An insensitive minister's statement has sparked unexpected action to tackle homelessness.
All it took was a supposedly “misquoted” statement from a minister regarding the less fortunate, and the Pandora’s Box of an infuriated public was unleashed.
The soup kitchen quip by the Federal Territories Minister had shown us that Malaysians are indeed a caring lot. I was driving home one evening when BFM’s Talkback On The Evening Edition was discussing this issue, and despite a small few who had agreed with the Minister’s plan to clean the city’s streets of the homeless (some even called them a “virus” depending on free food for “an easy life”), the majority of callers expressed anger, disappointment and disgust towards the minister’s seemingly unforgiving plan to ban soup kitchens from operating within a 2km radius of the city centre and slapping a fine on those who give alms to beggars.
Malaysians from all walks of life began sharing their views and defending the soup kitchens as well as the homeless. NGOs called out to the ministries involved to include them in discussions and challenged the ministers to go down on the ground and see the situation themselves.
Go down on the ground they did, with the PM in tow. And voila, almost overnight the PM announced that a shelter for the homeless will be ready in six months. It took this much attention and flak from the general public to come up with a simple solution to address the homeless issue.
But this doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop here. Homelessness is an issue everywhere. From the Mole People of New York, to London’s Underground, to the slums of Delhi, every major city grapples with homelessness. San Francisco is one of my favourite cities that I’ve visited, yet poverty is just a glance away.
The American homeless are just like in the movies – they wear oversize trench coats, while pushing a supermarket cart of their only possessions. It’s not like San Francisco is not doing anything about it; sfgate.com reported that the city spends US$200mil (RM638mil) annually trying to get homeless people off the streets and into a better way of life. But the problem never goes away.
The homeless are the outcome of public policies and systems that are no longer working, or never worked. Are welfare centres adequate? Are their needs being met so they can be retained? Are vocational skills the way to go to alleviate poverty or are we just prolonging dependence? The homeless stand as a stark reminder that something is broken. They are the obvious marker for deep-rooted problems that exist in a market-driven world such as Kuala Lumpur.
It is commendable that the ministers now see the issue for what it is. Establishing a shelter for the homeless in the city centre is a small step, a quick fix to keep everyone happy, at least for the moment. But it can’t put an end to homelessness.
Issues and loopholes with immigration, red tape, increased housing prices and standards of living, drug and human trafficking, family abuse.... These are but a few systemic issues our ministers have seemed to skirt around, the elephant in the room. No one really dared to address these during their charity walkabout because it is easier to treat the surface wound than it is to deal with the underlying cancer.
The public response was positive and encouraging. Malaysians do not tolerate such blatant disregard for the less fortunate and made their objections heard.
We will not forget their promises and plans for improvement. We will push forward for issues to be addressed. Such is the role of an active civil society. Ministers shouldn’t be able to get away with such carelessness, only to backtrack and hide behind the infamous I-was-misquoted line.
They should know that Malaysians are watching, and watching closely. You’d think by now they would have learned their lesson after so many public slips of the tongue. Have they? As an active civil society, it is our job to point out and tell them when they are wrong.
So here’s to Tengku Adnan, my “thanks” for making such a statement. Unintentionally or not, he has shed light on one of KL’s pressing problems. Perhaps if he hadn’t said something as ridiculous as banning soup kitchens and fining those who give alms to beggars, what more during the Holy Month of Ramadan, the issue would not have blown up as it did.
He has unwittingly caused enough of a ruckus to rile up the general public and subsequently brought some fast action towards alleviating the problem, and most importantly, beginning talks with relevant parties on long-term solutions.
It’s a win-win situation; the efforts of the soup kitchens and the plight of the homeless are finally being heard while the government is given a second chance to correct things and do what’s right.