Crimewatch has been around on Singapore TV for as long as I can remember. In my mind, I associate it with the childhood experiences of swallowing pink pills after brushing my teeth by a drain, eating Mello Mint candies and reading about the Bookworm Club. None of these experiences lasted through today’s generation.
Except Crimewatch. Sponsored by the Singapore Police Force (SPF), it is essentially a show about true criminal cases that our efficient policemen have managed to solve, serving both as public warning and celebration. [Don’t forget to lock up before going to bed! Look out for suspicious strangers in the neighbourhood! If strangers hug you out of the blue, check that you still have your wallet!] Before cable TV, it was also one of the most exciting local shows on TV. Its also a black and white world; good vs evil; crime vs policeman.
[here’s an unambiguous one about a woman hugging old men to get their wallets]
But today’s episode is about unlicensed money lending and I am not sure that the moral of the story got through.
Opening Scene: A pair of street toughs haul pots of paint up a block of HDB flats and proceed to splash it all over the gate and door of their targeted apartment. PAY YOUR DEBTS they daub in bright red. When the owner of the apartment returns, he was shocked to see all the paint. He immediately dialed a number on his mobile phone. “Oi, why you splash paint on my door?” he demands. The sneering gangster who had picked up the call snarled “You owe our boss money. Owe money, pay money.” The debtor appeared to be completely unfazed. “I am not going to pay 20% interest,” he declares And up he goes to the police station to report the incident thereby getting protection for himself and avoid repaying any of his debts.
Now, I am not in favour of any form of usury but it does seem unfair that someone can just borrow money and wriggle his way out of repaying by going to the police. Sneering or acting tough notwithstanding, the gangsters seemed less douchey than the sneaky debtors. Not only that, the moneylenders also appeared to perform a useful service.
Scene 2: Two loan shark runners discuss how to confront a man unable to pay his debts. “You know what to do if he doesn’t pay, right?” one of them asked. The other paused ominously. “Yes.” Another dangerous silence.
“I will….. find him a job,” the loan shark runner finally said.
My sister and I burst out laughing. The loan sharks seemed to have replaced the Community Development Council in helping the unemployed.
Of course, the ‘job’ that these loan sharks offer in lieu of paying one’s debt is to inveigle these insolvent debtors into the entire criminal setup by opening bank accounts that would help the organization hide their money trail. No doubt there also is something wrong with this sequence of events, otherwise, no one in their right minds would become unlicensed moneylenders in Singapore. Unwittingly, though Crimewatch upends the conventional view of moneylenders.
The conventional view of usurious moneylenders is that they are people who prey on the financially desperate to extort high amounts of interest from them through strong arm tactics. Yet, the 20% interest rate that they charge is less than the 24% that credit card companies charge. And credit card companies don’t provide you with an out by letting you work for them.
Instead of tsk-tsking over the unscrupulous money lenders, I find myself beginning to understand why these money lenders use the tactics they do. One party will never see their money again; so its them or us. And what does one say to someone who maxes out all their credit, borrows money and then hopes ride off to the sunset blameless?
Very slippery, those scales of justice.
I am not sure that is the key takeaway the SPF wants its audience to catch.
Postscript: For more on the parallel socio-economy of gangsters, one interesting book is Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. Venkatesh was a PhD student in the University of Chicago when he went to the leader of an inner city gang and asked if he could observe the group at close quarters to gather data for his sociology research. The gang leader also appeared to think (not without justification) that he is providing some kind of social service.