Coffee Break: Should the rich get less prison time? (Part 2)

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 13, 2023 - March 19, 2023.
Coffee Break: Should the rich get less prison time? (Part 2)
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EX-GOLDMAN Sachs banker Roger Ng’s participation in “the world’s biggest financial scandal” — the embezzlement of Malaysia’s wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd — has finally culminated in a prison sentence. But even though the scale of the crime could have got Ng as much as 30 years, the US courts on Thursday chose to sentence him to 10 years. So, unless he behaves badly in prison, it is likely that he’ll be out before the end of this decade.

It is a paltry penalty to have to serve, considering the damage it caused, and continues to cause, to Malaysia. If Ng hadn’t been caught, he would have profited by tens of millions of US dollars from the crime — quite a good gamble, all things considered.

Whenever white-collar criminals are given such sentences, it is never lost on the masses how the scales always tip against the common man. A poor man who steals a tin of Milo can safely expect to get at least a year, if not two. And even factoring in inflation, that tin of Milo hardly comes close to being one-fifth or one-tenth the cost of what was stolen from 1MDB.

The reality of course is that laws were made to protect the properties of the rich and temper the behaviour of the masses. So, if the poor were to step out of line, it was important that they be made an example of, so that their criminality would not become contagious. If one man were to be allowed to steal a tin of Milo and get away with it, goodness knows how many tins of Milo would be swept off the shelves in the shops!

Back in the old days, before democracy and egalitarianism became commonplace, industrialists stole by short-changing their labourers and tenants, and through other difficult-to-challenge ways. (Back then, stealing from the Crown was too great a risk, as it was punishable by death.)

But, in this day and age, where each man and woman gets one vote, regardless of social status, it is jarring that being “equal before the law” doesn’t actually translate to equitable justice.

This was most apparent during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period of a few years ago, when the haves and the have-nots were given equal fines for breaching MCO laws. A financially-comfortable person could go around visiting friends and disregarding the law and get fined RM1,000. A destitute person could go out trying to find odd jobs or food, disregarding the law out of desperation in order to survive, and also get fined RM1,000.

Both transgressors were treated the same and given the same penalty. But the repercussions of the penalty were different because the weightage was unequal. A rich man could breach the law a hundred times and still come home for dinner; a poor man need only breach it once and end up in jail for a month because he can’t afford to pay the fine. During state elections held during the MCO, politicians that breached the SOPs while campaigning paid the fines and continued breaking them without so much as a “mea culpa”. Many commonfolk cried in frustration at the injustice, and the phrase “antara dua darjat” was bandied about often, denoting the double standards between the socio-economic classes.

Some countries deal with this inequality by having fines indexed to income, so that transgressors pay fines proportional to their wealth (or lack of it).

Yet, even when fines are weighted fairly, the well-to-do are still assured of better justice simply by dint of being educated on their legal rights and being able to hire a lawyer of their choice, whom they can afford to retain for as long as there remains an avenue of appeal. If they’re not happy with their lawyer, they can change them. Freedom is worth spending every penny on but only if one has enough of them to spend to begin with. For those that don’t, not fighting hard enough and going to jail is a far better option to bankrupting the family and sending the children to the poorhouse.

Consider this: The rich can take plea deals, or legitimately buy their way out of being charged, simply by paying back some of the money that they stole. That option would never be given to a man offering RM30 as restitution for the tin or packet of Milo he’s stolen.

This inequality matters because it is never a good thing when justice serves society only half of the time — and especially when it gives the impression that some people are more equal than others.

High-level white collar criminals may not terrorise society by snatching handbags, picking pockets or breaking curfews, but they impact business in ways bigger than petty theft because when people with power or authority break the rules, they affect the integrity of everything, including governance.

During the recent tabling of the Budget, the prime minister admitted that “corruption was almost systemic”. Some would argue that it has been so for a while now. But assuming it hasn’t, do we have enough deterrence in place to scare off big-crime aspirants?

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