When I first moved to Malaysia I must admit that I was a bit worried about the security here. At home I lived in a single family house with a front and back yard and a fence around the property to keep my dog from wandering off. Most houses back home have some sort of a yard but with few fences, except white picket fences for decorative purposes or fences to keep the dogs in the yard. There are few single family homes, as we know them, in Malaysia. These types of homes are called landed property because they have a very small yard or property. Most all of the houses are attached to each other. What worried me was that they all had high concrete walls or fences surrounding them. The houses reminded me of prisons or some sort of institutions to keep patients inside. I learned from the locals that this is necessary to prevent breakins and burglaries. There are a number of gated properties, where the attached and semi-detatched houses, with a small property, are surrounded by a wall and have security guards. These are very attractive and are not reminiscent of prison life. The other housing alternatives are condominiums, which have security guards, of varying quality.
I must point out that unlike back home, where you call the police to report a crime and they come to you very quickly, here you have to go to the police station to report a crime. I have heard of stories where a neighbor has called the police to report a burglary in progress and the police have asked to be called back after the culprits have left. So you can't rely on a quick police response. You can't really fault the police because they are paid very little here aas compared to back home.
I bought a condo to live in as I felt this was more secure. There are still breakins in some of the condos and usually the crimes are inside jobs or security is involved. I feel the condos and gated communities are the most secure choices for the money.
Malaysia is one of the safest countries in Southeast Asia, ranking right up there with Singapore. As with any country, it isn't 100% safe. One of the most common crimes seen here are snatch and grab crimes. There are thousands of motorcycles on the road and gangs of snatch thieves target women walking along side the roads or on the sidewalks, grabbing their purses. Often the women are injured in these crimes. Women or anyone carrying a bag of some kind or even a backpack must take extra precaution at all times. Pickpocketing does occur, but is more rare that the purse snatchers. Of course like any other country you can become the victim of a crime if you wander off into areas where you have no business being. As everywhere it is important to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
In regards to serious crime, there are murders or assaults, as reported in the newpapers. There are few if any guns here, so the weapon of choice is the machete. It is not uncommon to see that someone has lost an arm or leg or even murderd by this weapon, but the victims are almost always involved with loan sharks or other illegal activity. Crimes that I see in the papers quite frequently are child abuse and crimes of incest involving very young children. Occassionally there is an ATM or jewelry store robbery or other such thefts reported. Once again these crimes can be seen in any country.
All in all I feel very safe living in my condo and walking around the streets of Penang. I think I can safely say that the expats I know who live in Malaysia also feel the same way.