Friday, July 13, 2012

Talking About Crime: Why Are We Focusing On Enforcement?

I was listening to BFM radio this morning with some bemusement – there was a fairly long discussion regarding the latest crime statistics report from Pemandu (excerpt):

Pemandu: Crime index down by 10.1% from January to May

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's crime index fell by 10.1% between January and May this year, Pemandu said on Thursday.

According to figures released by Pemandu's Reducing Crime NKRA director Eugene Teh, there were 63,221 cases between January and May this year compared to 70,343 cases recorded in the corresponding period last year.

“The NKRA's focus on bringing down the crime rate in the last three years has achieved big wins yearly since we first began the Government Transformation Programme and the trend seems to be continuing,” he said.

Teh added that Index Crime dropped by 11.1% from 177,520 in 2010 to 157,891 in 2011. Index Crime are classified as Property Crimes which include theft, snatch theft, vehicle theft, machinery theft and house break-ins and Violent Crimes which are robbery, assault, rape and murder.

Street Crimes have also seen a noticeable drop with 38,030 in 2009 dropping by 39.7% to 22,929 in 2011...

Very obviously, the discussion hinged on the difference between quote “statistics and reality” unquote, and included reading the headlines from yesterday’s crime news. The point was made, quite pertinently, about how perception of crime is at odds with the numbers.

My bemusement arises from a couple of points – given that even with the reduction in index crime quoted by Pemandu, we’re looking at on average of more than 400 reported crime cases every single day, any number of reports in the papers and in the news only touches the surface of the phenomenon, and really doesn’t say anything at all about the incidence of crime.

My second point of befuddlement is less about today’s radio program and more of the general discourse on crime in Malaysia – why does it revolve around enforcement and the police? Why is it that when some particular tragedy occurs, it’s immediately the  fault of PDRM? Why do very few people even consider the causes of crime rather than its enforcement and prevention?

To their credit, this morning’s radio discussion ended with some highly relevant key ideas – young males and relative poverty.

So what causes crime? Reason number one, to quote ex-US President Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!” A better economy with greater access to legitimate means of earning an income equals lower crime, and vice-versa. Crime incidence always spikes during recessions. Close behind are the ratio of young men in the population (the testosterone effect), and income and wealth inequality.

Young men without jobs was one of the key driving forces behind the Arab spring; the drop in the male youth ratio helped bring down America’s crime rate in the 1990s. The relationship between crime and relative poverty, or income inequality if you prefer, speaks towards one of the basic behaviourial instincts in humans – we evaluate ourselves and our well-being based on the people around us. That’s why crime still exists in high income societies, despite their overall wealth.

Many people bring up Malaysia’s substantial foreign workforce, but as this is just another avenue for increasing the population “at risk” – young, male, and poor – it just reinforces the causalities identified above.

Malaysia is a young country, with a disproportionate ratio of the population below 30 years old (the median is 26-27). There’s a huge cohort of young men coming of age in the next couple of decades. Income and wealth inequality is uncomfortably high, and there’s a growing mismatch between the jobs on offer and the skills school leavers have.

Given these factors, even if we achieve solid economic growth with no hiccups over the next 1-2 decades, the tendency will be for crime to rise, both in total and on a per capita basis.

The fact that per capita crime incidence is actually falling, three years removed from recession and with no discernable improvement in inequality, is to me pretty amazing and suggests the police are in fact doing a pretty good job.

Nevertheless focusing the debate on what the police are or are not doing is really missing the point. Crime is a failure of society, not a failure of enforcement. Better enforcement can shift crime incidence downwards, but doesn’t address the underlying trends or causalities. (Digression: the fashion towards gated communities and tighter security in residential areas is a little misplaced – statistically, research shows it doesn’t reduce the probability of your house being burgled).

If we’re serious about becoming an even safer nation that we are purported to be, then the causalities must be addressed – education reform to address employability, tax and transfer policies to address income and wealth inequality, macroeconomic stability to enable job growth.

Kudos to Pemandu and the police for what they’ve been able to do, but let’s shift the debate to where it really belongs.

Technical Notes:

For a greater overview (with references), try this link or this one.


  1. This piece hits the nail on the head

  2. Hopefully income inequality gap should close in the next few years

    1. @shuib,

      I'm not hopeful. Income inequality has not changed significantly in 25 years.

    2. so we need more social safety nets and more br1m?

      I wonder if the minimum wage will have an impact on inequality and crime.

  3. We know that unemployment has held steady at about ~3.0%. Surely the youth unemployment rate has held steady as well?

    Are you also forecasting a higher youth unemployment rate in the future as well, given your assertion that crime per capita will increase?

    1. Rodger, there's no dichotomy between a steady unemployment rate and an increasing level of crime. The first is a ratio, the second is a level.

      The unemployment rate is the proportion of the labour force out of work. If the labour force increases and the number of unemployed increases in tandem, the unemployment rate might stay the same even if the absolute number of unemployed increases.

      A further complication is that the labour force is computed based on those who are employed and/or looking for work. There are currently 6.9 million who are of working age, but not counted among the labour force. it's mostly women, but there are some men too.

  4. Thanks for the well-written and well-thought thru article. Eugene

  5. Even police officers turn to crime and corruption. If our leaders are criminal themselves and not punished sufficiently, it's making society more rotten.

  6. Not too long ago, there was a new rule that said you no longer needed a police report to apply for a new MyKad.

    I suppose a portion of people no longer saw a need to report robberies which led to a marked drop in crime stats which our Pemandu and GPI used to make the conclusion that we are getting safer by the day.

    Personally, in the past year, I was snatched once and my home and office was burgled 3 times (twice in the past week itself). Also witnessed a smash and grab 2 days ago. I'm sick of it and almost can't be arsed to report these crimes to cops any more it feels so futile (and it angers me to have to put up with some of their attitudes). Except I still do it to paint stats a more accurate picture.

    It doesn't feel any safer. I feel afraid. And I will also say from experience that even if I acknowledge the root causes, the attitude of our police force as a whole is not helping the situation.

  7. Metalrage,

    Even citing the numbers claimed by the government, we're still looking at in excess of 400 crimes a day, and that's just the reported ones. Would a 10% drop (as this represents) result in the perception of higher safety? I don't think so. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean the reduction isn't real or shouldn't be welcome.

  8. The dip can be read 2 ways, both can't be validated:
    1) A reduction in incidence of crime
    2) A dip in reported crime

    I suspect #2. A recent change to policies re. applying for new MyKad supports this theory. A victim of snatch no longer needs report to police. Just call up the banks to cancel cards + go to NRD to apply for a new MyKad. Also, I am projecting the psyche of my colleagues and my family onto the rest of the population when it comes to reporting crime. Cynical.

    And if my suspicion of rise in real incidence of crime is also true, it's a double whammy for our country.

    So Pemandu's numbers are not encouraging, rather, a discouraging indicator of eroding faith in a public institution.

    1. Metalrage,

      I'm doubtful what you mentioned would be statistically significant - we're looking in aggregate at a more than 20% drop since 2009 and nearly 40% in street crimes alone. The rule change on Mykad replacement only came into effect March 2011. Even if non-reporting was a factor, it would only come into play for 2012/2011 comparisons only.