Many Malaysians are concern about the rising crime in the country. Difficulty in accessing the latest crime statistics has made it difficult to gauge exactly the crime levels in the country or to understand the reasons behind these criminal activities.
Newspapers and other mass media frequently report about violent and petty crime acts. This has led the previous Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Haji Ismail Omar, to retort that the rising crime levels in the country were only a matter of perception. The former IGP was criticized by some quarters for his comment. Nevertheless, he does has a valid point.
Talk about an issue long and hard enough and the issue can appear more important than it really is. As any psychologist will tell us, we are prone to many types of cognitive biases. We have a tendency, for instance, only to remember outcomes that support our perception, while forgetting the many other outcomes that failed to agree with our perception. We are also prone to follow the crowd because we tend to believe that mass perception is correct.
Risk of overstating an issue and selective reporting by the mass media and ubiquitous sharing of news through the social media (such as Facebook) can encourage our cognitive biases; thereby inflating the true level of significance and prevalence of an issue.
Consequently, mass media coverage level and social media news cannot always be reliable sources to gauge the crime levels in this country or to understand the reasons for their rise. Fortunately, many scientific studies have been done on crime and its factors.
Studies have shown that the poor economic condition of a country (such as high levels of unemployment, low income, and political instability) would exacerbate crime levels. A study by Fajnzylber and associates in 2002, for instance, showed that a country’s rising GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita was associated with declining robbery rates in 15 industrialized, 11 Latin American and the Caribbean, 4 Eastern Europe, 3 Middle East, and 12 Asian countries.
That said, however, rising economic performance can also increase crime rates. Stronger economic growth leads to increase in wealth and higher level of transferable assets, which in turn leads to more lucrative targets or opportunities for potential criminals.
So, could it be that Malaysia’ rising crime levels are due to the country’s tenacious pursuit of a higher income and developed nation status?
Malaysia’s Gross National Income (GNI) has increased rapidly to USD9,970 in 2012 from USD6,700 in 2009. Compare these figures to Malaysia’s GNI of a mere USD670 in 1970. If Malaysia’s GNI continue at its current growth rate, the country’s per capita income would hit USD15,000 by 2020, successfully making Malaysia a high income and developed nation by then.
Crime statistics compiled by Habibullah and Baharom in 2008 showed that the crime rates in Malaysia in the last three decades (1973-2003) rose between 1 to 8% per year. More than 80% of the crime committed during this period were related to property crimes such as burglary, vehicle theft, and larceny.
But worryingly, violent or serious crimes (such as murder, robbery, rape, and assault) have increased by a larger margin of between 4 to 10% per year. In 1973-82, violent crime contributed 9.5% of the total crime in Malaysia, but its contribution has risen to 13.5% in 1993-2003.
Habibullah and Baharom further found that Malaysia’s rising economic performance, as measured by real GNP (Gross National Product) per capita, was associated to higher crime levels. More specifically, when real GNP per capita increased, crime levels due to murder, rape, assault, and burglary increased likewise. This positive association between real GNP per capita and crime rates could be due to increasing wealth and transferable assets in Malaysia, giving rise to more criminal activities, as mentioned previously.
The crime statistics released by the Department of Statistics, Malaysia showed that most of the crime from 1999 to 2003 and 2011 occurred in densely populated and wealthier states: Kuala Lumpur, followed by Selangor, then Johor and Pulau Pinang experienced the highest crime rates for both property and violent crime categories in Malaysia.
Higher economic growth and higher income disparity may have contributed to Malaysia’s rising crime levels. Malaysia’s distribution of wealth, as measured by the Gini Coefficient Index, stands at 0.43 in 2012 (note: Gini of 1 measures perfect equality in distribution of wealth, whereas Gini of 0 denotes perfect inequality of wealth distribution).
From a Gini score of about 0.5 in the 1970s, Malaysia’s Gini’s score has since stagnated at about 0.45 since the 1980s. Malaysia’s income disparity is one of the highest in Asia and which is higher than India, Thailand, and Indonesia. And many studies have showed that when the gap between the rich and the poor widens, crime rates tend to rise.
Another possibility for the rising crime levels in Malaysia is — contentiously — the greater democratic freedom now experienced in the country. The national election results in 2008 and 2013 have compelled the Malaysian government to allow increasingly more democratic freedom in the country. Some opined that greater democracy would lead to lower crime levels because of the existence of greater social responsibility and discipline and the establishment of a judicial system with more appropriate punishment system.
However, the study by Lin in 2007 showed that the relationship between democracy and crime is not straightforward. Lin observed that non-democratic countries are more aggressive in enforcing laws against minor crimes than major crimes compared to democratic countries. Furthermore, the fear of crime is lesser among the people in non-democratic countries than in democratic countries. Some countries like Russia, Bulgaria, and Hungary have experienced greater difficulty in imposing harsh criminal punishment system that would otherwise be easier before they had adopted a higher level of democracy.
Using crime data collected from the Interpol for 18 countries and for the period 1971-1996, Lin found that greater democracy levels were associated to lower rates of homicide but higher rates of robbery, burglary, car theft, all theft, and total crime. The relationships between democracy and rape and between democracy and serious assault were, however, weak.
Lin also found that democratic countries have shorter prison lengths than non-democratic countries. The prison length for homicide and minor crimes in democratic countries were shorter by 20% and 80%, respectively, than that in non-democratic countries. This disparity supports Lin’s findings that democracy is generally associated with higher minor crime rates (due to lower deterrence to commit minor crimes).
Malaysia is undergoing rapid transformation. In pursuit of a high income and developed nation status by 2020, as well as increased allowance of democratic freedom, means Malaysia is changing economically, politically, and socially. Malaysia’s aspirations are to be lauded, but these aspirations may carry detrimental side effects to the society such as rising crime levels. If left unchecked, crime can jeopardize Malaysia’s aspirations.
The challenge for Malaysia today is to achieve her goals and at the same time mitigate the detrimental side effects of greater wealth and democracy.
- Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia. 2012. Buletin Perangkaan Sosial. Malaysia 2012. Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia
- Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia. 2005. Buletin Perangkaan Sosial. Malaysia 2005. Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia
- Habibullah, M.S. and Baharom, A.H. 2008. Crime and economic conditions in Malaysia: An ARDL Bounds Testing Approach. MPRA Paper 11910, University Library of Munich, Germany.
- Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D. and Loayza, N. 2002a. What causes violent crime? European Economic Review 46, 1323-1357.
- Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D. and Loayza, N. 2002b. Inequality and violent crime. Journal of Law & Economics 45, 1-41.
- Lin, M-J. 2007. Does democracy increase crime? The evidence from international data. Journal of Comparative Economics, 35, 467-483