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Downtown East homicide – debunking crime myths

Eng Wu Ong

I am writing this note to put forward my views on the recent homicide case that occurred at Downtown East in Singapore, from the perspective of a 2nd year Criminology student. I think that there are certain public misconceptions about crime and justice that need to be pointed out.

Here is the link to the news article in case you are not up to speed with the news.

The key points that I want to make are:

1. Public perception of rising crime rates and "violent youths" is a mistaken notion. Crime rates have remained relatively stable over the last few years, and the perceived rise in crime is mainly due to media exposure.

2. Public anger and desire for retribution is misguided. Hanging the young men for "murder" will not bring justice and does not address the root cause of the problem. We need to push for a restitutive as opposed to punitive Criminal Justice System (CJS).

1. Rising crime rates?

All statistics have been quoted from Statistics Singapore unless otherwise mentioned. The statistics are from page 7 of the file.

a. Overall crime

The overall number of reported cases of crime in Singapore has remained relatively stable from 1999 to 2009, hovering at around 32,000 recorded cases a year. Crimes against Persons (Assault, homicide, sexual assault, etc...) have risen after 1999, but the general trend has been relatively stable after peaking in 2005 (4608 recorded cases), at approximately 4,200 recorded cases per year since then.

b. Crime rates

Looking at crime rate (i.e. cases recorded per 100,000 people), there has been a steady decrease since 2005 from 870 cases to 661 cases per 100,000 people in 2009. In particular, the rate of crimes against persons has accordingly followed from 108 cases to 88 cases per 100,000 people in the same period. Overall, people in Singapore are a nice bunch, but obviously the decrease in the crime rate could just be due to the rapid increase in population.

So, increase in crime? Where? The overall number of reported cases has remained the same since 1999, and the overall crime rate has also fallen since 2005. Either the statistics are flawed, or that the actual number of offences observed on the street are way higher than the number of cases that are actually reported, which would suggest that the police are not doing their job. This is of course highly unlikely given Singapore's reputation for a ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy.

What about our violent youth? To put the figures into perspective, at the peak of 4608 recorded cases of crimes against persons in 2005, only 21 of them were murder cases (http://www.spf.gov.sg/stats/stats2005_index.htm). 0.004% of crimes against persons were murder cases at the peak of crimes against persons. How many of them were committed by our youth, I am not sure. However, what I can tell you is that the overall crime against persons has remained relatively unchanged since 2006, and I would extrapolate that the number of murder cases would accordingly remain stable.

d. General assumptions

There are a few assumptions that I am making. Firstly that the government statistics are accurate and not skewed to misrepresent, secondly that crimes against persons are directly proportional to the number of homicide cases and thirdly that the number of recorded homicide cases matches the actual number of actual homicides. I would assume that if someone is killed, a police report would be made.

e. Perceived crime

So where does this perceived sense of "increased crime" stem from if the actual number or rate of crimes committed have remained unchanged? I think the obvious answer is media exposure. Not every murder case receives attention in the media, so when a big case suddenly blows up on the news there is a perceived sense of "Oh, there is crime in Singapore". While the real rates have not changed, the perception of it does fluctuate with the amount of media exposure.

2. Hanging is not the solution

The Downtown East case in particular is of interest to the public and the media probably because of the age of the offenders and the nature of the offence (staring that leads to homicide). I avoid using the word murder because murder implies a premeditated attempt to kill another person. In 2005, 17 out of the 21 "murder" cases were "Crimes of Passion", meaning that the act was carried out in the heat of the moment without prior planning (http://www.spf.gov.sg/stats/stats2005_index.htm). Out of the four youths who were charged with murder, two of them are in their late teens and the other two are barely adults. Do you think that the staring incident was a calculated and premeditated attempt to kill?

a. Classical criminology

The classical criminal is a means-ends rational actor, who thinks that the reward of the crime outweighs the risk of punishment or the punishment itself. Murder cases are rarely premeditated, as shown by the police statistics. The only cold and calculating murderers are paid assassins. Is it possible that the four young men thought that the "reward" of killing (whatever that may be) outweighed the death penalty? I highly doubt so. The death penalty is the ultimate form of punishment that the state can bestow onto a criminal. It is both permanent and irreversible. It is obvious from this case that the death penalty as a deterrence to murder is not effective, because the majority of murder cases are crimes of passion.

b. A punitive Criminal Justice System

It appears to me that the general public sentiment (gathered from Facebook comments)  on the Downtown East case is to hang the four "murderers" as soon as possible in order to bring "justice". I think the public sentiment is summed up through the Director of Criminal Investigation Department Senior Assistant Commissioner Ng Boon Gay's comments,

"Such violent behaviour and blatant disregard for the law will not be condoned. Police will see to it that those who perpetuate violence will be dealt with to the fullest extent of our laws." (Channelnewsasia)

We want to punish the perpetrators. We want justice. We want the law to exercise its powers to the fullest to ensure that such violence and "disregard for the law" is made an example of. As a form of general deterrence, it is not going to do anything except make for coffeeshop talk. The only thing we have done is use state sanctioned violence in its purest form (the death penalty), to deal with violent people.  "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Once we take the lives of these four youths away, they will be gone forever. There will be no chance for them to repent, to learn, to rehabilitate or to contribute to society. Hanging them is not going to bring justice to anyone. The poor victim is already dead, and now we are going to take another four lives away from families, in order to satisfy some arbitrary retributive lust. Whatever way you view it, by asking for them to be hanged, you are murdering them. Killing them will not resurrect the victim or make anyone else feel good. It will only cause grief and extreme pain to the family of the four young men.

c. We made these "criminals"

These young people should not just be wiped off simply as misfits, delinquents or the scum of society because of the mistakes they have made. These "criminals" exist as a function of multiple facets of social disintegration in Singapore. We have created them through the structural inequality of opportunity, be it through education, employment or social initiatives, and have labeled and marginalised them by calling them "gangsters, ah bengs, misfits" and what have you. This is akin to racism. We detest them, we dislike them and we do not want to have anything to do with them, because they do not fit our sociological ideal of typical middle-class, English speaking (who also enjoy Starbucks), educated, stable family with professional parents. It is the quintessential self & other (us versus them) typology used in securing our identity. I think people like to scorn them because it reinforces their preconceived notions of superiority, being the ideal kind of Singaporean.

d. Dealing with the situation

The first and most important step is to stop the senseless violence by abolishing the death penalty. As I have argued previously, the death penalty neither brings justice nor works as a deterrence. This is because we base our punitive measures on the false premise that criminals are cold and calculating actors. The Downtown East case reflects cracks in our social structure and some of our youth are falling through. The outburst of rage against another teenager for staring is not so much a case of wanting to kill senselessly, but is an expression of frustration against the social marginalisation that they face. For these four young men, they have lost their sense of place in society and feel normlessness, and their "gangs" are a reaction to that.

Society has a duty to prevent its youth from falling through the cracks. We cannot just cast them aside, label them as outcasts, and then scorn and punish them when they fall victim to a marginalised social structure which we have created.  I am not arguing that they should not be punished. On the contrary, they should definitely face up to their actions. However, hanging them means that they are not going to face up to anything except the hangman. They might be sentenced to jail for sure, but I think a society that is progressive and restitutive will look at ways and opportunities for them to reintegrate and to contribute to society, be it 10 or 15 years from now.

Conclusion

In order not to bore you to death (pun intended), I will sum my points up as follows:

1. Crime has not increased in Singapore. The perception is due to media exposure.

2. Desire for justice and retribution is misguided and is not the kind of attitude a progressive and modern society should adopt.

3. The four youths are a product of social inequity and disintegration. Hanging them is not going to solve the issue.

4. We need to start by abolishing the death penalty and working along the likes of restitution, not retribution. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind".