Book Review: Six Expressions of Death

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Six Expressions of Death is a solid debut work from Castalia House author Mojo Mori. Set in 16th century Japan, the story begins with the murder of a traveller on the road between the city of Morijuku and the village of Iwagi. When Daikawa Tadashi, a poor but noble samurai, investigates the murder, he quickly discovers there is more to the crime than a mere murder-robbery. Soon, he is embroiled in a complex web of deceit, intrigue and violence. Clan war is on the horizon, and shinobi stalk the night.

Six Expressions of Death is a taut, atmospheric murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the Sengoku period. Japan is still divided among daimyo, and powerful, ambitious clans like the Takeda are seeking to dominate the land. The book demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail, from architecture to artwork, cuisine to culture, immersing the reader into its setting.

Buddhism and folklore are key components of the narrative. The samurai view themselves as drifting within an ever-changing dewdrop world, recognising that their lives are brief and transient. The titular six expressions of death refer to belief among samurai that the faces of the dead hold portents for the future. While religion doesn’t play a significant role in the narrative, it nonetheless informs how the characters think and act.

The Japanese obsession with honour, too, pervades the book. The warriors among the cast, for instance, strive to comport themselves with honour. Tadashi grapples with how to handle himself in the most honourable fashion, even as he deals with shinobi, whom he believes the most dishonourable of creatures. Likewise, when meditating on his relationship with his lover, he, too, tries to behave in a manner becoming of his ancient house. And of course, in the story, deceit and betrayal are seen as the most craven acts, while seppuku is always the final solution to regain one’s honour.

The prose is tight and clean. There are no unnecessary scenes, no wasted words, and the narrative flows cleanly from one event to the next. Mojo writes with a strong, clear voice, imbuing the text with a heady mixture of mysticism and violence. The action scenes are quick and lethal, with individual combats often resolved in the space of a breath. As the mystery unfolds, plot twists come at surprising moments, yet every revelation is carefully thought-out and appropriately foreshadowed. My only quibbles come with the occasional use of Westernisms like ‘sir’ and ‘Commissioner’; I would prefer the use of the original Japanese terms, but I recognise that such terms make it easier for non-Japanese readers to follow the story.

As I read the text, I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s notes on the character of a private detective. To quote from the master:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a >disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

Daikawa Tadashi neatly fits into the the archetype. He routinely confronts danger and death, but he is neither afraid nor negatively affected by his encounters. Being a samurai he is educated in the way of the pen, the sword, the bow and the horse, and is prone to reciting haiku at the drop of a hat. He is born of high status, yet he is also a poor man not too far removed from commoners. While the people he encounters treat him with the respect he is due, he in turn does not mistreat them or take advantage of his station. He is, of course, a man of honour, and as such he despises deceit and holds weak people in contempt.

Throughout the story, Tadashi uses his wits as often as his weapons. A perceptive and intelligent man, he is quick to pick up clues and piece them together. He is also equally handy with bow and sword, able to match trained killers on their own terms. Readers accustomed to ‘gritty’ works or noir fiction might grouse that he is too perfect, but I would say that Tadashi strives to hold himself to the samurai ideal at all times.

The rest of the cast is also well-characterised, reflecting both their personalities and the norms of the times. There is the loyal and unflappable servant, the extroverted if somewhat unreliable comrade, the incompetent commissioner, the feminine and faithful lover.

A common complaint I’ve seen among other reviews is that the ending is anticlimactic. The true villain of the story is dealt with in a few placid pages. I can sympathise. Readers accustomed to Western-style action stories would expect an action-filled climax in which Tadashi personally delivers justice at swordpoint. However, this is a crime novel at heart. Violence is punctuation, not purpose; the story is not driven by the fight scenes, but rather by Tadashi’s investigation. Likewise, as a poor country samurai, Tadashi’s ability to confront the mastermind is sorely limited; if anything, I felt his method of bringing justice to the offender was particularly inspired. It was entirely within character and completely congruent with the setting.

Six Expressions of Death is a heady brew of logic, spirituality, treachery and combat. It comes highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction and crime novels. It can be found on Amazon and the Castalia House store.

(Full disclosure: I am also published by Castalia House.)

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If you would like to see the work I’ve published at Castalia House, you can pick up NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House store. This one is for people who love urban fantasy, military science fiction, espionage and martial arts.

Acceptable Targets: A Tale of Two Terrorist Attacks

In the past month, the world witnessed two headline-grabbing terrorist attacks. The first was a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston by a lone white male, killing 9. The second is a trio of simultaneous strikes in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, each perpetuated by one or two individuals, killing at least 54. The Charleston shooter claimed he was motivated by a desire to start a race war. The Islamic State (Daish) claimed responsibility for the attack in Tunisia, and have produced propaganda calling for terrorist attacks during Ramadan; the other two attacks may have a connection to the Tunisian strike too.

One attack generated lasting international controversy. The other has faded from social media. The latter was inspired by the world’s foremost threat to international security, whose ideology continues to inspire people to mass atrocities and whose religion is practised by over a billion people worldwide. The former was done by a mentally unbalanced individual who sought refuge in an ideology shunned by the world, even in its place of origin.

One would think the larger, deadlier attack would generate more controversy. Incredibly enough, this is not so.

The disparity is even more stunning when you look at the consequences of the attack.

The Charleston shooter generated a media firestorm concerning racism in America, with people calling for the removal of the Confederate Battle Jack. The controversy had people swarming in to defend or suppress freedom of speech, condemn the former Confederate States of America — an unrecognised country that lasted for all of four years — and tear down the Battle Jack, and creating memes expressing extreme disapproval of the flag and the South. On the political front, politicians and celebrities jumped all over themselves to push for even greater gun control measures, and to press the state government of South Carolina to take down the Battle Jack flying over the State House. Apple has removed every American Civil War game from its app store because these games have an image of the Battle Jack, while Amazon and Walmart have de-listed the flags of the Confederate States.

The latest attacks generated all of…nothing. No fiery speeches or articles about Arabic or Muslim prejudice. No calls for gun control — but then, the attacks took place in countries where guns are highly restricted or outright illegal. The flags of the Nation of Islam, Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Oman, and other Islamic organisations and nations that supported the slave trade for centuries and international jihad for decades are still sold openly. Never mind that the majority of the slave trade from 8th to the 19th century has facilitated and institutionalised by black Muslim empires in Africa and the Middle East. Games that let the player take on the role as the ruler of Islamic states which supported slavery and conquest, such as the Civilization series, Age of Empires, Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis III and IV, are still on the shelves. No calls to ban Islam or demolish mosques.

From a political perspective, it’s almost as if the second attack never happened. But then, the first attack is an acceptable target.

Politics and Narratives

These two examples are illustrative of a wider principle: that of the narrative. The ideologies of gun control, white guilt, hatred for the American South and other related ideas predominate in the Western-influenced world. When a terrorist attack happens to fall into the narrative generated by these ideas, the power brokers, politicians, influencers and supporters will hustle to dance on the future graves of the unburied dead to push their agenda. They’ve become so powerful that corporations will either bow to pressure or take pre-emptive moves to avoid offending them. The ideologues jumped on a tragedy and turned it into a political victory, as they have done for every controversial shooting and act of terror that they could twist to their ends. As long as pressure tactics and media saturation work in their favour, they will continue to press for their vision of a better world — not with guns or bombs, but with memes and words and peer pressure.

And if another tragedy occurs that does not fall into their narrative, don’t expect them to do any more than mouth words of condolences.

The deck is stacked in their favour. White on black slavery, proliferation of guns, racial tensions and conflict, these are all acceptable targets to the international media. It creates a narrative of conflict, which drives controversy and therefore eyeballs and advertising revenue. Inconvenient facts — the slave trade being driven by blacks and Muslim empires, the first gun control laws being aimed at blacks, the ties between the KKK and the Democrat Party, Islamist-inspired terrorists killing people and gaining more territory than any other cause since the 21st century — are swept under the carpet. The media will gladly support the ideologues as long as they see profit in doing so; left unchecked, they will dominate the politics of Western-influenced civilisation and turn a blind eye to such inconveniences as reality.

How Daish will Adapt

What really concerns me is what groups like Daish will do next. By now they must have noticed the relative lack of impact the triple attacks had versus the Charleston shootings, never mind that these attacks killed over six times the number of victims across a much larger area. They would adjust their strategies accordingly.

Conflict is no longer monolithic. It is not about Axis versus Allies, communism vs capitalism, it is a patchwork of violent nonstate actors and rogue regimes with shifting allegiances and alliances against literally everybody else. Case in point, America might support Saudi Arabia to guarantee the flow of Saudi oil, but members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda to attack the United States, and al-Qaeda’s successor, Daish, is now invading Saudi Arabia. In a chaotic and anarchic environment, VNSAs make their mark through propaganda of the deed, establishing legitimacy through conducting spectacular attacks that seize the attention of the world media.

Daish will learn that an attack that can be twisted to serve the narrative of gun control and white guilt will leave a far longer and lasting impression on the West than a mass terrorist attack in their name. Daish will know that their attacks won’t trigger these hot-button issues in Western minds, so they have to compete in three ways.

The first is to amplify their message. Killing over six times the number of victims isn’t enough to drown out the noise of a hot-button strike. In line with their virulent anti-Western brand of viciousness, Daish will likely develop novel ways to gruesomely kill large numbers of people, work with local partners or send infiltrators to access faraway targets, and go for symbolic and infrastructure targets — the former to amplify the brand, the latter to generate greater havoc.

The second is to choose timing. Daish will pay greater attention to the international news cycle. During Ramadan the world media will pay a little more attention to Muslim affairs, but they have learned that hot-button strike will trump this extra media attention. VNSAs have the advantage of choosing when and where to strike. Groups like Daish will step up attacks to coincide with events of major significance that tie into their brand (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, anniversary of their self-proclaimed caliphate, etc.), or delay attacks to let other messages clear from the news cycle and social media networks.

The third is to exploit the news cycle by dominating the narrative before anyone else. The Charleston shooting generated so much controversy partially because the ideologues jumped all over the event and captured so much media attention, without even waiting for the bodies to cool. Daish and VNSAs will likely study this. In future attacks, I expect terrorists to start claiming responsibility once they have confirmation that the attack is complete, and for their sympathisers to start flooding the airwaves with propaganda and activism. They will use Western notions of freedom of speech against the West, claiming that their messages of hatred is protected speech.

These strategies are not even limited to Daish. Other groups, now and in the future, will do the same thing, to different degrees. Daish simply enjoys primacy of place since it has effectively replaced al-Qaeda as the world’s number one boogeyman for the time being. But at the local level, groups will use such tactics to dominate local political spheres, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the cartels in Mexico. Terrorism will become increasingly sophisticated, and will use the technology and norms of the West against it.

What can be done?

The first step is to not reward terrorism. Terrorists, be they lunatic mass shooters or rational VNSAs, want to generate publicity through their operations. Therefore, after every strike, the media should report the facts while giving the perpetrators no attention whatsoever beyond noting which group was responsible for the hit. At the level of the individual, people need to start tuning out when the ideologues crawl out of the woodwork, or else call them out for jumping the gun when the facts are not in yet. It means refusing to play by the rules of the 24/7 news cycle, and instead waiting for days or weeks, waiting until the facts come in.

The second is to pay attention to global trends. It says much about the world when a mentally unbalanced individual who kills nine people in the name of a dead country generated much more attention than a clear and present threat to the world that aims to overthrow the weak states of the Middle East. People need to understand the real problems they are facing, and prioritise their time, attention, energy and resources accordingly. Ideologues will want to paint their pet cause as THE pressing threat to civilisation: ignore them, and look at the real problems the world faces.

The third is to pay attention. It has never been easier for individuals to sow chaos and kill people en masse in the history of mankind. People can no longer count on intelligence services to reliably intercept terrorists before they strike, and the military and police can only respond to an attack in progress. People need to start looking out for lone wolves, terrorism indicators and other threats — and those so inclined need to step up and study the skills needed for a mass casualty event.

War has changed. It is no longer fought on battlefields with clearly-defined combatants. It will be fought on the Internet and in the printing presses, by soldiers and civilians, in streets and homes everywhere in the world. There are no longer non-combatants, just people who can fight back and people who cannot, and people who believe messages and people who do not.

'Light Touch' or Rule by Bureaucrat?

Controversial blog The Real Singapore was shut down yesterday following a demand by the Media Development Authority. Its owners have been arrested for sedition, and if they had not shut down TRS they would have to face heavier charges. Media experts say that this is still in line with the government’s ‘light touch’ approach, calling TRS an ‘extreme case‘.

On the one hand, TRS represented the worst the Singaporean blogosphere had to offer. Tales of foreigner-bashing, plagiarisation and outright fiction regularly populated its pages. I’m not sorry to see it go. On the other hand, the fact the government shut down TRS spells out a troubling future ahead.

The heart of the problem is the state’s definition of ‘light touch’. It is a term as nebulous as ‘Out of Bounds markers’. The latter term represents the government’s approach to freedom of speech: you are free to say anything you like, until you cross the OB markers, at which point you will face the full weight of the law. To date there are no proper definitions of OB markers, only that to date I cannot recall anyone affiliated with the government or the People’s Action Party running afoul of these guidelines, only political activists.

‘Light touch’ is not a standard determined by Parliament or the judiciary. The standards have not been debated, the consequences never explicitly spelt out. Without transparent guidelines people can point to for comparison, these two innocent-sounding words can be used to justify anything.

It was used to get sociopolitical websites gazetted as political organisations, requiring them to take on extra burdens to meet red tape. It was used to force websites with monthly views of over 50 thousand readers to obtain special broadcasting licenses — which, coincidentally, cover sociopolitical issues. Now it has been used to shut down an ‘extreme’ website.

The case of TRS also brings to light the terms of Amos Yee’s bail. After being arrested for posting an allegedly seditious video on YouTube that insulted Lee Kwan Yew and Christianity, the teenager was granted bail on the condition that he would not post any online content. He also had to take down the video. Yee broke the terms of the bail and was subsequently re-arrested. Such a bail condition is virtually unprecedented in Singapore, but I suspect that if left unchallenged and uncommented upon it will quickly become the norm for people arrested for sedition in the future.

Looking at TRS and Amos Yee, I think Singaporeans, especially those involved in sociopolitical affairs and are not affiliated with the PAP, can no longer take the words ‘light touch’ at face value. Without explicit standards these words can mean anything the bureaucrats want them to mean: in effect, where online media is concerned, the government prefers to rule by bureaucrat, who are unaccountable to anyone but their paymasters — who coincidentally also work for the government. What the people want to think of as a ‘light touch’ is not how the bureaucrats will interpret it, in the same way the ‘Media Development Authority’ highest-profile means of developing Singapore’s media scene is to censor it.

To survive in this new atmosphere, Singaporean bloggers have to learn the rules of the game. It seems that anything that can be interpreted as sedition will lead to criminal charges, followed by content censorship. If something can be interpreted as racist, prejudiced, or otherwise able to stir up hatred against people of certain races and religious, it will lead to criminal charges and censorship. If something can be interpreted as a threat or as defamation against a member of Parliament, the government or the state — and not necessarily everybody else — it will lead to criminal charges and censorship. If a piece of online content is so controversial that it leads to petitions, police complaints, media attention and general public outcry, it will lead to a police investigation with the possibility of criminal charges and/or censorship.

In short: if something stirs up doubleplusungood feelings, it will be regulated.

The government has promised a ‘light touch’ when regulating online media, and it has delivered on its promise. A government as legalistic and bureaucratic as Singapore’s would likely have internal procedures, standards, benchmarks and other protocols to determine whether a piece of online content needs to be censored. The only trouble is that the government has yet to share with the people what, exactly, constitutes a ‘light touch’ and what standards it uses.

If the government thinks it can shut down TRS on the basis of sedition, then it should shut down every other website that does the same. So here is a litmus test:

The Global Islamic Media Front is a keystone in the international terrorist network. It produces and distributes terrorist propaganda, acting as al-Qarda’s de facto media arm. It also distributes cryptographic tools that enable terrorists and sympathisers to communicate securely. GIMF encourages terrorism by praising terrorists who have completed operations, disseminating the sayings of terrorist leaders, and celebrating dead terrorists as ‘martyrs’.

GIMF is also hosted in Singapore.

If the Media Development Authority will shut down TRS, which merely stirs up ill feelings, will it then shut down GIMF, which actively incites violence towards nonbelievers?

PS: I can think of several reasons not to shut down GIMF, all of which have to do with national and international security. The thrust of this hypothetical question is to point out the lack of open standards, how it erodes trust in the government, and why the MDA needs to define ‘light touch’ beyond pretty press statements.

More Laws, More Crime

In 1920, the United States passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the production, sale and transportation of alcohol. The next thirteen years saw an upshot in banditry, the rise of organised crime on the backs of alcohol smuggling, gang violence, police corruption and an international alcohol smuggling racket that raked in millions of dollars and became increasingly tolerated by society.

Lawmakers supporting Singapore’s islandwide alcohol ban evidently did not learn the lessons of Prohibition. While this softer Prohibition would not lead to the depravity described above, it would nevertheless make more criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens for the most spurious of reasons: complaints about public drunkenness and excessive liquor consumption..

Should the ban pass, alcohol may only be sold from 7 am to 10.30 pm. The reality is that most actual alcohol sales would be restricted from 6.30pm to 10.30pm, at best, for the working week. Most people need to go to work or school, and then travel to the nearest retail outlet when they are finished. Given Singapore’s working culture and traffic conditions a more realistic time frame would be 7.30pm to 10.30pm for the majority of alcohol sales. Even on weekends, alcohol consumption tends to take place in the evening during social gatherings — the new restrictions would force people to purchase alcohol well in advance, hustle to shops before they run out of time, or do without. Retailers might see a shift in alcohol sales patterns to the weekends — or else drop off altogether.

According to the Straits Times, retailers ranging from supermarket chains to convenience stores would potentially see a loss of 20 to 30 percent of their revenue due to this ban. Should the ban pass, retailers would have to contemplate three courses of action: accept the loss in revenue, sharply reduce stock to accommodate the new sales time, and increase prices to make up for reduced income. Large retailers with many in-demand goods like Sheng Shiong and Fairprice might be able to accept the loss of income and make up for it elsewhere; convenience stories, especially mama stores with established reputations, may not.

One of the great flaws of the ban is that it sharply reduces supply without affecting demand. Economics theory predicts that a black market will inevitably arise. To combat this, the government allows retailers to apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis, both for retailers and for people wishing to organise public events with drinking. The problem is that just about everyone who drinks and sells alcohol anywhere in Singapore would be affected by this ban; this would require the creation of a large bureaucracy to handle the inevitable paperwork and mass appeals, in the form of a Licensing Officer and a Liquor Appeal Board.

One of two things are likely to happen. First, a huge number of people would apply for and be granted exemptions to the act. Secondly, only a fairly small group of retailers, those able to make their case and afford to do so, are granted the exemptions. The first scenario effectively defeats the purpose of the ban, unless its purpose were simply to impoverish retailers, inconvenience citizens and expand the role of the government in everyday life. The second outcome would mean that the unlucky masses whose petitions are rejected would be increasingly dissatisfied with the government and seek workarounds at higher cost to themselves. Retailers, in particular, would have to raise prices if they cannot absorb the loss in revenue. Not just prices of alcohol, but everything else, since the latter now has to yield a greater proportion of income than alcohol for the retailer to remain profitable.

Which would fuel a black market.

The alkie bootlegger’s playbook is almost a century old. They could buy alcohol legally in neighbouring regions, then smuggle them into Singapore. Some retailers, forced to choose between feeding their families or breaking the law, would choose the latter and quietly sell alcohol under the counter to trusted customers past the cut-off time. Other enterprising sorts would legally purchase alcohol from retailers in bulk, then sell it on the streets or in their homes after 10.30pm. There would always be demand, and it is impossible to curb demand by attacking supply.

Even if every single retailer somehow complied with the law, the law still would not address the problem of public disorder caused by drunkenness. Evidently the ones who proposed the bill have no understanding of human nature. None of them contemplated the possibility of someone getting drunk at home or in a pub, then going out and causing trouble on the streets. Nobody ever thought of people going into a pub, buying liquor, and smuggling it out to enjoy outside. Nobody wondered whether people, already drunk, would confuse the boundary between private and public space.

That, or they just did not care.

As a corollary, with new laws on the books, the police now have to take on a greater enforcement burden. They need to study the new laws, be familiar with legislation, figure out new workflows to liaise with the liquor control authorities, inspect and regulate premises, chase black marketeers and wrangle drunks.

The police cannot be everywhere. A police officer deployed to investigate reports of a retailer selling liquor past 10.30 pm is a police officer that is not investigating a theft. A police officer arresting someone for drinking in public is a police officer who is not arresting a loanshark. A police officer who is chasing someone for failing to pay alcohol-related fines is a police officer who is not walking the beat and preventing more serious crimes.

Further, as this article by Stephen Carter points out, police are charged with enforcing laws, with violence if needs be. Should the ban pass, police officers will now have to go after people illegally selling alcohol in public. Inevitably some of them will resist arrest, and some would resist with violence. This exposes police officers to a greater risk of injury — and treatment would be paid with taxpayer dollars. It also means that there will be a greater chance of police officers hurting or killing someone they did not have to, over something as trivial as selling or drinking alcohol in public, when it was not a crime otherwise. Will there be a Singaporean Eric Garner? I don’t know — all I know is that the more trivial laws are passed, the more likely there will be one.

A government that seeks to legislate permissible behaviours in society will increase its population of criminals. A government that requires people to seek approval to do something is a government that aims to increase its ability to control its people. In neither case should the government go unchallenged, especially when it wishes to pass blunt, sweeping measures over what is essentially a public nuisance. Should the ban pass, it is likely to make people poorer, force people to jump through even more hoops, impose a greater burden on the police and judiciary, and make criminals out of a larger segment of the population, all in the name of curbing public drunkenness.

Is the ban worth it?

Media and the Maturation of Fourth Generation War

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats, the Second Coming

2014 closed on a bloody note, and a few days into 2015 the spectre of terror rose its head again. In the space of days and weeks the world saw a hostage crisis in Australia, another in Belgium, executions of police officers in America, mass abductions in Nigeria, and yesterday the assassinations of cartoonists in France.

It’s not the end of the world, but we can see it from here.

A state is commonly (albeit not quite completely) defined as a political organisation with a centralised government that maintains a monopoly on violence in a given territory. With the advent of new information communication technologies and the growing paradigm of open source warfare, that monopoly on violence is being challenged. The logical extension is that the power of the state will fade away, and the traditional world order defined by state actors will be replaced with a multipolar world defined by the expansion and growing importance of non-state actors and empowered individuals. The method of this transition is what is known today as fourth generation warfare.

First seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Chechnya, 4GW is defined by a blurring of lines between combatants and civilians, war and politics. Today it is mutating even further: the line between terrorism and crime is growing hazy, with one feeding into the other as seen in the case of the Mexican cartels and Palestinian smugger/terrorist groups; the deed becomes propaganda and propaganda fuels deeds; and gaining public legitimisation is as important a goal as securing territory.

War never changes. War is violence designed to compel an opponent to fulfil the actor’s will, and violence seems eternal. On the other hand, war has changed. The means and purposes of waging war has changed, as well as the temporal goals and identities of the actors. Anybody can make war with the right tools, motivation and mindset.

Today, there seem to be three prominent kinds of 4GW actors. The first are transnational terrorist groups, loosely connected over the Internet and social networks, that aim to overthrow or replace the state. These groups include Boko Haram and the Islamic State. While their goals are ideological, they borrow criminal activities and methods to keep themselves going, such as front organisations, smuggling and money laundering.

The second are transnational criminal organisations that aim to hollow out the state to secure a space to conduct criminal activities. The most prominent example are the Mexican cartels. While driven by profit, these groups use terrorist methodology to secure its goals. The cartels are loosely organised, use atrocities to terrorise the people in their territories, and challenge the state by targeting or corrupting the military and police.

The last are lone wolves who attack seemingly at random. These people have a huge array of motivations: workplace dissatisfaction, anger at the police or government, the creation of a caliph, or just plain mental illness. They adopt criminal mindsets, either obtaining weapons illegally or turning off-the-shelf products into weapons. They use terrorist methodology to gain maximum publicity, hitting soft targets and boasting on social media, relying on news cycles to gain their spot in history.

Central to all three actors is the use of media to conduct propaganda of the deed. They perform the deed, and they use media of all kinds to transform it into propaganda. They can count on the media to rapidly propagate news of their attacks across the world. This leads to three distinct media strategies.

First, 4GW actors will use the 24/7 news cycle to generate maximum terror. A sufficiently large and resourceful group will strike rapidly and retreat just as quickly, creating maximum impact for global publicity. Then they regroup and do it again, and again, and again. Think the Paris or Mumbai shooters on a larger scale. Alternatively, following a terrorist attack, fellow travellers or non-connected 4GW actors will use the increased focus on insecurity and fear to amplify press coverage of their next attack to create the perception of an unstable world. They may also conduct operations that synergize with each other, deliberately or otherwise. The chain of attacks I described above, for example, imply just that. These attacks need not be exclusive; in fact, one can happen alongside the other.

Second, 4GW actors will rely on operational pauses. When there is too much heat for the actors to operate, when competing groups have generated too much white noise and drawn too much attention away from their ideology, 4GW actors will retreat and halt operations for a time. They will wait until the news cycle clears and the local environment returns to a calmer state, and then strike again for maximum impact. This is the hallmark of the Islamic Caucuses Emirate, and it would likely be adopted by other groups in the future.

Thirdly, larger and more powerful 4GW actors will attempt to influence the news cycle. They want the media to portray them as an unstoppable force to be feared and respected, building up their credibility. They will likely make contact with media organisations that portray them favourably, or at least allow foreign correspondents a glimpse into their life. There was a reason why the Islamic State allowed a German journalist to chronicle them instead of turning him into a hostage. These actors will also target media organisations that portray them in an unfavourable light to intimidate everybody else. Think of the attack on Charlie Hebdo yesterday.

The newspaper is no longer just a newspaper; it is also a newsmaker. The mass media will become increasingly important targets, either of influence or coercion or both, in the coming days. Non-traditional media outlets and personalities will likely also be targeted: celebrities, blogs, social influencers, ordinary people with extraordinary reach. The days of traditional warfare and state protection are gone; a brave new war is coming, and anyone can take up the sword.

If, through your death or through your tweet, you can help a 4GW actor advance the cause, you will be a target. There is really only one answer to this. Stand up and be counted against the barbarians, or make your peace with the chain and the grave.

The Coming of the Global Guerilla

On 12 September, the Straits Times reported that a Malaysian man has taken his Singaporean family to participate in the Syrian civil war. It is an inevitable development of globalisation and the evolution of terrorism. It is becoming increasingly easier for people to identify with extremist ideologies across the Internet, use information communication technologies to link up with terrorists of varying stripes, and use the global transportation network to travel to war zones. Britain, Australia and the United States have also seen their citizens signing on with extremists in the Middle East. As these new recruits gain expertise and experience overseas, the question is: what will they do when they come home?

The age of the global guerilla is coming. The global guerilla is an individual who uses the technologies of globalisation to undermine it. He connects with fellow believers over the Internet, learning the tips of the trade and making connections, then travels to conflict zones using air transportation and linking up with contacts on the ground. At the most basic level, he participates in a war that has little to do with his country, then returns home armed with skills and experience, and possibly a network of fellow believers, spreading the war elsewhere. More strategic guerillas will identify and target the complex structures that underpin society, such as energy, food, transportation. In 2013, for instance, unknown gunmen fired upon power transformers in Silicon Valley, knocking out an electrical substation. The intention is to use attacks to trigger failure cascades with long-lasting effects, which can include knocking out the power grid through attacking transformers, shutting down an oil refinery by blowing up the pipes, or sparking a food crisis by infecting crops with disease.

The hallmark of the global guerillas is their blend of high technology, low profile and smart targeting. They will use technology to make plans, link up with contacts, recce targets, and find reference material. They know that the intelligence services of the world will use technology to track them, so they will do everything they can to avoid being detected, such as repurposing household goods, staying off the Internet, using cash and open-source encryption, and remaining quiet. The technologies and infrastructure of globalisation are so complex that disruptions to goods and services at the local level will have knock-on effects at the regional, national and international level. This combination leads the global guerilla to employ cheap, almost undetectable attacks with a very high return on investment.

The state can’t be everywhere at once. A state that is sufficiently large to protect everywhere at once is a state likely to be paralyzed by its own bureaucracy. While there is value in obtaining and exploiting intelligence, global guerillas get to choose the time and place of attack. As the actor, they need merely wait until security profiles are reduced in a given target before striking. As the reactor, the state must constantly play catch-up.

Singapore is especially vulnerable. Singapore’s economy rests heavily on entrepôt trade. A huge number of maritime and aerial trade routes must by necessity cut through the borders of multiple states, and pass through the no-man’s land of international airspace and waters. No single state can guarantee security in this complex geopolitical environment, and even a regional partnership will have to overcome a great deal of political friction before it can begin operations. Despite the police’s best efforts, it is difficult if not impossible to secure the coastline and beaches from unauthorised intrusion 24/7. Singapore needs to import almost all of its food and water supplies from overseas, opening multiple avenues of attack — consider the impact of introducing crop diseases to food imports, or salmonella to random food suppliers. Consider also the possibility of a Uighur terrorist trademark: driving a large vehicle to run down and crush pedestrians, then jump out and stab everybody in sight.

I think it’s a question of when, not if, Singapore experiences a catastrophic terrorist attack. It would likely come in the form of either a homegrown extremist, operating solo or as a small cell, or a party of global guerillas who have received training overseas and have likely seen combat. Such a catastrophic attack would target the above-mentioned risk areas, potentially causing mass casualties, loss of core income and business, and disruption of critical services.

I also think it’s not feasible to rely solely on the state. While I’m confident the security services will do their best to secure Singapore against terrorism, the global guerilla holds every advantage. The authorities might have detected the jihadi family mentioned in the Straits Times report, but they might not be the only extremists out here. It is a sad truism that one does not know what one does not know, and that in the field of intelligence and counterterrorism, you can’t be certain of your victories. Only of your failures, in the wake of mass deaths.

It is easy to say that the solution is community outreach, countering extremist ideologies through dialogues and press releases, and to use social engineering techniques to paint terrorism in a negative light. This approach may even work, as pat of an integrated strategy. However, for as long as there will be diehard trolls on the Internet, there will be people who will not respond to the soft touch of reason and rhetoric. If a wannabe extremist chooses not to respond to dialogue, especially if said extremist is in the wild instead of in a cell, and if the state cannot catch him in time, count on his attack to succeed.

The global guerilla is a super-empowered individual who utilises loose networks and technology to execute his attacks. To counter him, it’s often wise to study and adapt his techniques.

The global guerilla seeks to create failure cascades. These cascades are possible through a lack of resilience or antifragility. The answer, therefore, is to develop resilience and antifragility. This means learning critical survival skills; stockpiling food, water, batteries and medicine; having a network of friends you can count on; and developing the awareness and self-defence skills necessary to detect, avoid, evade or defeat an attack in progress.  At the community level, it means developing contacts, learning emergency protocols and skills, building up trust, and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.

It is fine and well to talk about preventing terrorism and countering terrorist ideology, and indeed many commentators have written at length about such things. However, one also has to have a plan for the possibility that these approaches will fail, that the global guerilla will be able to execute an attack. The question, then, is how to structure your life so that even in the event of a catastrophic attack, the individual and the community can pick up the pieces and resume daily life as soon as possible.

Recommended reading:

https://marcuswynne.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/preparedness-for-the-unprepared/

www.resilientcommunities.org

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/

http://www.teotwawki-blog.com/

A deeper look at piracy

The Singapore government has implicitly taken the position that piracy undermines the creative industries. According to a news report from Channel News Asia, Law Minister K Shanmugam is working towards creating a legal framework that would clamp down on online piracy and protect intellectual property rights. This position seems morally right and just. But it’s overly simplistic.

Shanmugam indirectly argues that piracy stifles the creative industry, by linking a strong legal framework to helping creative industries. This is not true. On the contrary, piracy helps the creative industries by publicising innovation and pressuring the big companies to respond to the marketplace. As described in The Pirate’s Dilemma, a large number of music genres – acid house, dubstep, hard-core – took off after being broadcast by pirate radio stations in the United Kingdom. These music brands began life as too unconventional for mainstream taste, but the pirate radio stations gave artistes a platform to reach out to large audiences, given the artistes the critical mass necessary to achieve mainstream popularity.

The same can be said for Japanese manga, through the scanlation community. Whenever a new manga volume is released in Japan, people scan the entire issue and post the raw images online. These raws are downloaded by translators, who translate the works into different languages, and publish the translated issues online. Both the scanners and the translators are, for the most part, ordinary people who happen to possess the right equipment and know-how to hold up their end of the scanlation process. This allows Japanese manga to reach audiences far outside Japan – especially for manga that are released only in Japan. With some creativity, these audiences can be turned into paying customers.

It is true that online piracy leads to the loss of revenue. The music and motion picture industries (among others) routinely report losses in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. In Singaporean movie theatres, advertisements extolling audiences to respect IP rights and cease pirating are regular screened before the feature film. These advertisements claim that failure to respect IP rights will lead to filmmakers choosing to cease making films, and movie theatres to close down. But this advertisement does not ring true in a world where the global movie industries continue to rake billion-dollar revenue in ticket sales alone. While it is true that there will be some people who will consume pirated content without giving IP owners any compensation, piracy can help boost sales, as in the case of Japanese anime, music, and books. The big picture is, quite clearly, more complicated than what the big corporations are saying.

Governments and corporations need to stop blaming pirates and start understanding why people pirate IP. Speaking as an IP owner, I can think of three reasons why people do it.

1. Cost

Let’s face it: when forced to choose between paying $50-plus for the latest blockbuster video game, or waiting patiently for a few hours/days/weeks to download that same game off a torrent website, there will be people who will gladly choose the latter option. Especially if, for a few more hours of waiting, they can have any additional downloadable content or extra features that have already been released. Even more so if these people live in places with low income, and high prices for IP. The same holds true for other kinds of IP: books, music, movies, television dramas.

2. Availability

There is a large amount of IP that is simply not readily available in some parts of the world. Anime and manga, music, and more. Pirates create and meet demand for this IP by publishing and distributing this IP on places where users can readily access this IP. Sometimes this is done using legal means like YouTube. Sometimes this is done using more questionable means, like pirate radio stations. The platform pirates use are engineered to reach a large number of people at low cost, giving them a distribution network that could potentially rival the ones used by existing companies.

3. Convenience

Digital Rights Management tools are complicated. Many games, such as Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Assassin’s Creed 2 and beyond, have DRM measures that prevent people from (easily) pirating software. The same goes for music, ebooks, and other digital IP. But these measures punish legitimate consumers. Coding a program to prevent multiple installations of the same game from the same DVD (such as SecuROM) may sound like a good idea, but this prevents legitimate consumers from re-installing their games. This can happen when the computer is reformatted, when the user gets a new computer, or when the user simply wants to play the game again after having deleted it. These are perfectly legitimate uses, but DRM software like the one I’ve described punish users for doing any of these by preventing consumption of software. Other tools, like the one used by Arkham City, are fairly complex to navigate and spoil consumer enjoyment. Pirates make consumption of IP convenient by scrapping DRM tools  from the original content and posting the now-DRM-free content.

Legislation is not the answer to these questions. These are legitimate consumer needs not being met by the companies that insist on DRM regulation and strict anti-piracy policies. Strict legislation may make piracy more inconvenient, but it will not address these concerns. If anything, they will exacerbate them, because consumers will have fewer places to address these needs, and they will take out their frustrations on the corporations by refusing to buy their IP and spreading the word to boycott their products. This creates additional market pressure on the pirates, who will at some point team up with hackers and crackers to circumvent any new anti-piracy means to publish pirated content.

What is needed is a new business model. Pirates shouldn’t be seen as evil money-sucking parasites. Pirates should instead be considered as friendly competitors. IP owners should strive instead to compete with pirates on their terms – on the terms of cost, availability and convenience, and any other reason why consumers will choose pirates over legitimate purchases. In this sense, piracy can be thought of as simply an additional cost of business.

If possible, IP owners should also factor piracy into their business models and understand how to use their distribution models to the IP owners’ advantage. Underground music artistes in the UK went mainstream after the mainstream record companies started collaborating with the pirate stations. The pirates gained prestige, the artistes made more money, and so did the record companies. It could be possible to do something similar for other IP. Author JA Konrath reported an explosion of sales after he started giving away one of his ebooks. Shortly after the creation of the Baen Free Library, in which Baen’s published books are posted online in their entirety for free reading, Baen reported increased sales of those published books. In those two cases, online pirates could easily reproduce the text of those books and distribute them for all to see. The result was increased publicity, increased consumer awareness, and therefore increased sales.

Piracy is a problem that has been around since the articulation of intellectual property rights. Legislation has done little to curb it. What is needed is a different approach. Instead of trying to stamp out piracy, companies should instead seek to meet the consumers real needs and wants, and compete with pirates on their turf. Companies should also seek to co-operate with the pirates to create win-win situations, or at least situations that are advantageous to the IP owner. IP is produced for consumption – it’s time to understand understand what the consumer wants and meet it, instead of blindly focusing on profit.

Justice for All

Reading this commentary, Romans 12:17, 12:19 and 12:21 come to mind.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. (12:17)

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (12:19)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:21)

(New International Version)

I’m not a Christian. The closest I had to a Christian education was three years in Anglo-Chinese Junior School. To my non-Christian eyes, this verse reads as a call to lay down thoughts of vengeance and do what is morally right. (As this blog is about humans and human behaviour, I won’t comment on a divine being taking vengeance.) Thane Rosenbaum argues that revenge is moral because it is natural, and that “the actual difference between vengeance and justice is not as great as people think”. I must disagree.

Rosenbaum says, “Recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have claimed that human beings are hard-wired for vengeance.” He goes on to say, ‘Legal systems should punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes and recognise a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged. ”

This claim sounds reasonable, but it is not. It is impossible for the legal system to fully satisfy these needs, because there is no objective standard to meet. The ‘needs’ Rosenbaum speaks of are emotional in nature, and emotions vary from person to person. I feel no need to avenge myself on the people who have tried to rob, con, kill, or otherwise harm me or mine. But I have known people who sought ways to seek vengeance on others who have done little more than exchange harsh words with them. Plus, quite clearly, the cases Rosenbaum brings up show people who declared a desire for vengeance. So different people have different reactions to something, and the courts cannot accommodate them all.

The ‘need’ Rosenbaum speaks of is not a need. It is really a desire. A ‘need’ is something a person cannot live without for a healthy life. Vengeance does not fall into that category. The root of vengeance is anger, and its cousins hatred and aggression.  A person seeks vengeance because he is angry and feels aggressive. Taking vengeance is to take action on the world outside of a person – but anger is an emotion within a person. An aggrieved person doesn’t need vengeance so much as need to discharge anger. Vengeance and discharging anger are, in my opinion and experience, too easily conflated.

Vengeance is taking injurious action against someone. Anger is a sense of being wronged. The former comes from the latter. Taking vengeance does not remove anger. Removing anger removes the desire for vengeance. Taking vengeance to deal with anger is like dipping a half-full glass of water into a filled sink to empty the glass. You don’t always succeed, and you’ll get wet. There are consequences to vengeance, chiefly legal prosecution, and starting a cycle of revenge pitting you, and your friends and family, against everybody you have acted against. It’s much easier to simply empty the glass. This removes the cause of vengeance. It addresses the very human need of attaining emotional tranquility, and removes the desire to take vengeance.

Even if taking vengeance were an appropriate course of action, the criminal justice system is not the means to do it. The criminal courts have four priorities. First, they need to isolate dangerous people from society. Second, they need to ensure the innocent are not harmed through the judicial process. Third, they need to neutralise criminals as short- and long-term threats to society. Lastly, they need to deter potential criminals from committing crimes. This, in fact, is all the courts can do.

The social contract between the people and the courts requires the courts to mete out justice for all. Justice, not vengeance. Justice is essentially moral rightness, and punishment of breaches of morality. For the justice system to apply equally to all, this demands objective standards. Vengeance is a desire to take action to address a perceived wrong, so it need only meet individual subjective standards. Justice and vengeance, unlike what Rosenbaum says, is essentially incompatible at this level of analysis. The courts are not empowered to take vengeance on behalf of the aggrieved. Nor should they.

To be clear, while the courts hands down punishment for criminal activity, I do not define this as vengeance. This is retributive justice. Its goal is to neutralise the criminal as a threat to society – and perhaps transform him into a productive member of society when he has served his time. The key difference between vengeance and retribution is that the former pays evil unto evil – the latter destroys evil and overcomes it with good. Instead of punishing someone to make someone else feel better, the idea behind legal retribution is to reform someone through punishment and rehabilitation.

Rosenbaum says that the legal system must “pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate.” The trouble with a ‘gut test’ is that it is subjective. Everybody is different, and therefore so is everybody’s gut test. ‘Just and proportionate’ only applies if there are objective standards – this is what people think of as the laws for criminal justice. Revenge is neither just nor proportionate, because revenge is based on subjective standards of satisfaction. Should the courts mete out different punishments for the same crime, the courts would breach their social contract much more grievously than its perceived failure to avenge.

Earlier, I said that the courts have four priorities, amongst which is deterrence. Inconsistent punishments will have little to no deterrent effect. Criminals will not have any standard to weigh against when planning crimes, and might feel more tempted to engage in more aggressive crimes if they believe they can pay the price if they are caught. A criminal who believes his victim might not press charges, or would be lenient, would be more likely to be more vicious than a criminal who thinks the law will come down harshly on him. This alone could be the difference between robbing someone at knifepoint, and ambushing a victim, beating him senseless, and then relieving him of his possessions. In both cases, the perpetrator gets what he wants – money. But a predator would be more likely to pick the second option, as it eliminates resistance and allows him to carry out his plans without interference from the victim. One of the reasons such crimes tend to be rare(r) is because the penalty – and therefore police attention – for the latter is much higher than the former. Without objective standards, there is no deterrence. Without deterrence, there may be more and more violent crime.

There is also a further implication of court-administrated revenge: objective standards of proof, prosecution, and defence would be compromised. The courts would focus on assuaging the victims’ anger, not justice. This opens the door to abuse of the justice system. A woman, angered by an ex-boyfriend, may cry molest or rape to get back at him. With a legal system primed to address the victim’s claims instead of determining the facts, a man could be punished for little more than having a bad break-up. And similar incidents have occurred.

In addition, compromised standards would lead to slipshod police work. One of the roles of the court is to ensure that the police and the prosecution do their jobs properly, by measuring their performance against those standards. With a legal system primed for revenge, the legal system would be under pressure to find someone guilty and punish that person as heavily as possible, instead of determining what happened. The result is poor work by the police and the prosecution. In Singapore, Ismil Kandar was wrongfully convicted of murder after sloppy police work. If a legal system seeks revenge instead of justice, more innocent people could be hauled up for crimes they didn’t commit, and more guilty ones could walk free.

It seems odd that Norway, a country in which just 2% of the population go to church weekly, has a criminal system with the Biblical goal of overcoming evil with good. As reported in the media, Norway has a rather ‘humane’ prison system, which aims to rehabilitate instead of just punish. Mass murderer Anders Breivik could sentenced to 21 years in jail, with additional indefinite 5-year sentences if ‘preventive detention’ were necessary – which is a far more lenient sentence than what an equivalent murderer in Singapore or America or most anywhere else could expect. The system certainly does not meet standards for revenge.

Does the system mete out justice for all? This is something the world is grappling with. But there is something to consider. A mass murderer is fundamentally an aberration. He attracts a lot of attention because of the scale of his crime, but he is not representative of the criminal population. The truest measure of a justice system lies in the nation’s crime demographics. As the Economist points out, the United States has one of the world’s worst prison systems and among the world’s highest crime rates (5 per 100000), while Norway has one of the world’s most humane prison systems and among the world’s lowest crime rates (0.6 per 100000). The United States focuses on punishing criminal behaviour, while Norway looks at rehabilitating criminals.

It’s time to reconsider notions of justice and vengeance. The purpose of having a justice system is to protect society, prevent and overcome evil, and reform criminals. It looks like the world can learn something from Norway.

Presumption of Innocence

Today I saw my aunt and cousin again, for the first time in a half-dozen years. But not in person. They were framed for public consumption in yesterday’s issue of The New Paper. They were in the news because TNP interviewed them after he was picked up by the police during a sweep at Downtown East.

Looking at his tattoo, I wondered what had become of him. What he had gone through in the years before. What the man he is growing into will become. My mother pointed the tattoo out to me, saying that she had never expected him to turn out this way.

The underlying subtext was that Chia Feng Ji had run afoul of the law. Repeatedly.

There are a lot of things I don’t know about him. I don’t know if he had a criminal record. I don’t know why he wears a tattoo of a crucifix. I don’t know why he is seventeen but in Secondary Three, when the median age of students in that grade is fifteen. I don’t know the company he keeps, I don’t know how he was raised, I don’t know anything of any import about him. All I do know is that he has a tattoo and was detained and questioned during the sweep. And that Downtown East was the scene of two vicious gang attacks in recent memory.

This isn’t enough for a presumption of guilt. This isn’t enough to assume that he had broken the law.

Feng Ji was picked up during the sweep. But it doesn’t mean he was guilty of something. When conducting a sweep, the police look for people who fit specific profiles. This includes race, age, tattoos, behaviour, clothing, known criminal records, behaviour, and other factors. Feng Ji was approached by the police because he happened to fit the profile the police were looking for. That is all I know. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a criminal.

He said, “All they told me was that it was a screening, but I was not worried as I didn’t do anything wrong”. (TNP, pg 6, 10 November 2010) My mother apparently took offence at that statement, saying ‘he never learn his lesson’. It’s possible my mother knows something I don’t. It’s possible that he was lying. But it’s also possible that he has not done anything wrong – and I have no evidence to the contrary. I cannot say he has turned bad.

Feng Ji has a tattoo. I think my mother was shocked by it – and the underlying subtext was that he must have done something illegal, and might have associated with criminals. Maybe she’s right. But I don’t know. Having a tattoo that is not a gang symbol doesn’t make you a miscreant. Sure, he is 17 years old – but Singapore has no minimum age on tattoos. He might have gotten into trouble with his school for having one – or not. I don’t know. And even if he did, it doesn’t mean that he has since embarked on a career in crime, or that he hasn’t repented. I don’t know enough to point any fingers at him.

According to TNP Feng Ji was asked four questions: if he had broken the law before, if he were living with his parents, if he were a gang member, and if he were still schooling. I only have answers to two of those questions: he lives with his parents, and he is still schooling. I know this by inferring from the report. His responses to the other two were not published. I don’t know anything about his legal standing.

There is a lot I don’t know about him. I don’t know anything about him that points to a past or present criminal record. I cannot and will not judge him, nor condemn him, on the basis of what little I know. I can’t say that he is guilty of any wrongdoing – so I will continue to treat him like everybody else. Maybe he has a history of crime, maybe he had committed crimes yet unpunished, but it is not fair to let this possibility colour my judgment. Even if he has a criminal record, I will not let his past misdeeds stain my perceptions if he has redeemed himself. All I can do is extend to him a presumption of innocence, at least until more verifiable facts come to light.

And ask that you do the same.

Clarity and Responsibility

My previous post has generated a lot of ire. While I don’t mind criticism, virtually all of my detractors have misrepresented me. Apparently, my last post was a lot easier to misinterpret than I thought. I reckon part of it was my fault – I did, after all, write it the way I did, and how a person writes something influences how it is seen. This is pretty much the same way how a person acts influences how the person is seen, which I will write about later. This post is dedicated to clarifying all the points I have made – and maybe, just maybe, it will shed some more light on the situation.

1. Prevention, not damage control.

No amount of damage control can match crime prevention. I wrote the article from this perspective with a view towards answering this question: How could the crime have been prevented? The answer: the victim should have kept well away. She could choose to stay home instead of going out late at night to a strange place filled with strange men and drinking before she was of age. Crimes occur in places – to avoid crime, just don’t go where bad things happen and don’t attract the attention of criminals.

2. The criminal is responsible for the crime. The victim is responsible for pre-crime behaviour.

People can choose how to act. Before a crime happens, a victim is almost always doing, or not doing, something. Crimes always take place in some kind of context defined by time and place, possibly cultures or subcultures, and the actions that led up to the crime.

The victim in this gang assault was responsible for her behaviour. She did not explicitly invite the accused to attack her, but she did choose how she acted. She chose to meet the stranger who called her late at night. She chose to go alone to meet him, even though she had a boyfriend. She chose to go to a stranger’s flat late at night. She chose to stay on even though she did not know most of the occupants. She chose to play drinking games with them, even though it is illegal. She did not choose to invite an attack. But her choices put her in the time and place when the attacks happened.

She could have chosen to rebuff the caller. She could have chosen to stay home. She could have chosen to not go into the flat. She could have chosen to leave the flat. She could have chosen to not play the drinking game. Her choices placed her in the context in which the assault occurred, while the alternatives available to her took her out of that context. The accused could have chosen to leave her alone instead of attacking her – but they did attack her, and that attack in that context was made possible because her choices had placed her in that context. In effect, her choices set up the circumstances that made the attack possible.

Granted, there are crimes that are a lot harder to avoid. The courts also do not usually penalise pre-victim behaviour, or harp on the victim’s choices before the attack. In this case though, the victim went out of her way to meet her attackers and stayed with them for a while before the attack. This may be gregariously stupid, but it also made the attack possible, and that is why the courts need to consider her actions before the assault.

The court cannot ignore her choices. The judge must contemplate her actions, because in this case her choices placed her in the context the crime took place, and she committed a crime while doing so. The prosecution cannot afford to gloss over what she did, because the defence will definitely use her behaviour as part of the defence strategy. They all know the choices the victim could have made that would have taken her out of the context in which the crime occurred, and they also know that she freely chose to act differently. Arguably, her high risk behaviour hindered the prosecution and helped the defence. Because of that, the victim’s pre-crime behaviour becomes a factor here.

3. Criminals select targets by behaviour and perceived payoff.

Criminals do not target random people. They screen their targets before acting. Those who don’t tend to get caught very quickly. Criminals look for targets that present a high risk-reward ratio.

Let’s take a hypothetical scenario. John Tan walks into a coffeeshop and orders a cup of coffee. He loudly announces that he was just won the top prize at 4D (a popular form of lottery in Singapore). He takes out his wallet, puts the winning ticket on the table and counts his winnings. Later, he goes home. After a half hour, he’s struck in the back of the head and faints. When he wakes up, he discovers his wallet is gone.

What happened? While he was busy boasting to his friends, he failed to notice a group of young men in a corner eyeing his money and whispering amongst themselves. When he left, he didn’t realise the young men followed him, too. They hit him from the back when he wasn’t looking, grabbed his money, and got away before he could recover.

The fictional John Tan did not invite someone to rob him. But by acting the way he did, he is signalling that he is worth robbing. By flashing money around, he is telling everyone around him that he has plenty of money on him, and therefore presents a high payoff for robbers. When he left alone, he shows that he doesn’t have any friends who can interrupt a robbery. By not noticing the young men, he is showing them that he won’t see them coming. John Tan has shown that he is rich and can be attacked by surprise – and that is exactly what happens.

Most victims of crime do not normally invite people to attack them. But most criminals do not care about invitations. They care about behaviours, and if a potential target behaves in a way that meets their internal criteria, they are more likely to act against the target. Yes, the criminal can always choose not to act – but expecting a criminal to choose to not act if you meet his criteria is wishful thinking. Crimes happen every day. That means many criminals choose to act, instead of choosing to not act.

The victim in the case I’m discussing sent a lot of signals which said she was an easy target, was easy, and maybe even both. Common sense says that a young woman should not meet a strange man late at night for supper. Common sense says that a young woman should not enter a flat late at night when she doesn’t know most of the occupants and when she has a boyfriend. Common sense and the law say that an underage young woman should not play drinking games, especially when in a group of strange young men. By ‘common sense’ I mean what most women would do to protect themselves from harm or unwanted sexual attention, by not acting in ways that signal target availability. The way she acted sent signals to criminals, especially rapists and would-be rapists, that she is sexually available and is an easy target. That makes her more vulnerable to unwanted attention. People who act in ways that make them vulnerable tend to get attacked more often, and their pre-crime behaviour could muddle the case their attackers.

4. The accused is as guilty as the courts can prove.

Courts administer justice. Retribution may be a part of justice, but is not the overriding principle of justice – even and especially in the field of criminal justice. To prevent abuses of power, wrongful convictions, and disproportionate punishment, the prosecution needs to prove that the defendant is guilty, what he is guilty of, and how liable is he for the crime. Sometimes, this may mean that the defendant is punished for a lesser crime. This may be undesirable, but the alternative could very well be punishing a criminal for a crime more serious than what he has really done, or punishing an innocent person.

In the previous article, I showed how difficult it could have been for the prosecution to definitively prove rape. In rape cases, one of the criteria is that the prosecution must show where the line between consent and non-consent is crossed. The prosecutor could not do that very easily. All he (I’m assuming the prosecutor was a man) had to go on was the testimonies of the victim and the defendants. The victim was drunk at the time, making her testimony suspect. Two of the defendants (Firdaus and Shafie) said she did not give consent, but two more (Sadruddin and Rishi) said that she showed no sign of being unwilling. They were probably under the influence of alcohol too at that time; this combination of contradiction and alcohol has compromised their testimonies. The gynaecologist said she had found no ‘obvious clinical signs’ of injury, so the prosecutor has no definitive proof that there was a sexual assault. The victim herself engaged in high risk behaviour, including underage drinking (which is punishable by law) and meeting men she did not know to play drinking games, which prevents the prosecution from portraying her as an innocent victim before the court. The courts care about consistency and proof, of which there was precious little available for the prosecutor.

The victim’s behaviour harmed the prosecution’s case. Most young women do not go out alone late at night after receiving a phone call from a stranger who lied to her, enter a flat full of strange men, stay on even though the stranger who called her admitted that he had called her, and play drinking games with these strange men. Most young women don’t consent to have sex with a complete stranger – and the victim did. This sort of behaviour is usually associated with women of looser inhibitions. The prosecutor would find it very difficult to show that she is indeed an innocent victim in court, especially since she claimed to have drank when she was underage. The defence lawyers can also say that their clients, who were inebriated at the time, thought that she was willing to have sex with all of them because of her behaviour and the connotations associated with her behaviour. The defendants agreed to have sex with any girl who showed up – but there is no evidence that they agreed to rape any girl who showed up. They could have agreed to pressure her into giving consent to have sex, but not taking her by force. The defendants did not attack her immediately and did withdraw after they noticed (or thought?) that she was bleeding, which tends to support this argument. It may not be a perfect argument or an impenetrable defence, but in light of the victim’s behaviour the judge has to take this into consideration.

This does not mean that the defendants are any less liable for what they have done. But it does mean that it is harder for the prosecution to prove what they are liable for, and the courts can only punish a criminal to the extent of what the prosecution can prove. If a man is found guilty of manslaughter, he cannot be punished for the more serious crime of murder if the prosecution can prove manslaughter but not murder – even if the man really did commit murder. In this case, the defendants have been found guilty of aggravated outrage of modesty, but as the prosecution did not prove that they had raped the victim, the courts can only punish them for outrage of modesty and not rape.

5. Victim blaming versus responsibility

I have been accused of victim blaming. But what is that, anyway?

The English language is very fluid. Part of this fluidity is that different words have different meanings depending on the context. ‘reading’ can mean what you’re doing now, a personal interpretation of a text, the precise form of a particular passage of a text, or even a formal presentation of a bill in a parliament. According to the dictionary I’m using, the Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary, ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ have a lot of meanings. In this context, though, to blame someone is to declare that that person was responsible for something. Responsibility, in turn, is being the cause of something.

If represented on a Venn diagram, ‘blame’ intersects with ‘responsibility’, but is not the same as responsibility. A person can blame someone else when that person is not responsible for an act, and the person who may be responsible for something may not be the one who is blamed for it. The trouble is sorting out the two. Further complicating things is that the blame attached to someone does not necessarily reflect how responsible that person really is for something.

In this article, and in the previous one, I have sought to determine responsibility. The criminals were responsible for their deeds. That, I think, goes without saying – the biggest problem here is what the courts can prove.

The court was responsible for trying the case. The prosecution was responsible for proving the case against the accused, hindered by compromised and contradictory testimonies, lack of evidence, and the victim’s high risk behaviour. The defence was responsible for providing a legal defence for the accused, helped by the same factors mentioned above. The judge was responsible for interpreting the law to the case, by considering the arguments of the prosecution and the defence, and the factors explained above. The judge laid down a conviction of aggravated outrage of modesty, and this may be because the prosecution could not easily prove rape. The accused might have raped the victim – but if the prosecution cannot prove it, judge cannot sentence them for rape. To do otherwise would set up dangerous legal precedents and undermine the principles of justice.

The victim was responsible for the choices she had made prior to the attack. She chose to act in a way that is termed ‘high risk behaviour’, as her actions can be interpreted as sexual promiscuity and crime vulnerability. Her choices put her in contact with the attackers for a period of time, placing her in the context in which the attack occurred. Her actions could have influenced the trial, and the sentence that was handed down. She also chose to break the law by drinking when she was still underage, which could have had an effect on the trial, too. This is what she was responsible for, and what I had hoped to demonstrate.

Is this victim blaming? Is seeking to understand and demonstrate how the courts could have acted and what the victim did and could have done ‘victim blaming’? If it were, I hope I have proportioned responsibility as exactly I could have given the information I could dig up – after all, to blame is to hold responsible (Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary). Among many, many other meanings.

6. AWARE and ‘rape agenda’

Marc MacYoung, the expert I consulted for my last post, advised me to look into a possible link here. Based on his experiences in America, he thinks that advocacy groups in America are seeking to make money out of spreading a so-called ‘rape agenda’ to make money, and might have thought that this hold true for Singapore. I have found that there is no evidence to suggest that the Association of Women for Action and Research is out to spread a rape agenda, as examined in my previous post.

I chose to write about the courts and the victim because they were underreported and underanalysed. The news media and feminist advocates have written at length about the criminal’s behaviour, and I saw no need to add on to what they have said. Discussion about the courts and the victim’s behaviour was severely lacking in comparison. Local personal safety experts, if any, have said nothing about this incident in public. So I wrote about the courts and the victim to make up for this deficiency, and because personal safety is one of the many things I am interested in.

I won’t even try to talk about what I have not said, what I have not done, what I do not believe in, the attitudes I do not hold towards women, or what I do not think about criminals and society. I honestly hope that, this time, people will finally understand what I’ve written about.

I would like to thank Magical Chicken at Barnyard Chorus for publicising my previous article, my blog, and for thinking so highly of me, going so far as to say I am Magical Chicken’s ‘favourite Rational Male Blogger’ and to actually write about what I have said previously. Magical Chicken has referred more viewers to me on this issue than any other single source, and I am grateful to Magical Chicken for helping to raise my online profile. May you live long and prosper.