Friday, August 28, 2020

The more you have, the more you fear: High inequality makes cities unsafe, say experts

By Janice Lim

30 August, 2019

SINGAPORE — The wider the inequality gap in a society, the more unsafe a country is. That is what some experts said at the Safe Cities Summit held at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore on Thursday (Aug 29).

During the summit, which is organised by the Economist Intelligence Unit, many panellists focused on discussing the available tools and technologies to solve crime, such as the installation of police cameras and extensive surveillance systems dubbed the “eye in the sky”.

However, Ms Kalpana Viswanath, the co-founder of mobile application Safetipin, which supports women’s safety, advocated for an “eyes on the street” concept, where the community can work with the government to build safer spaces to help prevent crimes.

“The eyes on the streets is a good replacement for the eye in the sky,” she said.

Agreeing that the root cause of safety and security concerns is social inequality, Mr Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, a think tank based in Hong Kong, said that it is only “those who have too much who wants to be protected from others”.

“Sort out the inequality issue and you'll be less afraid. Who are the most afraid? Those who have a lot. Singaporeans are paranoid, Americans are paranoid,” Mr Nair said.

On Thursday, the Economist Intelligence Unit also released the Safe Cities Index, which ranks cities based on their performance in 57 indicators across four criteria — digital, infrastructure, health and personal security.

Singapore was the second safest city in the world. It came in first in the world for both infrastructure and personal security, coming in second for digital security.


Citing evidence that countries with high social inequalities tend to be unsafe, Ms Viswanath said that addressing poverty would be crucial to building safer cities.

“When you create a society where there is so much differentiation and people feel and see inequality so starkly, you are going to have more crime,” she pointed out.

Punitive measures should not be the only option available because crime is very much linked to broader social issues in a society.

Mr Nair blamed the level of inequality in the world on the current economic model that is reliant on urbanisation, which disenfranchises rural communities, forcing them to move to the cities and live in squalor conditions.

“This is the economic thinking that we, in this part of the world, have adopted because Western economists said that this is the way going forward,” he said.

Applauding the recent move by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to move the country’s capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan province, Mr Nair advocated the “breaking up” of large cities, where infrastructure is being built in other towns and people relocated there.

“Our cities are dumps and they are not going to get better,” he noted.


Besides tackling poverty, another way to build safer cities is to focus on crime prevention, which is the premise of Ms Viswanath’s “eyes on the street” concept.

Cities could be designed to encourage people to walk more, for example. The more a space is being populated by people and is active with street vendors and other human activities, the safer the community would be.

“As a shopkeeper, you want the space outside your shop to be safe, so you’ll keep an eye out,” Ms Viswanath explained.

This would be a simple and inexpensive solution to crime, compared to infrastructural changes.

Those who are part of the community need to be involved in the process, along with governments, to create safe spaces, she added.

Mr How Kwang Hwee, the Singapore Police Force’s director of operations, said that the police “totally subscribe” to such a community-centric approach and said that the law enforcement agency often works with community partners to develop safety and security projects.

However, Mr How said that efforts to fix up cameras at public spaces have also been well-received by people here.

Police cameras aside, Mr Craig Jones, the cyber-crime director of Interpol, said that there are surveillance systems available to track people for a period of time — security solutions popularly termed as the “eye in the sky”.

However, the public’s appetite for these new methods needs to be assessed, he said, given that the privacy of individuals would be at stake.


Speaking on the issue of whether an individual’s privacy can be sacrificed for the sake of safety at a separate panel, Mr Nair crossed swords with Mr Allan Chiang, Hong Kong’s former privacy commissioner for personal data.

Mr Nair believes that privacy is a “modern” phenomena and of concern only to “elitist, middle-class” people, while Mr Chiang said that individuals have a right to privacy, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

And privacy laws are important to protect that right since digital footprints can be left everywhere, Mr Chiang said. He added that there are technologies available that can identify a person based on their walking patterns, rendering the masks that Hong Kong protesters are now using to cover themselves potentially useless, for instance.

The bigger problem is when data collected about an individual is used in a wrongful manner, such as making predictions about a person that may or may not be accurate.


To strike a balance between privacy and safety, Mr Chiang suggested two parameters: Transparency and proportionality.

Whether it is commercial or government organisations collecting data from their consumers or citizens through the provision of a service, Mr Chiang said that consumers and citizens need to be given a choice to decide whether to take part in it.

“Get their consent. Do things openly,” he stressed.

As for proportionality, how far organisations can go in collecting an individual’s data would depend on circumstances.

For instance, getting one’s face and fingers scanned at the immigration customs while entering another country is proportionate because it concerns the national security of a country, Mr Chiang said.

On the other hand, installing cameras in taxi vehicles in a safe city such as Hong Kong, whether to monitor the drivers or ensure their safety, is going too far.

When asked about the role of governance in ensuring that citizens giving up their privacy would translate into heightened safety, Mr Nair said that a “very strong state” is needed.

One example is the Singapore Government, which Mr Nair said is “tough as nails” but is able to decide what the rules are.

However, Mr Chiang emphasised that governments need to conduct public consultations when formulating these rules for the sake of transparency and accountability, and to gain the public’s trust.

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