Getting tough on youth violence

Youth hanging outside Orchard Cineleisure, where the slashing of the National Service man had happened.

SINGAPORE - Gang-related crime is uncommon in Singapore, and that is the way society here would like it to remain.

Singaporeans have come to expect that low crime rates here should remain low, and hopefully fall further over time. Against this backdrop, the odd occurrence of rioting, or affray, in which offensive weapons are used in crowded places, raises public alarm.

The slashing attack on a national serviceman at an Orchard Road youth hangout about a week ago happened in plain sight of throngs of passers-by.

At the busy Downtown East in Pasir Ris, a young man died of slash wounds after he was set upon over a "staring" incident. Knife-wielding youths running amok through MRT stations in pursuit of a quarry have terrified commuters.

A more visible police presence in places frequented by young people, such as game arcades and night drinking haunts, would seem to be standard procedure. A police van used to be stationed at the edge of the Boat Quay strip some years ago when young rowdies began to disrupt business, but was withdrawn shortly after.

There will be renewed calls for more consistent policing to deter gang activity in the light of the Cathay Cineleisure Orchard incident.

But early prevention and the role of parenting as a bulwark against youth criminality require closer attention as these get to the root of the social pathology.

A study of the street-gang phenomenon by an inter-agency committee in 2011 concluded that most gangs were loosely organised and of "fluid membership".

Unlike the secret societies of old with their blood rituals and oaths of secrecy, members of contemporary youth gangs tended to outgrow the habit and could leave gangs without too much hassle.

It would be wrong though to accept casual gang membership as a rite of passage. If gang formation and recruitment are not interrupted early, members are liable to be recruited by gambling syndicates and loan sharks to be runners and enforcers. This is the road to perdition.

The use of knives and parangs to settle trivial disputes, resulting in death, would be the ultimate indictment for a failure to take pre-emptive action.

Stricter licensing and surveillance of leisure businesses popular with young people should bring improvement in crime numbers.

But early intervention to prevent school dropouts and alienated teenagers from drifting into opportunistic crime will be the measure of success in reducing the incidence of youth offending over the long term.

Better parenting coupled with greater projection of police presence at hot spots of gang activity will be required if society here is to ensure that the gang menace is curbed.