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Broken windows: Crime and the cops

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This country may be a house of cards, presided over by the blinkered and venal; but broken windows or not, we are the glue that binds, writes Sheila Santharamohana.

The MyWatch chairman R Sri Sanjeevan was shot before he could reveal details about corruption in the force
The MyWatch chairman R Sri Sanjeevan was shot before he could reveal details about corruption in the force

I first read, a few years ago, about the “Broken Windows” theory on urban decay, and the contributory roles both the community and the police have on crime.

Used successfully by former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, the theory suggests untended behaviour and property will encourage crime as any impression of neglect shows no one cares and no one is in charge.

Thus, a community flourishes if members maintain order, care for their environment and one another’s children.

But if disorder creeps in in the form of vandalism, the breakdown of common courtesy or a tolerance for bad behaviour, then the same stable community, could soon become a hotbed of fear and crime. Of course, the theory has its detractors, but in light of escalating crime, we can learn much.

Broken window 1: Monkey see, monkey do.

As part of the experiment into this theory, a car was abandoned in a poor neighbourhood and another one in a wealthy neighbourhood.

In the former, the car is stripped of all its valuable parts in an hour while the car in the wealthy part of town remains unmolested for a week.

Then, a window of the second car is smashed. Within minutes, it is a free for all – even the most respectable residents do not hesitate in random acts of vandalism. Hours later, the car is a shell, like the first in the poor neighbourhood.

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The researchers concluded the broken window was a signal to everyone that there would be no consequences for actions on property that no one is clearly responsible for.

Allow me to draw a similarity with conditions in Malaysia.

The perception in Malaysia is that the authorities do not dare call the actions of the powerful few into account.

We have grown cynical, as the law and the justice system refuse to make government leaders and the police accountable to the office they hold.

The rest of us lose faith in the selective nature of our investigative and judicial system while enterprising others manipulate it until the system becomes an old joke.

A BBC news report in 2005 alluded to how the underworld survives in the country.

In 2007, the ex-IGP, Tan Sri Musa Hassan, decried the covert hand of leaders who frustrated police efforts in fighting crime by urging them to “keep one eye closed”.

Recently, a former drug pusher confessed in an interview with Free Malaysia Today that he had allegedly paid the cops in Negri Sembilan and Malacca a monthly RM30,000-RM50,000 (Free Malaysia Today) as protection fee on top of cash, gifts, holidays for top cops and festive ang pau.

Soon after, MyWatch’s chairman was shot, after receiving a death threat originating within fortress IPD of Jelebu (Free Malaysia Today) and before he could disclose the names of corrupt cops.

In response to a public outcry against gun-crime, the NST gives us a lesson on ballistics (NST, 2 August 2013), the police demand the return of the EO, and our PM makes vacuous statements.

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So what are the rakyat to make of this?

A Faustian pact may have benefited a powerful few, but the rakyat are paying the ultimate price everyday. Many are unable to trust the police, the system or the authorities, because logically, if there is little respect for the oaths of office and no accountability, the law becomes mutable.

After all, the scales of justice are tipped and the Lady is blind.

Broken window 2: Of blinkers and selective blindness.

In the Broken Windows theory, fear of crime can alienate members of a community or galvanise them to action. A strong community is integral to crime prevention. Unfortunately, thanks to recent government efforts to further underscore racial and religious distinctions, collaboration may be even more difficult now.

The current Home Minister has been mute on the perception gap, and the IGP maintains Malaysia is still a safe country despite gun crime. To them, this is all in our heads, which must explain why less that 18 per cent of our police are in crime-related departments.

Unfortunately Malaysia is fast becoming perceived as an urban frontier and the gap, a yawning chasm between the professional abilities of our police and the growing expertise of our criminals.

The crime indices don’t seem to be reflective of the reality on the ground. The government and police think if they cite such indices often enough, people will soon believe them – except no one is fooled. Adding to the victims of loan sharks, snatch thefts, missing children, rape, murder, prostitution, gambling and acid attacks, Malaysians may now be victims to parang robberies, car thefts and shootings.

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The threats are real and we do not appreciate lackeys of or public relations stunts from our police or a poser Home Minister. Do the job and get this house in order.

The BN government cheekily asks us to be grateful for the peace we enjoy – even as they are perceived to be doing everything to thwart it. They have fractured communities, emasculated the judiciary, seemingly turned a blind eye to corruption in the police while criminals appear to have a field day.

With looming economic woes, underemployment and stagnating wages, we can only expect rougher roads ahead. If history has shown us anything, we will have to weather this on our own while continuing to demand accountability and transparency in ever louder voices.

We cannot allow ourselves to be accustomed to crime or corruption or the luxury of cynicism. This country may be a house of cards, presided over by the blinkered and venal; but broken windows or not, we are the glue that binds.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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2 Sep 2013 5.14pm

Dear Sheila, Revisiting this site and reading your response, I’m reminded of a similar social malady in Hong Kong… Hong Kong recovered from the WWII pretty fast, and soon its population began to swell as manufacturing industries grew. By the 1960s Hong Kong was experiencing economic growth. At that time, as it is now, working for the government was considered an “iron rice bowl” career (meaning employment is guaranteed for life). However Civil Service salaries were very low, and so it was probably no surprise that officials in all departments took advantage of their positions to supplement their wages with demands for ‘tea money’, ‘lucky money’ or substantially larger sums; especially among the police. Examples of corruption ranged from nursing sisters demanding money to provide extra blankets and/or food or to allow visitors outside normal hours. Immoral as it sound, firemen who would not help put out fires unless fire victims pay them. In fact sometimes firemen would even ask for money just to turn off the water to prevent water from destroying or damaging private property or goods once a fire had been put out.… Read more »

Sheila Santhamohana
Sheila Santhamohana
27 Aug 2013 12.07am

Dear StraightTalking,
I think as a society, we tolerate breaking the law and some of us participate in it (for example by giving bribes or ignoring traffic laws, minor offences such as the examples you have cited) because it is expedient. On one hand, the police are one aspect, but I do believe we need to do more to show that we will not tolerate such in our environment. As recent events have shown, public outrage and calls for action can affect change – whether this change is a knee jerk response and legitimate is another issue, IMO.


19 Aug 2013 10.29am

Dear Sheila, Your paper is very well articulated. As a parent, like many, I can only watch with disbelief and sadness as the lawlessness plays out daily with no significant sign of systematic control by the authorities. I have to, like the thousands of Malaysians (especially the ladies), change the way my family live – within the house and when we leave the house for work or for play. It is really disturbing to imagine that less than 18% of the police force are policing the streets; it should be the other way round. Currently, we can see (it’s everywhere) many minor (and not so minor) offenses go unpunished – things like illegally parking, riding motorbikes without safety helmets, beating a red light, driving in the emergency lane, illegal hawking by the roadside and along 5-foot ways, not queuing for public transport, road hogging, jaga kereta, pubs opening beyond permitted hours, etc; etc. Due to the consistent lack of enforcement, these offenses can potentially change the mindset of the offender – from being a minor offender to a major offender – and eventually turn him into… Read more »

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