should pay attention to weak students and classes - majority of dropouts join a gang  or are involved in undesirable activities.

• Monitor and create a platform for school dropouts to get decent jobs and succeed with planned career path.

•  Drug is a concern. Focus on drug abuse in schools and reduce drug pushers – one report says there are 70 new drug addicts in the country each day.

• Develop effective parenting skills - spend quality time with children and monitor their activities.

• Recruit more specialist than generalist counsellors – each counsellor should have special areas of focus such as bullying, sexual abuse, drug abuse, vandalism, depression, stealing and other crimes.

• Install high-definition public surveillance CCTV cameras and direct monitoring as part of safe city initiatives.

Was the fire in the school a tragedy waiting to happen? It seems so, whether from an immediate failure of the authorities or the school to enforce the law and fire prevention and safety measures or from a bigger issue of the social problems besetting our nation in the form of juvenile delinquency. 

Both failures are of a serious nature. What is clear is that we are all in it together and need to cooperate to prevent such tragedies from happening.

There must be strong will from parents, the community and the government to take up the issue. The well-being of our next generation depends on it.

Datuk Akhbar Satar is the director of Institute of Crime & Criminology, HELP University, a criminologist and certified fraud examiner. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 254.