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Singapore is facing a rare violent crime wave driven by a surge in harassment by loan sharks since the global financial crisis hit the strictly-governed city-state last year.
The number of people arrested for loan shark activities and harassment doubled to more than 417 in the first half of 2009, with more than 9,000 reported cases of loan shark lending or intimidation reported to the Singapore Police Force.
Contraband smuggling has also hit a six-year high, with an 80 per cent increase in the number of weapons brought into Singapore illegally, including the knuckle-dusters, replica guns and knives that are often carried by loan shark gangs.
The heightened level of violence is a major concern for the government, particularly because of the growing involvement of teenagers in loan shark gangs. One in five of those arrested for loanshark offences between January and June were under 19.
The police have pledged to clamp down hard on the gangs, who often end up targeting the wrong people.
“We would like to emphasise that the penalties for loan sharking and loan shark-related offences are heavy,” said Ng Boon Gay, director of Singapore Police Force’s criminal investigation department. “Loan sharks who direct harassment or harassers who carry out acts resulting in damage to property or hurt to persons will also be caned.”
The government is also considering making it a criminal offence to borrow from loan sharks but social workers say it would be unfair to penalise hard-up Singaporeans in these tough economic times, as many have no other alternative sources of unsecured credit.
Loan sharks – or Ah Longs as they are known locally – are a firm fixture on Singapore’s sprawling public housing estates, where more than 80 per cent of the population live.
The loan sharks usually lend small amounts of money – often the equivalent of just a few hundred pounds – but charge extremely high interest rates and are quick to resort to intimidation and violence if their customers do not pay up.
They typically splash red paint near the home of defaulting borrowers as an initial warning before moving on to more serious acts of vandalism, violence and theft. Younger defaulters are often coerced into joining the gangs themselves as runners.