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What explains Singapore’s persistently low crime rate?

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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.”

Indeed a 1989 ST news article first records the beginning of this trend. From 1992 to 2011, Singapore’s crime rate has seen a continuous decline as follows:

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.

Written by defennder

May 10, 2012 at 5:11 PM

13 Responses

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  4. its because of long prison sentences, unlike new zealand in our country its shocking!!!!! offenders will have 10-30 convictions before being incacerated in prison! unlike singapore 3 court appearances and “whammo!” JAIL TIME! and our prison sentences are “lax & lame” compared to the mighty “singapore!”


    December 14, 2012 at 8:59 AM

  5. mmm they do the mess in other country and keep home clean see just internet fraud and illegal bet if they should do on they owen feet they wouldn’t go so far , mind aren’t an agregation tank ..I would worry why they had that place and in which way they grow if they not had a massive mowe of money from outside
    the shade are always something strange to know about but remember there is always a reason why happen somethings


    January 14, 2013 at 6:03 PM

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    August 3, 2013 at 4:47 PM

  10. Is it really true that Singapore’s crime rate is low or is this another of the country’s propaganda?.
    It cannot be, when Singapore’s prison population level is 57th highest in the world.

    Please refer to Wikipedia’s link on Prison Population, by Country.
    Singapore is second among ASEAN countries. It is also second highest among the Four Asian Tiger countries. .
    These statistics and the claim, don’t seem to add up..

    Eddie Lim

    August 6, 2013 at 4:40 PM

  11. There’s something wrong with the author’s timeline. Violent crime in the US reached it’s zenith in 1990 and was a figure higher than ever before in American history, not as American economists Donohue and Levitt write as dropping in ’92 and doesn’t really show a direct correlation to anything. Further, FBI crime stats for 1st 6 months of ’13 show crime has decreased by 4 – 5% over ’12 and no one has any one good idea to account for it. It is true since 1990 over 100,000 more police have been hired and people over the age of 50 are the fastest growing segment of the population and the last 4 years have seen a stead decline in violent crime. So, it’s an oscillating situation w/o a clear cause and effect.

    Scott McKye

    February 24, 2014 at 3:42 PM

  12. Uhh… Have you been to Singapore? The bottom line is the government are not a bunch of pussies. The topic of conversation amongst my American colleagues when we are in Singapore invariably centers around “is this a Cane-able act?” It is great fun and a wonderful topic of conversation. The sheer threat of being caned in conjunction with harsh fines and prison sentences is an incredible deterrent that cannot be minimized. In America this approach is considered preposterous yet it is precisely the medicine and discipline we need as a culture.


    May 6, 2014 at 5:25 AM

  13. I can assure you that Singapore is not only just safe, it probably is the safest country in the world. In most countries, you’ll have this scary feeling walking at night – in Singapore, there’s a feeling of safety in the air and many people (if not all) will attest to this. It probably is not abortion, it’s more likely stiff penalties, and discipline since they’re young (although recently this starts to degrade slightly). Where else can you see a country with so little or no bubble-gum patches anywhere? Many people will tend to disagree – but all I can say is – see at least once than hear it a thousand times.

    Không Ai

    May 6, 2014 at 3:27 PM

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