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Crime Control in Singapore

During this past fall semester, I was on an academic sabbatical. This is a time when professors are temporarily relieved of their everyday teaching and administrative duties in order to travel, write, conduct research, and generally “recharge their intellectual batteries.”

In October I was invited to Bogotá, Colombia, to present a keynote presentation at the very first loss prevention conference sponsored by FENALCO, which is the Colombian national retail association. Then in November my wife and I traveled to northern Thailand primarily to visit the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rei. We rode elephants, crossed the Mekong River into Laos, Myanmar, and visited the Golden Triangle. Moreover, we spent a significant share of our time during this three-week Southeast Asia trip in the remarkably modern city-state of Singapore.

The Republic of Singapore

According to Wikipedia, the Republic of Singapore is a collection of 63 islands with a population of 5.18 million people. Singapore is highly urbanized, yet remarkably, almost half of the country is covered by greenery. More land is being created for development each day through land reclamation. The port of Singapore is one of the five busiest, most notable for being the biggest transshipment port in the world. On a clear day the harbor is full of container ships as far as the eye can see. The country is a very wealthy one, as it is home to more millionaire households per capita than any other in the world. The World Bank notes Singapore as the “easiest place in the world to do business.”

Thanks to some personal contacts arranged by Rex Gillette, a former resident of Singapore during his long career with ADT, I experienced visits with a number of loss prevention directors and retail stores, talking at length to them about their retail crime problems. It turns out, however, most types of crime, especially serious property and violent crime, are almost non-existent in Singapore. This is due to the fact that this former British colony is a very tightly controlled social environment. Littering, spitting on the sidewalk, and even chewing gum are all considered illegal activities in Singapore. You may recall that this is the place that gave an American teenager a painful “caning” as his punishment for vandalizing a car in 1994.

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Crime is just not tolerated in Singapore. You learn this very quickly even before arrival. As your plane lands, the cabin attendants remind the passengers that drug trafficking is punishable by death. In fact, during the week we arrived, three suspects were arrested at the airport for drug possession and were immediately tried and sentenced to be hung. In short, Singapore just does not tolerate crime.

Citywide Video Surveillance

Remarkably, you don’t feel an oppressive police presence while visiting the city. We did see police dressed in army fatigues carrying machine guns at “immigration and customs” while in the airport, but after that it was rare to see even a single uniformed police officer walking the streets or riding in a patrol car. This is due to the fact that the whole city is blanketed by a very sophisticated CCTV system that apparently is watching your every move in public. If a crime is detected on camera, police are quickly dispatched to the scene of the offense. A former police officer, now working as a retail security guard, told me that most officers are not walking a beat, but rather, sitting in centralized offices watching CCTV monitors during their typical shifts.

Cameras are everywhere with obvious signage to warn the citizen who does not recognize the presence of video surveillance. You see cameras on the streets placed on tall poles, in parking ramps, on sidewalks, in hotel lobbies, and in virtually all businesses. The impression that you get in Singapore is that you are constantly being watched. At first I found this level of surveillance to be somewhat disconcerting, but when I asked typical residents, they told me that they were glad that police and security were constantly watching and protecting them. Singapore citizens seemed reassured that crime was well under control, and they expressed that they felt safer as a result of the public-view video “eyes” that were seemingly everywhere.

As you might expect, CCTV is used extensively in the typical retail store as well. I visited one retail store located in the “Little India” section of town that consisted of a number of interconnected buildings that were covered by 1,500 separate cameras. The monitor control room was larger and more impressive than anything that I had ever seen. Attentive LP staffers were found sitting in this relatively small room all day long, monitoring hundreds of both fixed and pan, tilt, and zoom video cameras. Shoppers were monitored from the moment that they entered the store until they left.

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The LP director in this store told me that they made many apprehensions that were all criminally prosecuted due to a close relationship between the store and the police precinct officers. He also felt that the deterrent effect of using this many cameras profoundly reduced store shrinkage. Signage, fixed cameras, and domes were everywhere in the store, making sure that both the shopper and the employee knew that they were always being observed. Yes, the feeling was that “big brother” was constantly watching, but the effect was clearly believed to create a positive atmosphere to all those in the store environment, not an oppressive draconian atmosphere like might be experienced in a high-security prison or jail.

Retail Crime

CCTV was not the only deterrent to retail crime. Other factors also make Singapore a safe place to live and work. For example, I asked about the prevalence of armed robberies of convenience stores. The response was that they seldom occurred. One LP director was hard pressed to come up with two recent robbery examples, one with a club and the other with a knife. Gun possession is illegal in Singapore, except at shooting clubs where personal guns are kept and unlocked only when used.

I asked about employees stealing from the cash drawer and was told that it seldom happened. In Singapore most retailers directly garnish the wages of employees who present cash drawers with cash shortages. The most common internal retail theft seems to be of food and edible products, not hard goods or cash.

External theft seems to be focused on those products that are on outpost tables near entrances and exits where they can be easily taken. Virtually all packages and shopping bags are sealed with simple nylon friction ties that cannot be removed while in the store or taken to other stores for shoplifting purposes. When I raised the topic of ORC, most retail LP executives had heard the term, but were not experiencing the level of organized gang crime that we see here in the United States.

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The Republic of Singapore is a modern, beautiful city that has made crime control and public order a major priority. Civil liberties and freedoms from search and surveillance have been placed behind the goal of living in a crime-free society. I suspect that the ACLU would label Singapore a repressive society, but I did not experience this feeling. In fact, it was nice to know that my person, wallet, camera, and passport were being protected in this virtually crime-free environment.

In 1968 the legal scholar Herbert Packer wrote that crime control and civil liberty can be located at two ends of a continuum in most societies. Clearly the people of Singapore have moved the pendulum of this continuum toward the goal of crime control at the possible expense of some civil liberties and due process of law. Only time will tell whether this trade off will be detrimental to their democracy.

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