Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Policing crowds: The power of 3

Malaysia's law enforcement bodies have an aversion to crowds. Crowds are equated with mobs. Is that a fair stereotyping?

Section 27(5) of the Police Act 1967 (Act 344) states that:

Any assembly, meeting or procession-

(a) which takes place without a licence issued under subsection(2); or

(b) in which three or more persons taking part neglect or refuse to obey any order given under subsection (1) or subsection (3),

shall be deemed to be an unlawful assembly, and all persons attending, found at or taking part in such assembly, meeting or procession and, in the case of an assembly, meeting or procession for which no licence has been issued, all persons attending, found at or taking part or concerned in convening, collecting or directing such assembly, meeting or procession, shall be guilty of an offence.

That is an interesting threshold.

In Malaysia, THREE is not merely a crowd but, potentially, an unlawful assembly, meeting or (if the THREE is in motion i.e. walking, strolling, jogging, or running) procession.

Be that as it may, there is an article in the Economist that reports about psychological studies of crowd behaviour that points to a finding that crowds are not necessarily negative or prone to violence as is feared by many law enforcement authorities not the least of which is the Royal Malaysian Police:

Crowds have a bad press. They have been blamed for antisocial behaviour through mechanisms that include peer pressure, mass hysteria and the diffusion of responsibility—the idea that “someone else will do something, so I don’t have to”. But Dr Levine thinks that crowds can also diffuse potentially violent situations and that crime would be much higher if it were not for crowds. As he told a symposium called “Understanding Violence”, which was organised by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland earlier this month, he has been using CCTV data to examine the bystander effect, an alleged phenomenon whereby people who would help a stranger in distress if they were alone, fail to do so in the presence of others. His conclusion is that it ain’t so. In fact, he thinks, having a crowd around often makes things better.

His first observation was that bystanders frequently intervene in incipient fights. The number of escalating gestures did not rise significantly as the size of the group increased, contrary to what the bystander effect would predict. Instead, it was the number of de-escalating gestures that grew. A bigger crowd, in other words, was more likely to suppress a fight.

Some incidents did end in violence, of course. To try to work out why, Dr Levine and his colleagues constructed probability trees to help them calculate the likelihood that a violent incident such as a punch being thrown would occur with each successive intervention by a bystander. Using these trees, they were generally able to identify a flashpoint at which the crowd determined which way the fight would go.

Judging the fight to begin with the aggressor’s first pointing gesture towards his target, the researchers found that the first intervention usually involved a bystander trying to calm the protagonist down. Next, another would advise the target not to respond. If a third intervention reinforced crowd solidarity, sending the same peaceful message, then a violent outcome became unlikely. But if it did not—if the third bystander vocally took sides, say—then violence was much more likely.

I hope that our law enforcement bodies apply some resources to better understand these studies so that the perception of crowds is deeper and more holistic.

Crowds do not necessarily become mobs. There is a difference.

All things said and, done, I'm still interested in getting to the bottom of the number "3". Is it, intriguingly, the legislative draftsman's sly, dark humour to give the idiom "Three's a crowd" statutory effect in Malaysia?

Wouldn't that be a deliciously perverse use of an English idiom?


satD said...

should we apply for permit for our next teh tarik session bro

de minimis said...

haha. It has occurred to me that we should do that, just to be sure, you know... :D

Zaid said...

@satD, do not worry this requirement (like the bulk of the Police Act) only applies to the Opposition and the NGOs. For instance, anti-ISA vigils, Jerit cyclists and the like.

Pewaris, Pekida, Pemuda UMNO (even in Parliament but except when led by a minority leader) among others, are completely exempt from this rule.

Estrelita Soliano Grosse said...

What a good read! :)

Antares said...

I figure it will take at least 3 years to undo all the repressive laws in our Victorian-era statutes once the Pakatan Rakyat takes over. Pink Lips will not last long as PM. That's the gut feeling I get.

Patricia said...

Hi CT,

I don't agree with the study lah! Hahaha. Not that I sokong the current law, but....

I feel we can find a study to suit any hypothesis - if we try hard enough. Hahaha.

But back to the study, I think it depends on the kinds of crowds he studied. If the crowd was watching a Simon-and-Garfunkel reunion concert, then, I'd agree with his thesis.

But if it was a Kiss or Alice Cooper concert - the results would be quite different.

I still hold by the theory that peers give trouble-makers courage. And bullies are pathetic when you catch them alone. With their gang, they're evil.

Ask any teacher. Ask me! Hahahah.

If I can corner the bully, and reach his mind, I've got it made. My classes would be peaceful from that moment on - cos I've got him in my corner.

If I can't reach him - or her, as was once the case - then, it will be a constant struggle, until he/she 'buys' what I'm selling.

So, the law is nuts when we talk about the peaceful vigils we've had - standing about lighting a candle and just bonding.

But when a bunch of chest thumpers get together, one thing leads to another, and kapow! ... it gets out of hand.

I think the law needs amending to differentiate between an organised gathering, and an impromtu one. You're the lawyer lah, so I'm not even going to think about the finepoints!

But all laws have a loophole - either built-in, or terleft in lah! So there are ways out, with a good lawyer lah!

My dua sen ;)

de minimis said...

Hi Pat

You're actually correct. There are many more layers of issues that are more technical in nature. There is, of course, a context within which the law operates.

The study is generally about crowd behaviour, in particular, sports fans crowds.

The legislation that I highlighted is obviously for situations such as that in the G20 protest crowd in London and organised protest crowds in our own jurisdiction.

Nevertheless, studies on crowd behaviour are relevant whenever large groups of people gather - be it for protest, concerts, sports or religion or whatever else.

I'm still intrigued at why a threshold of "3" and not some of other number.

walla said...

"I'm still intrigued at why a threshold of "3" and not some of other number."

..because '3' forms the smallest nucleus of strength that is the target to be controlled:

The odd thing about this rule of thumb is that it's hard to imagine how lawmakers who insert such rules can also be romantic, for isn't it true that the phrase "three's a crowd" implies one should leave couples alone?

On the other hand, the odd thing about the above odd thing is the observation that in all the major religions, the common sin is adultery.

The answers to all these befuddling things may lie at the bottom of the ocean. In the bermuda triangle.



flyer168 said...


Our great nations's 1957 Westminster style Democracy has be eroded to Gutter politics.....

The Rule of Law has been downgraded to the Law of the Jungle....

When any Unelected, Parachuted, Euphoric Mama's Boy "WANTS" his chair as Party or National Leader....

Is "Bankrupt" of any Honourable Political, Financial, Legal SOLUTIONS....

Will always CHOOSE the "Power of 3"....

Now with Senior Mentor Advisor....

Stage 1....Ops Lallang 2....

And if that fails, then refer to "Daddy Remedy" of '69....

Guaranteed to work....

Afterall, Bush had his "Patriot Act & Police State"


de minimis said...

"The odd thing about this rule of thumb is that it's hard to imagine how lawmakers who insert such rules can also be romantic, for isn't it true that the phrase "three's a crowd" implies one should leave couples alone?"

That's bloody good witticism, bro walla. Good one :D

satD said...

if u got 2 super hot bisexual lesbian chics..wat would u do?


this monkey will not leave the two alone for sure...

chapchai said...

Interesting you should bring this up because I am currently watching on TV the G20 Summit. At one of the press conferences PM Gordon Brown hailed protestors as without protest we would not have the freedom we enjoy today. He particularly felt humbled by a protestor's placard at a G8 summit in Scotland, which declared: "You are G8. We are 6 billion."

Patricia said...


I just love Walla's comment about the one thing all religions agree on is that adultery is sin. Which again plays on the '3' idea - but that it is a 'no', rather than what's ok here: the threshold of 3! SO: are we saying adultery is ok here? ;)

On a less naughty note, I like Chapchai's comment about Gordon Brown. I would imagine that any kind of protest enables a government to get a feel of what its grassroots feel. But that's asking for a maturity and a clear-headedness that is sorely wanting here.

Btw, nice to see you're alive and kicking Chapchai :)