Security theater on KTM trains


The last time I took a public train in Malaysia was 10 years ago.

That’s a long time to be spoilt by the luxury of having a car to drive around. So it was a pleasant surprise to see this viral story, about a man on a KTM kommuter train who saved a women from a group of youths who “misbehaved and demanded cash and their valuables”.

But then I remembered that KTM had launched ‘women-only’ coaches on their train, and this event had me pondering the security and social implications of such coaches, and concluded that women-only coaches are a terrible idea!!

Women shouldn’t fear men

Firstly women shouldn’t be afraid of men, they should be afraid of perverts, rapist and criminals. But not all men are perverts, rapist and criminals, and implementing women-only coaches discriminates against all men like as though their criminals.

Of course the argument is that women feel ‘safer’ on these coaches, and indeed they do. But feeling safer is not the same as being safer, and it’s a fallacy to implement policy based on peoples feelings.

There may be a strong perception of an oncoming zombie apocalypse, but we shouldn’t be spending money trying to prevent that–policy decisions must be rooted in facts and effectiveness, not feelings.

The women-only coach conflates men with rapist, the same way Donald Trump conflates terrorism to Islam.We wouldn’t tolerate a white western tourist demanding to be on airplanes that didn’t have arab muslims in it, yet we somehow women on trains that didn’t have men on them perfectly acceptable.

Obviously discriminating against men isn’t as bad as discriminating against women, as women have less power economically, politically, socially and, to an extent, physically as well. In much the same way as black comedians can make fun of white folks, but not the other way–it’s a phenomena called punching-up, it’s not as bad if you’re discriminating against the more powerful.

But the social impact of such a move is way beyond my knowledge, so let’s focus on the security effectiveness of the women-only coach, and whether it’s worth the price.

First off, what is the price? Social implications aside, as an engineer it’s quite plain to see that having a public transport system that discriminates is pretty inefficient. If people were allowed to get on any coach at any time, they’d naturally filter in an efficient manner. Having specific coaches for specific genders will logically lead to a less efficient utilization of the trains–and in the realm of public transport, efficiency is of prime importance.

Are women in danger on public trains?

So if we’re losing efficiency, are we at least gaining some security for the women?

Here’s where things get a bit complicated….

Not many studies have been conducted on these women-only coaches, but I manage to snag this study from UUM:

In terms of the safety in Women-Only Coach in KTM Komuter, it was found that approximately (i) one in 30 respondents (3%) had experienced snatch theft, (ii) one in 30 respondents (3%) had experienced others incidents such as fighting, falling, (iii) one in 10 respondents (10%) had experienced sexual harassment, and (iv) almost the majority respondents (84%) from the total female passengers had no experience of encoutering any of the mentioned incidents while travelling on KTM Komuter.

A study in 2002 conducted  found that 35% of respondents in Malaysia had experienced one or more forms of sexual harassment, and honestly these numbers are ridiculously higher than what I anticipated.

I expected it wasn’t going to be 0%, but I figured that a well-mannered society like Malaysia would have better record of somewhere between 0.2-0.5%, I was convinced we wouldn’t have broken the 1% barrier.

The fact, that even the lowest estimate is 10% is mind-boggling to me, and frankly points to how far removed I really am from society at large.

So we know we have a problem of sexual harassment on trains–and we know that women suffer nearly all of that. What can we do?

Well the unimaginative would simply have women-only coaches, which may improve the feeling of safety, but not safety itself. Consider if the group of youth from the viral facebook article decide to hop on the women-only coach at some dodgy station in Klang–why board a mixed coach, when you could hop only women-only coach and have a field day demanding money from women in a coach where no men could save them.

And it works the other way around as well–imagine a women who can’t board the women’s coach because it’s full, and now she’s a coach that’s predominantly male, and the perverts on the coach start thinking “why are they here if not to be felt up”, and now we’ve just double the discrimination impact on women who choose to use the normal coaches.

Essentially, the logical conclusion of a women-only coach policy is a that you will create a men-only as well–and that’s taking a couple hundred steps back as a society.

Hawks and Doves

Sometimes in security we use the analogy of Hawks and Doves.

Hawks are competitive assholes you fight for every inch of turf you give them. A couple hundred hawks on a sinking ship, causes them all to fight each other till the last hawk is left limping onto the lifeboat whilst bleeding to death.

Doves are co-operative nice guys, that are just plain good. A couple hundred doves on a sinking ship will line up 2-by-2 and calmly fill out the lifeboats till all of them are safely on board.

But put a hawk among the doves, and he’ll have an unfair advantage. Being the first on the lifeboat, and launching it away before the doves get on board.

Put a dove among the hawks, and they’ll be first to be killed.

If you have a Dove-only coach on a train–you can easily see how this becomes a juicy target for the hawks.

In IT, we operate on the same principle. It used to be, that the internal corporate network was considered ‘safe’, anything deployed inside the firewall was generally regarded as low-risk and didn’t need things like pen-testing and vulnerability assessments.

But with the old model, a hawk, that has somehow got a foothold in your network now will have a field-day within your network, because all your defenses are down. This is how Sony Pictures, Target, and hundreds of other companies failed to protect their prized IT assets.

If your internal data is not protected, all it takes is a single compromised machined, or bribed employee to cause havoc within the network. Instead most organizations now segment their networks placing more critical infrastructure behind layers of protection (defense in depth), and taking long hard looks at the security of their internally deployed systems.

Believing that a internal network somehow magically protects the internal systems, is like believing a women-only coach protects women.


In summary, a coach on a Komuter train made exclusively for women causes a huge inefficiency in the system.

In the end, there’s no evidence it makes women safer, or reduce crime–it merely serves to discriminate against men, and causes wide social implications.

Women’s safety isn’t about sequestering them in separate compartments, but the enforcement of laws already on the books, and the social changes necessary to ensure they are treated equally in society and not looked upon like sex-toys on trains.


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