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Interview with Dr Majeed Khader: Insights into Forensic Psychology & Criminal Profiling

Dr Majeed Khader
is Singapore’s first criminal-forensic psychologist with almost three decades of experience in the field, and he holds a PhD in Forensic Psychology from University of Aberdeen. He is Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Home Affairs and Director of the Home Team Behavioural Sciences Centre. A trained hostage negotiator and profiler, he was a pioneer in police psychology and previously Deputy Commander of the Crisis Negotiation Unit. For the last two decades, he has overseen the development of psychological services and research in the areas of law enforcement stress, employee selection, deception psychology, crisis leadership, crisis negotiations, and crime profiling.

What are your primary roles as a chief forensic psychologist in the Ministry of Home Affairs?

As the chief psychologist in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), I oversee about a hundred psychologists working across the different departments and statutory boards within MHA. I have two main roles – a crisis role and a peacetime role. For the crisis management role, I assume the command-and-control responsibility for national crisis response in psychological matters. This means that in an event of a major crisis that affects Singapore (e.g., terrorist attack, building collapse, major incident), I will be responsible for managing psychologists and cross-deploying them to assist citizens who are affected by the crisis. The psychologists will provide different kinds of support such as psychological first aid, debriefing, or grief counselling, depending on the severity of the incident and trauma. During peacetime, I have multiple responsibilities such as assessing the standards of practice in the psychology profession, professional development, people development, corporate governance, leadership succession, and organisational development.

First, I look at the standards and governance within the psychology community in order to assess the standards of practice – primarily in the various psychology fields which I am working with, such as clinical psychology, forensic psychology, and occupational psychology. Of course to do this, I also work with seniors who are domain experts. For example, I will look at the ethical frameworks, the psychological tests/assessment tools used, and the protocols that have been put in place. This is a form of check-and-balance to ensure that the psychologists keep up to certain standards, and the work produced is able to hold up to scrutiny (i.e. evidence-based).

Second, I oversee frameworks for better professional development of the psychologists under me. For example, I ensure our staff have postgraduate study/training or other certification courses to better equip them for their jobs.

Third, I oversee leadership succession. As the chief psychologist, I have leaders under me who are heads of psychology of different departments in MHA such as the Singapore Police Force, Central Narcotics Bureau, Singapore Civil Defence Force, Immigration Checkpoint Authority, Home Team Academy and Singapore Prison Service. My job as a chief is to look at succession planning for them.

Lastly, I am also responsible for organisational development. For example, I look into setting up mentoring schemes for junior psychologists and cross-posting of psychologists to allow them to gain a more holistic experience of different psychology work.

In a nutshell, a large part of my work revolves around leadership and management, while a smaller part of it is professional work like therapy, assessment, or profiling. However, I have being doing this kind of frontline work for more than 20 years! As Chief, my role is more leadership oriented because the profession cannot grow if all the psychologists only engage in professional work and nobody sees to the management and leadership work.

Having said that, the professional aspect of what I do is the part that I derive a lot of joy from. For example, I currently teach in NTU and also supervise students from NUS. Teaching, research, and publishing papers/books really brings me a lot of satisfaction. This also keeps my currency as a psychologist. So publishing my own book on crime psychology gave me much pleasure.

However, you must understand that I am not only a chief to the psychologists, but also a chief to the ministry. This means I have to support the ministers and other directors. This is also an inter-disciplinary role as I have to work with leaders of other professions (e.g., chief medical officer, policy directors etc) to support the ministry as a whole.

Can you share with us more about the use of forensic psychology in the different areas under your purview?

I will answer the question from a broader rather than from a positional perspective. I have talked about it in my book so those interested should read my book titled ‘Crime and Behaviour’.

There are four main strands of forensic psychology.

The first strand is called the ‘forensic-law enforcement psychology’ and it revolves around dealing with police and law enforcement issues, such as criminal profiling, investigations, and hostage negotiations. The focus tends towards criminology, investigation support, prevention and enforcement.

The second strand is called ‘forensic-clinical’ or forensic mental health psychology. Much of this work is done in the prison service, the narcotics bureau, and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), as well as a small number in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). The nature of work is clinically oriented, and covers risk assessment, rehabilitation, and therapy and treatment of offenders.

The third strand is ‘forensic-legal’ psychology. Basically, it refers to the application of psychology principles in the legal settings. It is applicable to legal questions such as the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and reliability of victims/children as witnesses in court. We typically think of forensic legal psychology with regards to criminal law, but there is a field of forensic psychology applied in civil law. For example, we talk about divorce proceedings, child custody, and workplace compensation. However, this area has not been developed much in Singapore. In fact, the legal profession has been very open to psychology, more so than psychologists have been opened to law, and I salute them for that. This area is expected to grow in the years to come as the legal profession has been very progressive in adopting a multidisciplinary approach to their work. I have been invited to give a few talks to the law society and there has been discussion regarding such cross-disciplinary issues.

The fourth strand is called ‘forensic-academic’ psychology and it is evident in the courses you see in NUS and NTU. For example, Professor Olivia in NTU teaches neurocriminology and that is an academic branch of forensic psychology. The focus of forensic-academic psychology is on research and teaching, and less on practice. In a nutshell, these are the four branches of forensic psychology.

What are some of your memorable experiences as a forensic psychologist?

One memorable experience which occurred quite early in my career was when I was asked to interview 3 young girls, around the age of 12-13 years old, who had been groomed to sell their bodies for sex by a pimp. The pimp was about 50 years old. The girls were convinced that the pimp was a ‘lao-gong’ (husband) to them and therefore it was okay to do anything that the ‘husband’ asked for. He had bought them all expensive gifts such as branded bags and clothes. They were from dysfunctional families, so it was easy to earn their trust by treating them nicely. However, the main motive of the pimp was to exploit the girls and make money. They grew very fond of him and would do anything for him, including selling their bodies. When we met the girls, they did not even want to say who and where he was because they felt that it would compromise their ‘husband’. Clearly, the indoctrination was strong – or what we call ‘psychological grooming’. That was my first experience of witnessing psychological grooming. At that time, I could not believe that these processes could have such a strong hold over somebody as I was still fairly new, but it did. Understanding these processes allowed us to better help the girls, and we worked with MSF to give them the much needed care and support.

Another memorable experience was when I was asked to interview terrorists who we had arrested. That was interesting since it is not an everyday occurrence to be asked to interview a terrorist *laughs*. I still vividly remember that it was on a Saturday morning when I was told to report on Monday. I was afraid as I did not know if they would come after me or become aggressive and non-compliant. On the contrary, most of them were quite easy to talk to and they spoke fairly good English. Many of them had been misled and exploited by their leaders. On the other hand, the leaders were very persuasive and charismatic individuals, so it was quite easy for them to manipulate others who were seeking direction and meaning from their religion. They did not understand that these leaders were merely using religion for their own political purposes. Understanding their motivations made us understand them better. We used the knowledge for development of prevention programs as well.

Thus far, these two major incidents were what stood out for me. In fact, in my 30 years of career, I have never seen a dull day when I worked at SPF and MHA. It has been truly exciting. You will always get to see something new. You may think you have seen it all but there will always be something out of your expectations that surprises you.

Criminal profiling has been intriguing to people, perhaps due to popular shows such as Criminal Minds. Could you share with us what exactly is criminal profiling and address some of the common misconceptions (if any) about it?

I think as human beings, we have evolved to profile others. To me, it is a form of survival instinct. For example, if you are a caveman and you meet another stranger caveman in the wild, you have to profile the other person. Because either he kills you, or you kill him, or both of you survive and start a community. So to me, being able to look at another person and ask, “Friend or Foe? Can trust or not?” is actually the first instance of profiling. Essentially, we are profiling all the time. Our potential friends, our neighbours, our bosses, our colleagues – this may be unconscious or sometimes quite a conscious thing. This is no different in crime work. In crime, we are trying to figure out “Who did this? What is this person like? What is his background? Will he do it again?”. And the criminal profiles us as well!  All these questions come naturally and are logical. However, when we profile – we do need to be careful of the stereotypes and biases in thinking. For example, one may look at a person speaking loudly and think that this person is unpleasant, which may not be true. Or we may think that all men teachers who volunteer to work in child care cannot be trusted! Those kinds of thinking patterns are dangerous. That is why when we do profiling, we have to be very mindful of our thinking patterns and heuristics. Good profiling is good thinking.

That being said, our heuristics are not always fundamentally wrong and serve us for different purposes, so it does not mean we should totally eliminate our heuristics. The idea is to check our heuristics and ensure we are not biased every time we do profiling. It is recommended to work in a team so we can have multiple perspectives and there can be checks and balances. It is also better to work with a structure so that it can be used as a reference to check if anything is missed out in the profile developed. Lastly, it is important to work with multiple hypotheses to prevent tunnel vision, which may lead to dire consequences such as misidentification. Therefore, consider multiple hypotheses on your profile – instead of one specific profile and check every one of them. People often think of profiles as merely descriptive of character or personality of a person, but that is just an end product to me. The first thing that comes about when you embark on profiling is actually thinking. Good profilers have a way of checking their thinking, either by bouncing their thoughts off somebody else such as a close partner or having a good structure in developing a profile.

As for misconceptions on profiling? One major misconception is that psychological profilers solve the crime. In many jurisdictions across the world, the profiler only gives an opinion while the investigator or frontline officers are the ones who solve the crime. So, unlike what you see on TV where the profiler solves the crime, it is often not the case in the real world. Sometimes, an investigator takes on the role of a profiler as well, but he/she operates as an investigator first. So, I think there is a need to address this worrying misconception that profilers solve crimes, which is not the case.

The other misconception is the construct of behavioural consistency based on what people usually do. For example, if a child abuser is always using psychological grooming, he would usually not have to employ force since psychological grooming typically does not involve physical force. However, the assumption here is the child is always compliant. Most of the time, a child abuser will profile a child to make sure that he chooses a compliant child based on the child’s disposition and behaviour, etc. But if he mistakenly chooses a child who is non-compliant and the child attempts to fight back, then this typically non-violent child abuser may turn violent as well. So, now you can see there is some form of inconsistency and the profile becomes complex. From this example, you can see that the big assumption people make about behavioural consistency is not always true. What really matters is whether the situation is constant as behaviour may change when situation changes. Generally, if all things remain the same, we are creatures of habit in everything we do, but we must keep in mind that when the situation changes, sometimes our behaviour changes as well. Hence, it is very risky to assume behavioural consistency all the time. It is also why the multiple-hypothesis approach comes in useful because you can come up with many if-then scenarios based on different situations and consider all of them before making an informed decision of a profile.

What are some of the common uses of criminal profiling in Singapore and how effective has it been?

The way I define criminal profiling is that it’s something done beyond merely apprehension purposes (e.g., catching perpetrators) and it can be used for other purposes. For example, we can use it for crime prevention. If we have the profile of typical shoplifters, we can then design a crime-prevention poster targeted at them. We also profile so we can do better rehabilitation. If we are going to do a rehabilitation programme for young men who shoplift, we have to profile young men who shoplift. If we simply come up with a programme without knowing the general characteristics of our target audience, its effectiveness will be compromised.

Criminal profiling is also useful for legal and courtroom purposes. Some years ago, we did a profile of a pilot who was involved in a plane crash and that was useful because the court gained a more comprehensive understanding of who the person was and thus could make a better-informed decision.

So, you can see these uses of profiling are so different from the traditionally defined ‘let’s catch the perpetrator’ kind. Such uses of profiling are especially useful in Singapore because the crime rate is quite low in Singapore. If criminal profiling is only used for apprehension purposes, which is mainly the job of the investigators, then there is not much work to do. But if we define criminal profiling in terms of crime prevention, rehabilitation, and courtroom work, the application of profiling suddenly becomes wide. In essence, there are so many different areas which we can actually use profiling.

As the originator of the CLIP approach in criminal profiling, can you briefly share with us what this approach is about and your initial thought process when developing it?

CLIP is an acronym for Criminalistics and Forensic Sciences considerations, Legal and Local considerations, Investigation and law enforcement considerations, and Psychological and behavioural considerations. The CLIP profiling approach puts together different disciplines in the analysis of crimes and criminal behaviour. Personally, being trained as a psychologist, my world is about psychology. However, when I first worked with investigators, I realised that psychology was foreign to them as they have never read any psychology book or journal article. In contrast, they knew about forensic science as most crimes usually require some kind of forensic analysis (e.g., DNA) and they were familiar with their own investigative practices. Working as an investigator, they were also familiar with the general characteristics and patterns of different crimes, as well as what to consider when investigating such crimes. Therefore, the “C” and the “I” components of the CLIP approach were actually not new to them. What was new was the “P” component which is the psychological aspect. Hence, I felt I needed to integrate them. If I simply introduced the psychological aspect, they might not be receptive to it as they could not see how it could fit into what they were already using.

As for the legal aspect (“L” component), the police have already been using it in their usual legal charging procedures. What was new for the “L” component was the local aspect. This came about when I visited the FBI and they were kind enough to send me two huge boxes of criminal profiles, but I realised I could not use any of them. The problem was that the environment is so different between Singapore and the United States, hence the profiles could not be extrapolated. For example, murder in the United States may occur in parks and houses with basements, which are not applicable in Singapore context since ours are dominated by high-rise buildings. Hence, I thought the local aspect is very important to understand crime as crime occurs in a particular space and not merely any space, and this has to be captured for any profiling to be useful. Local cultural considerations are important too.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges of assimilating psychology into policing work?

The immediate challenge I could think of is that we are speaking a different ‘language’. As trained psychologists, we have learnt all the different psychological terms. However, when we first started working as a psychologist, we failed to realise that all these terms could only be understood by psychologists and not by non-psychologists. For example, if we tell the police that a suspect has ‘psychopathic’ features, they will have no idea what we are talking about. As such, when we are speaking to someone who uses a different ‘language’, we have to speak their ‘language’. We have to avoid using jargon like ‘psychopathic’, and instead break it down into other comprehensible terms such as ‘lack of empathy’, ‘pathological lying’, and ‘superficial charm’ etc, which are all features of psychopathy. Hence, learning how to break it down such that others could understand it better was a challenge.

The other challenge would be that we have to roll up our sleeves and work with the police side-by-side in order to build rapport. By and large, police officers are very team-oriented people who value camaraderie. Thus, we cannot be sitting on a pedestal and just give our opinions as psychologists. We have to roll up our sleeves and push the car with them if the car is stuck – so to speak. At times, this can be quite challenging. This is more of an attitudinal issue, unlike the previous challenge which is more of a content issue.

I would say these were the two difficult issues I had to deal with because I had no one to tell me these starting out as a pioneer in the field. I had to discover it by myself. However, having said that, the police officers have been very receptive to the assimilation of psychology into their work, which explains why there are psychologists in the police force and the Home Team now.

How do you think forensic psychology in Singapore is going to evolve in the upcoming years?

Currently, forensic psychology is going through a process of professionalisation of the profession. This means that we are seeing more people with higher education qualifications such as masters graduates and doctorates coming into the field. When this happens, the terrain will change. With increasing number of higher educated individuals entering the field in the future, they will demand more from the profession. There will be more rigorous debate about concepts and issues, which may lead to community self-critique where different psychologists question each other’s approaches and practices. This is a healthy thing as it can improve the overall quality of the profession but may also result in greater delay in getting things done with the increased scrutiny from others. Nevertheless, I believe the forensic psychology field is going to grow due to 4 main reasons.

Firstly, there is an increased interest in forensic psychology. I have received a lot of emails and requests from others to share insights about the field, and this is a sign that people are interested to know more about the field. Secondly, psychology itself is growing and this is evident from the fact that psychology is one of the fastest growing courses across all local universities. If psychology is growing, so will forensic psychology concomitantly. Thirdly, there will be an increased fascination with crimes as they become more sophisticated. Crimes nowadays are a lot more sophisticated than before. Since forensic psychology itself carries those dimensions, it is likely to grow as a result of it. It may not grow in the traditional way like murders, but it will grow in a non-traditional way like cybercrimes and cyber-forensics. Lastly, the other disciplines are discovering what forensic psychology can do. For example, this morning I just had a discussion with the students from the communication studies department at NTU and they wanted to know about the psychology of scams because they are running a campaign for scams. This shows that the communications field is utilising forensic psychology principles. As forensic psychology gets assimilated into the other disciplines, its growth will be accelerated by the expansion of the other disciplines as well. Therefore, I am optimistic that the forensic psychology field is going to grow a lot more in the upcoming years.

What advice would you give to people who are interested to explore the field of forensic psychology?

I would advise people to do an internship, talk to professionals in the field, serve as a research assistant to a professor who can give you some exposure, attend courses on forensic psychology, or join activities which advocate for forensic psychology. For example, what you guys are doing is good. When you conduct interviews with experts and publish articles on the website, you are not a bystander who sits there and wait for something to happen. You are involved in the field and that will allow you to gain more insights. When I was a junior psychologist, I used to read up literature reviews and volunteered to present to my fellow psychologists on what is forensic psychology. Nobody asked me to do it, but I volunteered. When I gave talks on that, I became more knowledgeable in that subject as I had to read up about it. Over time, I promoted it, became better at it, and eventually become an advocate for it. I continue to do this all the time, even at this age, in my 50s as a chief psychologist, I still volunteer to give talks about it. So, that is my advice – if you are interested in it, put your feet into the water, get wet, get involved, and you will learn a lot in the process of it.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article do not constitute legal advice and solely belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the NUS Criminal Justice Club or its affiliates.

Authors’ Biography

Tan Wei Liang is a Year 4 Psychology undergraduate, with a minor in Forensic Science. With a strong passion in forensic psychology, Wei Liang aims to pursue his postgraduate studies and subsequently a career in this field. As one of the project managers of CJC-F (Forensic Psychology Division), he spearheads the project’s programme planning and newsletter publication. Ultimately, he hopes to raise awareness about the field of forensic psychology and advocate for its application in the criminal justice system.