What explains Singapore’s persistently low crime rate?
Why does Singapore have one of the lowest crime rates in the world? What is responsible for such a phenomena? Of course the usual PAP establishment apologists attribute this to the government’s policies on crime, which they argued have kept Singapore as one of the safest cities in the world. But is there all there is to it? How exactly did the PAP do it?
Let us first examine the trend of overall crime decline. Looking at old articles, the crime rate began falling in 1989 as stated in this 1991 ST article:
Senior Assistant Commissioner Khoo Boon Hui said yesterday: “The decline in the overall crime this year is particularly heartening as it indicates that the police have successfully sustained the falling crime trend of the past 2 1/2 years.”
What could account for such a steady drop in committed crimes? Kishore Mahbubani, a Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy professor attributed it to policies such as the high level of trust between the public and police, tough laws, economic growth and development as well universal education. But is that all?
In 2001, American economists Donohue and Levitt published a paper titled The Impact of Legalised Abortion on Crime. The authors showed that crime rates began to fall some 18 years after Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalising abortion in the United States. The reasoning for such a link is simple: Legalised abortion made it easier for women to obtain abortions, and since unwanted children are statistically more likely to turn to crime, their absence following the legalisation of abortion throughout the United States may be responsible for lower crime rates since the early 1990s. Crime rates started falling in 1992 in the US, 18 years after legalisation of abortion. Levitt went on to write Freakonomics, a bestseller which was made into a film in 2010.
Could a similar explanation hold for Singapore? Singapore legalised abortion in 1970, some three years before the United States. However, in addition to the legalisation of abortion in Singapore there was a coordinated strategy and effort on the part of the then-PM Lee Kuan Yew government for Singapore mothers to stop giving birth after having two children. Penalties in the form of reduced child support and the additional accouchement (child delivery) fees and incentives such as priority school admission for children of later ligated mothers (yes, you read that correctly, ligation) make for painful reading some thirty years after the widespread government policy was implemented. Readers interested in the evolution and history of Singapore’s anti-natalist policies are encouraged to read this 2009 post for some background.
Most importantly, the anti-natalist policies in Singapore were specifically targeted at low-income and lower-educated groups, which are recognised as demographic groups more likely to turn to crime. Meanwhile as Singapore’s crime rate fell throughout the 1990s and 2000s, so too did its fertility rate, in part ensuring crimes would stay low decades in the future.
Just as in the United States, when crimes first started to exhibit a marked decline (in 1989, some 18 years after Stop at Two and legalisation of abortion) in Singapore the authorities were quick to credit the police forces for effective policing:
The director of the Criminal Investigation Department, Assistant Commissioner Chua Cher Yak said yesterday this was due to effective policing and close cooperation with the public.
Of course thanks to Donohue and Levitt’s work, we now know better which other factors are likely responsible for the decline in Singapore’s crime rate. Amongst other things, the low birth rate starting in the 1970s have also largely contributed to widespread labour shortages decades later, which the ruling PAP government now uses to justify their pro-foreign talent/worker policies with. All this just goes to show is that policies have unintended consequences and without understanding the full effects of implemented policies and economic contexts, it becomes easy to attribute many achievements to the PAP’s governance without really understanding why.