The more the government engages in spinning the crime statistics, the more it denies there are major problems with our police force, the more it is alienating itself from the public and inviting an electoral backlash, writes Lim Teck Ghee.
A few days ago a colleague sent me a copy of an email which read:
Though the government is denying it, we are seeing severe escalation of serious crime in the country. At lunch today, I learnt from a member of [respectable organisation] that the xxxxxx Embassy is now holding briefings on crime and precautions. There is also a recent entry of some [foreign] crime groups. We are all living in fear….Most people would agree that the current crime rate is the worst we have ever seen. When victims lodge police report, often police will refuse the report as it affects their KPI.
There is a witticism which states that “there are lies, damn lies and statistics”.
A reminder of the close proximity between statistics and damn lies should be sent to Pemandu, the government’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department which has staunchly defended statistics showing street crime has fallen by 40 per cent in the past two years. According to Pemandu too, the country’s crime index fell by more than 10 per cent between January and May this year – a claim which has drawn hoots of derision from readers in the internet media.
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It is a fact that Malaysians are cynical of the statistics put out by the government. Although the government has been at pains to argue that there is a declining trend in crime, the person in the street does not believe the government. The average Ali, Siva and Chong is even more agitated when the government blames the issue of escalating crime on public perception and blown-up media accounts.
The truth is that our government-friendly media are under-reporting rather than over-reporting on crime and violence. Let’s be frank and admit that the official statistics on crime, especially petty crime, are unreliable.
Unlike the statistics collected by the Department of Statistics, police statistics are generated by front-line personnel who have a vested interest in under-reporting. Everyone knows that police personnel have every incentive to avoid extra work through understating crime incidence. They also do not want to give a bad name to the police district if they can help it. Under-recording of actual cases of crime is very much the norm in most police stations.
No need to argue with the public
It is difficult for the government to convince Malaysians that the police statistics are believable since there is no way the public can monitor how the statistics are generated or processed.
If we go by neighbourhood and other grassroots accounts, it appears as if episodes of house break-in, handbag snatching, armed robbery and other criminal acts have become commonplace instead of being the exception.
Rather than trying to argue with the public on crime statistics, it is more prudent for the government to acknowledge the surge in criminal activity, especially of petty crime and to take strong measures to prevent it from getting worse.
How to combat growing crime
Amongst necessary measures, these should have priority:
- Instilling a greater sense of responsibility and urgency in the police top brass on tackling crime. Trying to defend the police or deflect legitimate criticism is the wrong approach.
- Requiring that a greater proportion of police personnel be assigned to work on the beat instead of at the office.
- Adopting William Bratton’s policing philosophy. This veteran police officer who is advisor to the British Prime Minister David Cameron on law and order is an advocate of the ‘broken window’ criminological theory of the norm-setting effect of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behaviour. The theory, which has been well backed by empirical research, argues that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition stops further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime.
- Bratton is also a strong advocate of having an ethnically diverse police force representative of the population; maintaining a strong relationship with the law-abiding population; tackling police corruption; being tough on gangs and having a strict no tolerance of anti-social behaviour.
All of these are common sense measures aimed at instilling a higher degree of professionalism and requiring our police and urban authorities to focus on protecting the public from criminals. They should be implemented without further delay.
Tackling police impotency at the roots
We also have to tackle the problem of an ineffective police force – the Special Brach may be a lone exception – at its roots. In the past, these root causes may have something to do with small size of the force and poor pay. Today they are unacceptable as reasons to explain the relative inefficiency or impotency of the police.
According to a United Nations survey, the Malaysia police force is a very large one compared with other countries at similar stages of development. The United Nations recommends a minimum police strength of 222 per 100000 people. Our number is much higher than this. In 2000, we reported having 354 police per 100000 people. By comparison in 2007, Singapore had 239 police officers per 100000 people.
As for poor pay leading to demoralised personnel, police salaries have recently gone up considerably for all ranks of personnel. Our police today cannot by any measure be considered to be underpaid.
The root causes of police impotency are found in at least two major factors. This description of crime and industrialisation in Britain is instructive.
Crime was rising due to dislocation and poverty and the apparatus of criminal justice was …increasingly ineffective. During the period 1805-1842 the proportion of people per 100000 of the population committed for trial rose seven times. This is of course what we should expect: rapid urbanisation with people uprooted from their traditional rural ways of life and forced into the intolerable poverty and overcrowding of the early factory towns. These festering conditions were exacerbated by the fluctuations in the labour market and the fact that workers were periodically thrown out of work without any social security or unemployment benefits….
For us in Malaysia, the ‘broken window’ theory and the interaction of marginalised immigrant and local poor communities and rising inequality between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ amidst visible affluence provide the breeding ground for breaking rules and anti-social behaviour.
Effete social policies, tolerance of white-collar and high-level crime, and widespread uncivil behaviour of the general population also provide our underclass the justification for their attempts to subvert the system.
Our situation compares poorly with Singapore where there is zero tolerance of corruption in the police and civil service, the ordinary citizen is socialised (some would argue, regimented) to higher standards of civic norms, and ‘broken windows’ are mended unlike in Kuala Lumpur where not only the back streets but also the main streets are littered with garbage, unrepaired pavements and other visible symptoms of urban decay and the indifference of the authorities.
Perhaps the most important root cause is the trend towards the political use of the police. Instead of focusing attention on fighting crime, our police are all too often ordered to perform political work aimed at suppressing the opposition and other opponents of the ruling government.
This politicisation of the police force has become worse, with the recent massive police mobilisation for the Bersih 3.0 demonstration serving as a prime example.
Potential election game changer
The government must recognise that the growing incidence of crime has political ramifications.
The more the government engages in spinning the crime statistics, the more it denies there are major problems with our police force, the more it orders the police to take political sides; the more the government is alienating itself from the public and inviting an electoral backlash.
It will be poetic justice if the politicisation of our police force is one of the factors responsible for the Barisan Nasional’s downfall.
Dr Lim Teck Ghee is the director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives