Wayward youth in Singapore do not occupy public consciousness as much as they do in cities plagued by crime and other social afflictions. In America, for example, more than a million of them are involved in juvenile court cases. Out of a population of 42 million adolescents there, almost one in five lives in poverty and is consequently at greater risk of developing behavioural problems, falling behind educationally and winding up unemployed.
In Singapore, 3,265 people aged from seven to 19 were arrested last year - a number that is not large compared to other cities, even when scaled to the size of the population. Consequently, unease arises only periodically, as surfaced recently over the viral video of teens attacking a docile victim and earlier over the excesses of teen blogger Amos Yee. Of course, official statistics do not tell the full story as there are many more cases that are handled in other ways by the community.
The nation is not short of policies to support troubled teens: The National Committee on Youth Guidance and Rehabilitation has been around for two decades, a Youth-At-Risk Engagement Framework was started five months ago and a National Youth Work Competency Framework will be launched next year. Such institutional efforts must be supportive of diverse grassroots action as well as these make a crucial difference by putting young lives back on viable tracks, one by one.
While the full weight of the law must be brought to bear in serious cases as a form of deterrence, prevention rather than prosecution is the modern approach to delinquency. That task will get more challenging as youth are exposed to seething cyber influences and buffeted by economic changes. The earlier the intervention, the better.