Friday, 9 November 2012

Vice and crime: The role of corruption

NOV 9 — Despite official claims to the contrary, there is certainly a growing sense of unease at not just the frequency of crime occurrences, but also at the desperation exhibited by the perpetrators in the course of their occurrence.

Crimes with a financial motive like robberies, which used to be the scourge of the relatively affluent, are now being experienced by ordinary people and that too with an excess of brutality. Faced with resistance, they are not content with just showing guns to intimidate, but are actually using them. In essence, criminals are now willing to risk more time behind bars for smaller payouts.

While sophisticated financial criminals typically use online scams, Ponzi schemes and financial fraud to raise cash to fund expensive lifestyles, the smash and grab stick ‘em up kind of robbers tend to be from the lower stratum of society.

When there is a rise in the latter, it can be inferred that survival issues rather than lifestyle issues are driving the spike. When there is a wide gap in the lifestyles of the rich and poor, young people with college degrees are unemployable, Ah Longs are at the door and the cost of living is rising fast, feelings of hopelessness and loss of faith in the system are bound to occur. Complicating the problem is the attendant rise in the use of coping mechanisms with severe side effects like gambling, drug use, alcoholism, sex and human trafficking.

While drugs, gambling and paid sex can serve as escape valves from everyday reality to those relatively well-off, they can quickly spiral into addictive habits for those who feel they are out of legitimate options. As is well documented especially in studies of inner-city US ghettoes, once enmeshed this leads to a rapid spiral downwards, with those affected having even fewer financial options than before, with new and expensive habits to feed.

They now owe ever-increasing sums of money not to banks, but to a host of operators of these illegal businesses, and either needs to work for them just to stay alive, or to take increasingly desperate measures to keep them at bay. Enter the criminal committing desperate, violent petty robberies. These are the guns for hire, the ones who take the biggest risks for the smallest rewards, just to live for another week.

When The Star reports that as soon as the authorities shut them down, even more illegal gambling centres and massage parlours open up, the problem is bigger than just an enforcement issue.

Even more worrying, the same paper reported in 2011 that according to Deputy Home Minister Datuk Abu Seman Yusop, the number of drugs-related crimes has shot up by 25.58 per cent based on the latest police statistics despite punitive anti-drug laws. In 2010, 157,756 people were detained under various anti-narcotics laws compared with 125,620 people detained in 2009. The National Anti-Narcotics Agency (AADK), meanwhile, identified 23,642 new drug addicts in 2010 compared with 15,763 new addicts in 2009.

As the incidence of vice goes up, so does the incidence of violent financial crime. While it is nobody’s belief that either of these two can be eliminated, to bring their levels down to a manageable level requires a multi-layered response. At a macro long-term level, reducing inequalities in wealth distribution, improving the alignment of education with employability, emphasising counselling and rehabilitation for those affected and enforcing a needs-cum-merit-based model for social security and poverty alleviation schemes come to mind. Relatively immediately, more than beefing up law enforcement or adding more deterrents like hudud punishment, what could make a telling difference is the attitude towards official corruption.

Perceptions of rise in crime are intricately linked with perceptions on corruption. If the MACC is perceived as going after only the small fish, why should law enforcement be perceived any differently? However many petty criminals are nabbed, the availability of drugs, gambling dens and massage parlours only seems to be rising. It is only natural that people then feel that those behind these rackets seem to be immune to prosecution. The authorities need to be unequivocally seen to be above corrupt practices and going after the kingpins without fear or favour.

This is the real perception game. If Singapore seems safer, it is also because the authorities are seen to be relatively incorruptible. Not that crime is eliminated, but the chances of success for criminal enterprises are considerably lower when strict enforcement is coupled with effective deterrence.

When official corruption is low, it is the lieutenants and kingpins of criminal rackets that feel the heat, not just the runners and foot soldiers. When their ill-gotten gains cannot be spent openly or used to bribe officials to look the other way, much fewer numbers will want to take the risk of extended jail times, whippings and death sentences.

This is why the fight against corruption is much more than a mere issue to be exploited in the next election.

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