Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Playing cat and mouse with the law

A few weeks ago, as I was passing, there was a surprise raid by city officials on the hawkers at the premises of the Masjid Jamek LRT station. Within minutes , the hawkers made their rushed ‘getaway’, clearing the area of their makeshift counters and culinary spreads.

Since then, I note the resilient hawkers and vendors are back, even in greater number, it would seem to me. Well…it kind of set me thinking. Not that most of us are unaware of this phenomenon, but I am curious as to its nature, dynamics and the rational of it all.

This is not to say, I am unsympathetic towards the small man trying the earn a living, for I would consider myself as one naturally inclined towards the underdog of society, rather than the spoilt and decadent of the upper class or ‘the big boys’ of business. But then the issue I am raising here is not of sectarian interests, but a point of law and governance, or concerning ‘mismanagement’ perhaps? It raises questions too on the effectiveness of the law and its enforcement.

Now I am sure the vendors are not unintelligent lot. They must and do calculate their risk, gain and losses Wouldn’t it be reasonable for me to conclude that somewhere in their reckoning, they find it still ‘worth it’ to persevere playing cat and mouse. How do they come to resolve thus? The penalty is not severe enough so as to deter, the trade is lucrative, the officials can be persuaded to be lenient, there are possible loopholes in the law and implementation that one can avail oneself of? Or simply, the law is really a farce and not to be taken seriously?

What make me curious rather is the stand of the law enforcement agency. Now given their goal of outlawing such businesses, as evident in their periodic raids, haven’t they come to the conclusion by now that their action had been ineffective? Or can it be this is not an issue altogether with them? The point to them is periodic demonstration of power or authority, a ritual of sort which needs to be performed?

I know this much. In places like Singapore, reputable for its law and order, law and enforcement had been diligently crafted to underscore one principle, that ‘it is not worth the  risk doing it’. This message would be clearly signaled in the formulation of the law, as well in its implementation. When and if necessary, the penalty would be costly enough to deter would -be adventurous and high-risk takers. Don’t take my word for it, check out the relevant court cases. By and large, I think the law and enforcement work over the causeway because the law is strict in words and cannot be negotiated or compromised in enforcement. It has nothing to do with the natural law abiding instinct of Singaporeans. Well you can apply this to littering and driving offences as well.

Playing cat and mouse with the law is a well-known modus operandi in Malaysia. In parts of Kuala Lumpur city, it is public secret that illegal vendors, say of pornographic materials or pirated goods, can move in steps with raiding city officials, avoiding confrontation with much precision. Very much like the Filipino bamboo dancers, jumping in an out in time, avoiding being ‘cornered’. It is often alleged as soon as the officials turn into the next street, the vendors would be back, as a matter of routine really.

We can of course develop this phenomenon into an even wider picture, of greaer significance. Playing cat and mouse can get bigger with much higher  stake. Hence we note with much regret, illegal logging goes on for decades in the country. Given the nature and scale of the business, this is not easy to manage without complex organization and nimbleness at playing cat and mouse. The government knows, the officials know, the laws are there, and yet the game continues. The same with corruption in high places, the laws are there, sometimes enforced with much fanfare. But somehow ‘the players’ have reasoned that ‘it is still worth the risk’. Is it a case of lenient law, or of lax enforcement, making the risk low enough as to be worth taking? Or putting it in other words, making corruption and wrong doings most tempting and still rewarding?  After all they may reason, ‘ no risk no gain’? Could it be they find it to be not risky at all? So they continue playing.

What is wrong with our law and enforcement? Or is it more the case of our civic mindedness, public ethics? Is it purely a question of integrity and morality? I very much doubt it. I think if we all could be saints, there would be no need for the police, the court and even the law. But the reality is that all of us are not saints! Hence we still need good strict laws, diligently enforced, in addition to good incorruptible leadership paving the way.

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