Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Not too long ago, The Star frontpaged a report on falling street crime figures that was celebrated by the government, but met with much skepticism by the public. Subsequent well-publicised snatch thefts and mall carpark robberies had the government scrambling to respond, while deepening the public sense that the numbers are a sham.

I don't like dismissing government statistics out of hand; I think reflexively rubbishing the numbers is both excessively pessimistic and rather unreasonable. Still, street crime figures, to me, tell another story, and not just because of the many tales from victims turned away from lodging police reports.

It will take a concerted effort, and a lot of time, for Malaysian trust in the police, and thus belief in their safety, to improve

Before I get into that, I'm going to comment briefly on public perceptions of their safety. The reason much of the public doesn't buy the figures is simple: there is, at present, an immense crisis of trust with Malaysian law enforcement. The aforementioned tales play a part, as do the stories of corruption, violence against suspects in custody and lack of frequent patrols in many urban areas. But remedying this will take more than just responding to those complaints, and a very long time indeed, so in the foreseeable future, Malaysians will be more pessimistic about their safety than the numbers make reasonable to be.

Moving to the main thrust of the piece: what else do street crime figures tell us? I will give the government and the police some credit for the fall in street crimes, but then, they only tell part of the story. Street crimes are, after all, committed mainly by youth, out of need. As the Malaysian economy grows, I believe it is more likely that crime will move into the shadows, out of the public eye. I speak, of course, about organized crime, international syndicate activity and corporate crime.

Does the government have the gumption to stand up to the vested interests that profit from corporate crime?

Malaysia's international record on people and drug smuggling has to improve significantly, and it doesn't appear that government policy focuses adequately on corporate crime. Enforcement of laws on the latter issue are fragmented among five different agencies; meanwhile, Malaysia remains a Tier 2 nation on the US State Department's human trafficking watch list.

As the nation's per capita income continues to grow (and hopefully more inclusively than at present), socioeconomic improvement means less people will turn to street crime to get by. However, it also means a bigger lure for, shall we say, more professional crime. This simple fact means the nation needs to ask itself two questions. The first is this: Will the government be able to shift its resources and focus to the latter?

Over time, more crime will move out of dark alleys, and into the gilded halls of wealthy and ruthless syndicates.
The second question? Will Malaysians continue to press their government on crime once it fades into the shadows?

Monday, July 16, 2012


I've been very scared lately by a whole host of loud voices demanding the death penalty for snatch thieves. As far as public demands go, this is probably one of the most bone-headed and barbaric ones to come our way in recent years.

Many people are incensed by continued stories of people dying due to bad falls after snatch thefts, but I'd like to respectfully point out that snatch thieves are not hardened killers. None of them sets out with the intention to kill anyone during a theft, and intent is important in criminal cases; to want to hang people who 'technically' killed someone sets us on a whole slippery slope of serious events. We are screaming overloud at what is actually a very small (but attention grabbing) part of the snatch theft picture. 

Snatch theft is an issue guaranteed to ignite passions and inflame emotions, neither of which are good guides to effective law-making.
In any case, we don't hang accidental murderers. We call that manslaughter. A poor kid who snatched a bag to feed himself isn't a vicious murderer who regards the death as a bonus point. Logic suggests that it's an extra burden for him to live with.

The death penalty, I'm sure we all realize, is largely useless as a deterrent to anything. Malaysia hasn't experimented much with its' death penalty, but many countries who have abolished capital punishment report no increase in crime following its abolition. Criminologists, by an 88.2% majority, do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent, as reviews of pro-deterrent studies reveal that they 'fall apart under close scrutiny' (Jeffrey Fagan, director of the Centre of  Crime, Community and Law at Columbia Law School). 

Statistics suggest the death penalty isn't a deterrent. Another statistical analysis here, by John Donnohue and Justin Wolfers, shows estimates of lives saved by the death penalty are fundamentally flawed.

In any case, the death penalty is barbaric. We as a society do our moral standing no credit when we stoop to the levels of asking for revenge. Of the vast range of punishments in the penal system, the death penalty, due to its terminal nature, is the only one that doesn't seek to reform the prisoner or put him to service, so all it serves is a primal desire to see someone die for ending another life, since we know it isn't an effective crime prevention measure. 

We as Malaysians pride ourselves on our hospitality, kindness and acceptance. How the Chinese, Malays and Indians treat each other is only part of that story. An arguably more important part is how we treat the migrant worker, the homosexual, the drug addict, the criminal. It is my belief that as long as we cannot find it in our hearts to be the better person than a killer, we have no right to call ourselves a civil society. 

Need I say more?
Part of the reason we gravitate towards such tools as the death penalty is that it's a simple, blunt force tool that appeals to our baser natures. In fact, truly solving street crimes like snatch thefts requires distinctly unglamorous tools, like more inclusive economic growth, an elevation of vocational education and reform of local policing measures. Just like everyone will rally around a catchy, Kony 2012 style campaign, but not a long term fix to the underlying problem of democracy and structural poverty in Africa. 

For that, to me, is the real problem. Our education system is too broken to be truly counted on as a way out of hardcore poverty anymore, and quality skills training doesn't nearly reach as many youths as it should. It might also be an idea to devolve more powers to local councils and local police units. They, after all, can better understand the community and respond more effectively to local crime and socioeconomic concerns.

I'll not pretend snatch thefts- and crime in general- isn't a serious problem in our society. The question is, are we so keen to throw away the last remaining vestiges of civility in our nation in order to 'save' it?

Thursday, July 12, 2012


These days, American politics does not inspire much confidence in anyone. Sadly, it could get worse, as eleven states- Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee among them- have passed strict laws requiring photo IDs before a person can vote. State governors say the new rules are meant to curb voting fraud, but in practice, the new laws will prevent many legitimate voters from casting their ballots.

The voters shut out are primarily, black, poor and elderly. On the whole, 11% of eligible voters don't have updated, state issued photo IDs; the percentage rises to 25%, 15% (among those making less than $ 35 K a year) and 18% respectively. These groups are likelier to lack driver's licences, be born out of state, work multiple jobs or have disabilities, which means they cannot afford the extensive and expensive paperwork required for state IDs. Many government services have never needed state IDs, and things like employee and student cards are not accepted by many of the states' new laws.

Texas Governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry has declared his support for the law. His state's version would allow concealed-carry handgun licences as valid ID, but not employee or student IDs.
The scale of disenfranchisement is far more extensive than any fraud the laws seek to prevent. Fraud is not, as supporters of the laws claim, a serious issue in American elections- a 2011 report by the Republican National Lawyers Association found 400 election fraud prosecutions in the US over the past decade, not even one per state per year. Between 1997 and 2010, in Kansas, there were 7 convictions for voter fraud, none for voter impersonation- the true kind of fraud voter IDs would stop.

By contrast, the new laws could adversely affect more than five million voters. As it is, in 2008, 2.2 million registered voters did not vote because they lacked proper ID.

More than anything, the new laws appear to be the latest weapon in a tragically vitriolic campaign for November's elections, as if the attack ads weren't bad enough.
 To me, this move is nakedly political, coming as it is in states under Republican control, some of which are key battlegrounds this November. Seeking an advantage in a close election, Republicans must surely have realised the new laws will bar many voters who traditionally vote Democratic. One Republican official in Pennsylvania said as much, even. 

Eric Holder, who recently called the new laws 'poll taxes' , has, as Attorney General, the power to prevent the laws' implementation.
If states insist on laws like this, even though they don't solve the true fraud that DOES occur in American elections, then they should also undertake a commitment to provide free IDs to everyone who lacks it.

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1964, states with a history of discrimination must obtain permission from the Department of Justice or the Appeals Court of the Washington D.C. Circuit to change election laws, and its likely both these institutions will strike down many of these laws. Still, if Republicans agree there is a crisis of faith in American politics, they should realize it is not at the ballot box, but up on Capitol Hill, where the word 'compromise' has long been forgotten.