SEPTEMBER 13 — In the wake of the high-profile trials of the past few weeks, it is not uncommon to hear people exclaiming (with the requisite amount of outrage) about how “unbelievable” it is that these people could be so greedy, so corrupt, so evil.

More specifically, we wonder out loud, how people long for so much money? Why couldn’t these folks take a few million and quit while they were ahead? Why risk being caught by going after so many tens (and even hundreds) of millions? After reflecting on this, I wonder if it’s the wrong question or at least the wrong framing of the issue. We naturally believe that people are rational and behave with safety primarily in mind.

But — and is this really a surprise? — the truth is probably exactly the opposite. The human animal craves danger and longs to push the envelope even if it brings them right to the precipice.

Did gory pictures on cigarette packets discourage smoking?

About a decade ago, our cigarette boxes morphed from glamorous colourful packets into, uh, disgusting posters for horror movies.

The question, of course, is: Did any of these graphic photos contribute to smokers smoking less? Everybody already knows the answer: No way.

A man smokes a cigarette on the sidewalk in Kuala Lumpur August 3, 2022. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
A man smokes a cigarette on the sidewalk in Kuala Lumpur August 3, 2022. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

A smoker will never be deterred just because the packet reminds him of Freddy Krueger’s victims. It’s the same reason why a mountain climber training to conquer Everest is not at all deterred by news or movies about people dying on the mountains.

A smoker couldn’t give an ash-filled damn about quitting smoking just because he sees a photo of a blackened destroyed lung. Likewise, no Chinese is going to stop ordering Bak Kut Teh simply because some Australian study said it potentially causes liver damage.

This is also why it’s fruitless telling a gambler that if he keeps driving up to Genting (or down to Singapore) to dance the Black-Jack gig, he’s going to lose everything eventually. That’s only going to make him drive faster.

The logic works the same in all cases: Violating a norm (about health, finance, etc.) is bad, but not violating can feel worse.

The choice facing the smoker, the gambler, the porn and food addict, is the same. They’re not choosing between Good and Bad. They’re caught between Punishment and More Punishment — and steering towards the latter is downright irresistible.

It’s the same with greedy politicians, isn’t it? There’s even something obscenely “heroic” about such extreme acts. It’s that delusion in which we feel we’re achieving a unique kind of “greatness” by doing something nobody dares to, by reaching out to grab something few people dare to dream of.

Sigmund Freud wrote about the death-drive, that irrational psychic push towards self-destruction, which certainly applies in such cases.

Thus the question is no longer: Why didn’t they stop after stealing a few million? How could they stop when there are billions beckoning?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.