From playing truant to arson — the road to delinquency

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PETALING JAYA: Smoking, loitering and gambling may be minor delinquent acts, but these acts can escalate into serious crimes as the recent tahfiz school fire has shown, says psychologist and criminologist Geshina Ayu Mat Saat.

In an interview with FMT, Geshina, who is attached to Universiti Sains Malaysia, said her team’s research into delinquency found four evidence-based pathways which problematic youths in Malaysia might take.

It has been reported by several media outlets that the suspects behind last week’s tahfiz school fire, which killed 23 people, were known to loiter and smoke, according to people in the neighbourhood. They had been playing truant from school and were eventually expelled.

“It starts with acts of ‘minor delinquency’, like smoking, gambling and experimenting with drugs.

“This can progress to ‘risk-taking delinquency’ acts like fighting.

“This can escalate into ‘moderate habitual delinquency’, and examples include drug abuse and illegal motor racing.”

The final pathway, Geshina said, was “serious delinquency” which included acts of rape and murder.

She added that those who engaged in serious delinquency tend to blame the victims and others for their actions.

Factors for delinquency, escalation

Geshina said there were a number of factors which contributed to delinquency and the escalation of delinquent acts, though they were different according to each individual.

“Some people are more inclined to react violently or see violence as an answer to disputes.

“It can also be a lack of empathy, an inclination to take risks, a herd mentality, negative role models, poor parenting and not being in school, among others.

“As an example, statistics show that children who are in school are less likely to be involved in delinquent acts.

“As for poor parenting, it is well documented that if parents display bad behaviour, then their children are likely to follow suit.”

In the case of the tahfiz school fire suspects in Kuala Lumpur, Geshina said it was easy for people to blame the suspects’ parents, though in reality there were other stakeholders in the shaping and developing of a child’s misbehaviour.

“Misbehaviour and delinquency have physiological, psychological, sociological, criminogenic, environmental, religious and moral elements.

“Frankly, the whole system of education, welfare, family dynamics, and neighbourhood have roles in shaping children’s misbehaviour.”

So, she said, there was no single catalyst for delinquent acts, noting that it was a combination of factors as well as the opportunity to commit a delinquent act.

Nipping delinquency in the bud

In dealing with delinquency, Geshina said it was important for parents to become role models of good behaviour, especially when their children are as young as two years old.

If a child has committed minor delinquent acts, Geshina said parents must step in quickly and not leave it to teachers or society to shape their child’s behaviour.

“It begins in the family. Regardless of gender, children below the age of 18 shouldn’t be allowed to wander around at night.”

She said reasonable curfew hours should be put in place to hinder children from being exposed to or getting involved in criminal activities, which were likely to happen at night as there were better opportunities to commit a delinquent act and get away with it.

“It is likely youths who get together at night are up to no good.

“There are plenty of incidents of children who illegally race on bicycles or motorcycles during the night, even on school days.”

Geshina said the authorities should also make it compulsory for all children to attend school until they complete their secondary studies.

Currently, she said, mandatory education is limited to completing primary school.

It was recently reported that six of the seven suspects arrested in connection with the fire at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah religious school had been expelled due to disciplinary problems, including truancy.

Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid said appropriate action was taken as the six had been frequently absent from school. Meetings with parents failed to solve the problem.

“We should look at education models in countries like Japan and Netherlands, where there is greater emphasis on the learning of positive values like tolerance and acceptance as well as life skills, rather than just preparations for future careers,” said Geshina.

Still, she said, despite all this, there will be individuals who will choose to live a negative lifestyle and try to influence others.

“It is harder to address this phenomenon when individuals are resistant to positive living and lifestyles, or feel that their way of negative living is good and they should not be bothered by other people.”

On Saturday, police said seven teenagers had been arrested over the tragic pre-dawn fire that killed 21 students and two teachers in the tahfiz school.

City police chief Amar Singh said six of the suspects, aged between 11 and 18, had tested positive for ganja.

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