Contradictheory: To give or not to give when beggars approach?

  • Living
  • Sunday, 04 Aug 2019

How do we help those in need?

I remember when I was in school, there used to be a scheme to help students from low-income families. They would get free nasi lemak on some mornings, when they would be told to line up in the canteen.

This is a great idea. Hungry children make poor students, so giving them food both helps them avoid hunger and improve their grades.

Problem is, not every student who qualified would want to be identified as being poor. So the benefit offered by the government didn’t always reach its intended target.

I wish I had understood better what was going on then, I might have shared some of the food I had during recess with them.

These days, I’m still willing to buy food if somebody comes up to me at a food court or hawker centre asking for money. But they don’t always accept, and I don’t always offer, depending on whether they look genuine or not.

I mean, we’d like to assume that most people who beg genuinely need money. But there are stories in the press of beggars earning hundreds of ringgit per day, and one which said that during Ramadan it was possible to get up to RM1,000.

We can wring our hands and fret that people are so easily abusing Malaysians’ generosity. Or we should be grateful that there are people out there who genuinely want to help and are willing to contribute. It’s just that it’s hard to figure out who is for real and who is not.

Perhaps this is why Women, Family and Community Development Deputy Minister Hannah Yeoh said recently that Malaysians shouldn’t provide alms to beggars. Specifically, she said that Malaysians should channel donations to the National Welfare Foundation (YKN), which will then channel funds to the appropriate parties.

It’s not the first time that the Malaysian government has tried to deter the public from being too generous with beggars. For example, in 2012, one of the objectives of Kar1sma (Transformasi Kebajikan Rakyat 1 Malaysia, or 1Malaysia People Welfare Transformation Plan) was to reduce begging, especially in Kuala Lumpur, including by educating the public that if you gave alms to beggars, it could contribute to issues of drug abuse, prostitution and homelessness.

Then, in 2014, the Federal Territories Minister at the time, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, announced that soup kitchens should not be allowed to operate in central KL, saying that it “encourages people to be jobless and homeless”, and that it was “necessary in order to create a disciplined society” (“Tengku Adnan: Soup kitchens banned within 2km radius of city centre”, The Star, July 3, 2014).

The thing is, this sort of messaging hasn’t worked. When I talked to friends and family about no longer giving money, the reaction was “I sort of understand, but I’m still going to help people”.

The feeling is, if you see somebody who is obviously in need of help, how can you turn away? And if you have to cast them as villains in your mind, then aren’t we encouraging a society in which we expect the worst from each other?

In fact, Tengku Adnan’s announcement coincided with Ramadan, a month during which, for Muslims, helping the poor is actively encouraged.

There was tremendous pushback from various parties, which meant that he had to renege on his policy promise. For the public, I think it was generally accepted that to turn your back on those that need help cannot be considered progress.

So what could a solution be? A survey of 23 people found begging in KL in September 2014 was an attempt to better understand the situation by researchers from Florida International University and Universiti Malaya.

First things first, the overwhelming reason why the people surveyed said they begged was because they were struggling with financial difficulties. They couldn’t hold down a regular job due to illness, or because they had no family or social support.

Those surveyed gave varied accounts of how much money they received by begging (anywhere between RM120 and RM290 per week), but all agreed the income was inconsistent.

From that, on average they spend between RM155 and RM185 per week on living expenses. A quarter (four people) of those surveyed admitted they spent money on alcohol and drugs.

And perhaps most relevant to the point of this article, although three quarters of those surveyed knew the government had aid programmes they might qualify for, only 25% of those surveyed had actually successfully received benefits.

I am hesitant to use a single survey of just under two dozen people as an accurate representation of the bigger picture. Or even assume they are all telling the truth. But should it be surprising that people who lack resources find it hard to navigate government bureaucracy?

Which brings us back around to the question of whether it’s better to give money directly or to channel funds to a central body. Or just buy somebody who’s hungry a plate of nasi lemak.

I honestly still don’t know what the correct answer is.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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