Friday, March 14, 2008

The Logic of Rewards

Two weeks on and Mas Salamat has yet to be found. Much has been said in the media about offering a reward for information leading to his capture. Home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng said that it’s not the police’s policy to give out rewards. An MHA spokesman was quoted in today’s ST as saying that “we do not think Singaporeans need the incentive of a reward to help the country for a matter as serious as this.”

Still, the spokesman reportedly added that it would “consider seriously” suggestions by the public to offer a reward. Possibly a sign of growing desperation?

Private sector companies made the first move. 2 weeks ago, security company Metropolis Security has offered its 250 security guards $1,000 if they can provide information leading to the JI leader’s arrest. Crime Library is offering $5,000 (which presumably applies to all members of the public). It was reported today that a labour-supply company Aasperon Manpower has offered a county of $50,000 … perhaps the first meaningful offer.

Publicity gimmick? Maybe. Even assuming it is done with the best intentions, the issue of offering money in the case is contentious.

Some argue that the reward sends out the wrong message, that responsible Singapore citizens (and the non-citizens as well) should report any sighting of the fugitive, reward or no. Others see no harm in offering an added incentive. With each day that Mas Selamat continues to elude search efforts, however, I think public opinion tips further in favour of offering a hefty reward.

We should put moral issues aside and consider the matter in more practical terms.

I am not thinking of the issue of money. The direct costs of an ongoing search compounded with the indirect costs of delays caused by stepped-up checks at the checkpoints and airports etc would already be quite considerable. In this context, even a $1,000,000 reward would be small price to pay, if it can effectively reduce the time it takes to capture Mas Selamat by even one day.

Rather, we should consider whether logically, a reward might actually hinder, rather than help, the efforts to locate him.

The first question: would a reward lead to more calls to the Police?

I think so. People would be more motivated to report sightings. Suddenly, the guy across the street just seems to be limping doesn’t he? And he does seem to be 1.6m tall … give or take 20 cm. He may, or may not be, Mas Selamat. But why not just call it in? After all, with the possible reward, it’s like getting a free Toto ticket.

There leads us to the second question: Would it lead to more “high confidence” reports? I think not. I believe that most people who confidently believe that they have seen the fugitive will make a report.

(Note: By “high confidence”, I mean those type of sightings where the witness is quite sure that it *could* be the fugitive, as opposed to “low confidence” cases where the witness is just whacking in the dark.)

To date, the police have apparently received more than 1,000 calls and emails reporting sightings of this chap. If even 5% (i.e. 50) of these reports were actual sightings of the JI leader, and enough of them were made in a sufficiently timely manner, I would assume that our boys in blue (or green or whatever) would have caught him by now.

Clearly, every report needs to be investigated and followed-up. That takes time and manpower. And every man chasing a lead is one man less searching for him somewhere else.

I am not against bona fide or high confidence reports, even if many of them turn out to be false leads later. If someone feels strongly enough about a sighting, he/she definitely should report it. If there are enough high confidence reports, one (or more) will eventually strike the nail on the head.

But IMO, offering a reward simply increases the number of “low confidence” reports; those made with the hope of striking lottery. These would take up valuable resources, which are probably be better deployed elsewhere.

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