Lured by power, money and glamour

Peddling drugs: Crime offenders are not just getting younger but also more aggressive, preferring ‘high-risk, big-gain’ offences to petty crime.

Boon was only 16 when he was recruited by a gang. Within months, he was peddling the party drug "ice" at nightspots.

"I rose up the ranks very fast and was given the nickname 'Tiger'.

"The gang leader trusted me and I was even allowed to help 'manage the girls' (prostitutes)," recalls the school dropout who comes from a broken home.

Married at the age of 20, Boon decided to leave his life of crime and is now working as a dishwasher in the United Kingdom.

"My wife left me and I have a little daughter to think about now. I need to earn enough to ensure a good future for her," he adds.

Boon believes that if he had not walked away as he did then, he would have "progressed" to heavier crimes and probably end up in jail.

Young and in trouble

Lured by power, money and glamour, more teenagers and other youngsters are getting involved in serious crimes and living on the edge. Boon is one of the lucky ones who managed to break out of the vicious cycle.

Crime offenders are not just getting younger but also more aggressive, preferring "high-risk, big-gain" offences to petty crime, psychologist and criminologist Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat observes.

"Influenced by the glamorous lifestyles of local and foreign celebrities, movies and social networking on the Internet, more youngsters are purposely exposing themselves to criminal activities. Their level of aggression (as seen in the severity of their crimes) is today almost on par with their adult counterparts," adds Dr Geshina, who is with Universiti Sains Malaysia's Forensic Science Programme.

Her interviews with juveniles indicate that they see involvement in serious crimes as more exciting because they get a sense of power and higher monetary reward.

"Their logic is, why get involved in petty thefts when distributing drugs provides more money? There's also an element of ignorance as to the punitive consequences of their actions to themselves and their families."

Why so violent?

There are many reasons for aggressive and violent behaviour.

Research has shown that there are the psychological and biological aspects, family dynamics, peer pressure, economic reasons, lack of morality and religiosity and environmental cues at play, Dr Geshina notes.

"There's no one single 'formula' to identify the reasons for violent actions but the dominant determinant is having an anti-social personality which has been shaped during childhood," she says.

Psychologist and family therapist Datuk Dr Mat Saat Baki finds teenagers and young adults more violent and sexually aggressive these days.

Society should shoulder some blame, he says.

"Teenagers are getting more difficult to control because nowadays, society accepts violence as a way of life and a means of getting what you want. Take video games, for example. What's popular in the market are video games that send the message: the more you kill, the higher you score," he says, citing the easy access to violent pornographic material as another example.

"Exposure to pornography that glorifies the forced physical act of raping a girl sends the message that the more you control and dominate, the better you are. This can even result in forceful sex in relationships."

He adds that youngsters are more brazen when they are acting in a group as they reassure and encourage each other to behave in a particular way.

"For instance, in a gang rape situation, they could be daring each other to 'do it' or (as a group), they want to punish a girl who has spurned the advances of one of their friends. Add drugs or alcohol into the mix, and the violence just escalates without them even realising it - it can get very dangerous, very fast," he explains.

Safety activist K. Balasupramaniam says young criminals are not a new phenomenon but the gravity of the crimes and modus operandi are.

Young criminals are noticeably more advanced these days because of their Internet-savvy ways.

Having trained over 260,000 women from all walks of life in urban survival skills to date, he notes that Gen Y criminals have unlimited technological know-how thanks to the World Wide Web.

"Everything is at their fingertips - the latest technologies are a click away.

"They can buy almost any weapon online while CSI episodes and movies show them how crimes can be committed creatively.

"Unlike in the old days, we are not dealing with bicycle thefts any more. Young criminals have moved on to serious offences because they are an IT-savvy generation," he says, adding that even children as young as nine now have Facebook and are able to see and copy what the adults are doing.

However, unlike adults who may think twice before committing an illegal act, juveniles won't because they know that the law will be lenient with them.

He says the trend of movies portraying bad guys as heroes is also a problem.

"We are dealing with fast learners who are savvy in committing knowledge-based crimes. If nothing is done to curb this breed of young criminals, I fear the worst when Gen Z comes along."

Dr Geshina, who works with many agencies including the police, is currently doing a holistic study of juvenile behaviour.

Her research aims to determine the reasons for juvenile involvement in crime, their profiles and contri­buting factors, and to chart criminal pathways based on adult criminal behaviour.

"One element in our study is aggressive behaviour," she says. "The levels (of their aggressiveness) are also higher compared with normal members of the public."

The study is slated for completion by the end of the year.

Nipping crime in the bud

Education and family intimacy are ways to curb aggression, violent and criminal behaviour, Dr Mat Saat opines. For example, in the case of rape, teenagers must be taught to cope with their sexual desires and peer pressure.

"They must know how to express themselves and channel their sexual energy in a proper, non-violent manner," he says.

Stressing on the importance of sex education, he says it's a misconception to claim that it teaches students to sleep around.

"On the contrary, sex education is important because it shows youngsters how to love, care, respect and relate to each other. It is about the art of living and includes topics like fertility and relationships," he says.

He says it's not enough for parents to inculcate good values in their kids.

"You need to monitor your children's behaviour and the crowd they mix with because, ultimately, no matter what you teach them, it's their choice to act in a certain way," he stresses.

"Parents are good at giving guidelines but enforcement is another thing. Teenagers will say 'I know better' and they will seek validation from their peers and check for themselves to see if what you've said is acceptable.

"Parenting now is very different from the old days so you need to change your approach."

Balasupramaniam emphasises strong family bonds and civic consciousness to prevent a young breed of criminals from booming.

Describing civic consciousness as the "antibody to crime", he says the police omnipresence is not a long-term solution.

"You cannot stop the Internet and you definitely cannot stop access to knowledge - good or bad, so we need to bring back the days when kids were trained to do the right thing," he says.

Dr Geshina believes negligent and abusive styles of parenting also increase children's risk of exposure to crime.

Older criminals and criminal gangs seek out vulnerable youngsters, she opines.

Children in the above situations are "willing to be involved in gangs either because it's where they can get tender, loving care and acceptance or because their parents simply can't be bothered with what they are doing," she says.

Advising parents to play their part in not exposing their children to criminal elements, Dr Geshina says there are "potential criminal" signs and behavioural patterns parents should look out for in their children.

Look out for a drastic change in behaviour, bringing or hiding different sets of clothes that are inconsistent with the reason cited for leaving the house, she says.

"A common sign is withdrawal from family activities, playing truant or skipping classes. (Instead of being with the family) they prefer to spend more time, including at night, with their peers or older children."

Another tell-tale sign is when the value of the child's belongings are more than what the parents can afford.

Mood swings, abnormal sleeping and speech patterns, among others, may indicate drug use.

The way children behave with others can also indicate bullying and anti-social behaviour.

"If your children are behaving more aggressively and want to hurt others, don't engage in aggressive confrontations and hurl accusations. It will only make them less likely to cooperate and want to rebel by getting even more involved in crime.

"There are better ways to address problematic behaviour but parents should have been more aware from the onset so that criminal involvement does not occur in the first place," she says.

Mother-of-four K. T. Yew, 56, admits to being overly protective of her four daughters but believes she has no choice as more youngsters are in the news lately for serious crimes.

"Every other day, I read about serious crimes being committed. Many of those arrested are so young, some are still in their teens," she notes.

She makes it a point to tell her daughters, the youngest of whom is 17, of crime reports and repeatedly warns them to be selective of the company they keep.

"I'm very strict but ultimately, it's they who must differentiate between what's right and wrong. I can only hope that the values I've instilled in them will keep them safe," she says.