In 2021, 847 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants in Singapore were recorded. This is still positively minuscule compared to the West, where this figure is a few times higher in a vast majority of countries.
Nevertheless, it is markedly more than the 656 of 2020, and a low of 555 from 2013. Throughout the past decade, it remained around 600, so even last year’s result — coinciding with the pandemic — was already unusually high.
Is Singapore becoming less safe? Is its reputation as a peaceful metropolis devoid of crime at risk? Can we expect to read more harrowing news headlines akin to those published daily like in the United States?
Not quite. If anything, Singapore is, once again, just ahead of everybody else.
The evolution of crime
Paradoxically, the two-year pandemic — which kept billions of people around the world under movement restrictions around — did not contribute to a meaningful drop in overall criminal activity. Instead, crime simply adapted to this new reality.
Fortunately, unlike in America where violent encounters and homicides set historic records, in Singapore, it was limited to one category that’s open to exploitation in the otherwise orderly city-state: commercial crimes (scams and other forms of cheating, which take place mainly online these days).
While they have increased around the world too, it is particularly visible in Singapore given its very low overall crime incidence.
10 years ago, commercial crimes accounted for only 11 per cent of the total. In 2021, it was a whopping 55 per cent.
This trend has been visible for years and the pandemic has simply acted as a catalyst of change. Why? Blame technology.
Traditional crime categories are being overtaken by cybercrime. Why bother stealing something or burgling a house, when you can rob someone of thousands of dollars with your keyboard? Heck, you can often do it from another country.
There’s less personal exposure and minimal risk of ever being caught.
The fact that millions of Singaporeans were locked out of shopping malls and didn’t even have to commute to work, spending instead much more time online (both for work and leisure), created perfect conditions for digital criminals.
Before the pandemic, in 2019, the number of commercial crimes recorded in Singapore stood at about 12,700. It then shot up to 17,100 in 2020, and 25,800 in 2021.
Meanwhile, more “traditional” thefts have gone down from 11,100 to just 6,800, likely due to prolonged store closures.
Digitalisation of our lives is making us more prone to exploitation by similar means. Digital banking, digital dating, social media, gaming or even running your company — we’re doing so many things on the internet, using our mobile phones and laptops, that even those careful and mindful of the risks are prone to making a mistake.
In addition to the pandemic, the cryptocurrency rally and the emergence of NFTs lured millions of people around the world — Singaporeans included — to put their money into these digital assets, seeking quick and high returns.
Alas, between 2018 and 2020, already more than S$29 million were lost, while the number of reported cases jumped from 15 to over 350.
While Singapore Police Force (SPF) did not provide a specific breakdown for 2021, it is almost certainly much higher again, given that global criminal activity using crypto has jumped to over US$14 billion in 2021, up by close to 80 per cent over 2019, according to Chainalysis.
This finds a partial reflection in a massive spike in the sums stolen through investment scams in Singapore, which increased from around S$68 million in 2020 (and just S$36 million in 2019), to a staggering S$190 million in 2021.
Cryptocurrencies are also being used in a novel type of scam that practically did not exist before 2021 — jobs scams, which skyrocketed from just S$200,000 in 2020 to over S$90,000,000 last year.
Victims are hooked on an opportunity to make money online but become pressured to transfer funds, often using cryptocurrency wallets, to earn their commission in the process. Typically, it’s off to a good start and the victims are lulled by a false sense of security, transferring greater sums to scammers only to never see the money again.
Because of the frictionless nature of crypto, it’s even harder to track the culprits, let alone bring them to justice.
Overall, last year provided a particularly bountiful harvest for cybercriminals in Singapore, with over S$500 million stolen compared to about S$200 million in 2020 and S$165 million in 2019 — with tens of thousands of people duped.
Victim of its own success?
Singapore remains a relatively high-trust society, where people simply do not expect to be a victim of a crime, what makes them more vulnerable. This is particularly true of those who are less tech savvy, and are likely to trust a fake policeman making a scam call telling them to empty their bank account.
Perhaps, then, Singapore is a victim of its own success in combating crime to a point where most people do not feel the need to be vigilant.
But given how interconnected the world is, internet has spurred internationalisation of crime, as thousands of scams reported in Singapore actually originate abroad. It is a much harder phenomenon to combat by the local police.
Going forward, SPF may want to review how it reports criminal activity altogether, since the problem is not going to go away, but is it really Singapore’s crime or merely organised crime seeping through the porous digital borders?
Internet blurred the boundaries and makes it difficult to categorise this criminal activity, particularly as police does not have jurisdiction abroad. The most it can do is advise, warn and help put up some defences against this activity, but it cannot actually investigate and catch foreign bad guys (at least not without international cooperation which is often problematic).
Meanwhile, reporting overall crime figures in a situation where more than half are already classified as commercial, may paint a completely wrong picture about the safety of the city-state.
It’s for this reason I made the headline of my article a bit hyperbolic. Did the crime in Singapore really surge? Is the city-state less safe than it was in the past? Well, it depends. In a traditional meaning and understanding, no.
But we have to take into account new threats emerging from places outside of control of the local authorities, against which the best defense we have thus far is just common sense.
Featured Image Credit: Singapore Police Force