There are always victims in an economic recession. It can push individuals into desperation and force them potentially to do something that they would not otherwise do. It can turn the man on the streets into a criminal.

There is a relationship between economic recessions and unemployment rates and there is a relationship between unemployment and crime rates. An empty stomach has a way of convincing that the wrongness of stealing is only a secondary worry to the concern of the stomach. Rule of law can be meaningless in times of desperation.

The hungrier one gets because of external circumstances, the greater the erosion on one’s belief in the rule of law. The reward of specific types of crime becomes enticing.

Although there are risks involved in committing the crime, its relative immediate reward has the potential of immediately relieving hunger. A little chance of not going hungry is better than no chance at all.

Before these sentences are misconstrued as a justification or even an encouragement for criminal activities, let it be known the difference between describing and prescribing. One describes without making value judgment. One prescribes with value judgment. This is an effort at the former.

The relationship between economic recession (or perhaps the term economic downturn is a better phrase to escape the banality of technicalities) and unemployment rate is well-established. This requires no further exposition. The relationship between unemployment and crime rates is also well-explored.

What makes exposition important for the latter is that in Malaysia, there is an increasing tendency to ignore it. In its place, there is a belief that an alphabet soup causes the decline in reported crime rate.

That narrative needs to be assessed and then made blunt in the interest of sincerity. Partisan political discussions sometimes can push honesty aside for political convenience. It is all about brownie points. The utility of free speech is essential in putting less-than-honest assertion in perspective.

There are many documentations proving how unemployment contributes to crime rate. Karin Edmark in 2005 showed how “unemployment had a positive and significant effect on some property crimes in Sweden.”

Property crimes can be associated with theft, which can be associated to what can be called as crime of the stomach. In 2002, Eric Gould, Bruce Weinberg and David Mustard found a similar result for general crime rate for young, unskilled labor in the United States, between 1979 and 1997.

Steven Raphael and Rudolf Winter-Ebmer in 2001 found the same relationship in the United States in the 1990s. They wrote “…a substantial portion of the decline in property crime rates during the 1990s is attributable to the decline in the unemployment rate.”

There is little reason why it should be different for other parts of the world, including Malaysia.

It is highly instructive to learn that if indeed actual crime rate had decreased in Malaysia, it happened only while the economy was recovering, thus creating the jobs needed to reduce unemployment.

It is equally instructive that crime rate was on the rise around the same time the Great Recession was at its peak, adversely affecting external demand for Malaysian goods and through that, jobs in Malaysia.

In February 2009, the unemployment rate was 4.1 per cent. In the same month in 2010, the rate was 3.6 per cent. Out of the 12 months, the 11 months of 2009 had higher unemployment rate than the same month a year later. If anybody requires any reminder, it was 2010 when the domestic economy was recovering at a worthwhile rate. The year 2009 was just horrible.

The severity of that number can be put in better context. The annual rate for 2006, 2007 and 2008 was around 3.3 per cent. In 2009, it is estimated to be 3.7 per cent. The estimate for 2010 is already lower than the year before, at 3.5 per cent.

As for the 2010 crime rate, the crime index fell by about 15 per cent compared to the previous year, according to a Bernama report. It also stated that the “achievement was a result of the Royal Malaysia Police’s (PDRM) 12 initiatives to battle crime nationwide,” those initiatives being the Government Transformation Program. The arrogance and the dishonesty are truly remarkable.

The narrative of the results from the government’s effort at combating crime must compete with the mainstream uncontroversial economic one. This is not to say government effort is worthless, but for it and its supporters to claim too much credit, or in this case all the credit for the alleged drop in crime rate without even blinking amid the well-established and stronger case between unemployment and crime rate is too much to take. That is undue credit.

It must compete, just like how the government and its supporters claimed the undue credit for the Malaysian economic recovery when in fact, it was mostly the then rising tide of global economy that lifted the Malaysian boat.

Little things do matter. Actual effort at combating crime by the government and the wider public do matter and they are most appreciated. Nevertheless, do not be dishonest about it. Such dishonesty will discredit all the good real things done.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on August 21 2011.

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