To Act .... or not?

Better option: Teenage rehabilitation programmes such as Kem Perkasa, initiated by Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, wife of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, are more effective than punitive measures.

The Home Ministry is mulling an Anti-social Behaviour Act in Malaysia to empower the police to move against youths who are causing public nuisance. How effective will it be in keeping children safe and preventing juvenile delinquency?

HE’S only doing what children do” – so said a 24-year-old mother in Britain about her noisy two-year-old son.

But his exciting way of “running around, playing with cars and building blocks” had led to Sapphire Curzon being slapped with an anti-social behaviour warning in January after neighbours complained about “the racket” her toddler was making at home.

With the warning, Curzon faces getting a possible Anti-Social Behaviour Order (Asbo) that usually lasts for a minimum of two years, during which the young mother will have to keep her son “quiet” or risk going to jail for up to five years and/or pay a fine of up to £5,000 (RM27,078.30).

But as she reportedly told the British media, how can she stop her boy from being a child and “having fun”?

Curzon’s case is one of the many examples that have the law’s critics up in arms in Britain.

First applied under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Asbo was extended and strengthened by the introduction of the Asbo Act in 2003.

The Act not only gives the police and community support officers the power to take action (including dispersal orders) against those whose behaviour they believe is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to members of the public, but also allows local authorities and registered social landlords to apply for Asbo against those exhibiting “anti-social behaviour”.

While the Asbo is a civil order, breaching it is a criminal offence.

Striking a balance: It is important to define what constitutes anti-social behaviour when drafting the law.
Striking a balance: It is important to define what constitutes anti-social behaviour when drafting the law.

In the wake of the cycling tragedy in Johor Baru, which saw eight teens on modified bikes killed when a car ploughed into them early Saturday morning some three weeks ago, the Home Ministry revealed that they are mulling a similar Anti-social Behaviour Act in Malaysia.

Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed, who made the announcement, did not elaborate on the details of the Act, but one particular provision of Britain’s Asbo Act will likely be adopted: to grant the police the power to order young people under the age of 16 to return home after 9pm.

As he told a press conference, “The issue we should focus on now is why those underage kids (the JB teen cyclists) were on the road at 3am.”

But like in Britain, critics are concerned that the Act will cause more problems than solve the issue at hand, especially in deciding what constitutes anti-social behaviour.

Criminologist Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat says this needs to be considered carefully before drafting the law here.

“There are many ways to define anti-social behaviour – clinical and non-clinical, for children and for adults, for those with disabilities and those who do not have such disabilities, and legal versus psychosocial definitions.

“A balance must be made when defining what constitutes anti-social behaviour, particularly when the sources of the definition are not locally contextualised and put the definition under the purview of external agencies or organisations,” she says.

Nadiah Syariani Md Shariff, who is a lecturer in Forensic Science at the Management and Science University, agrees that it is best to identify what type of behaviours are deemed as problems in our country first.

“Policy makers or practitioners need to gain an understanding of the nature and extent of anti-social behaviours in our country, the consequences of these behaviours and, finally, how the community perceives these behaviours.

“This is because different people perceive anti-social behaviours differently from others.

“It will be better to have a local definition that recognises local problems with the hope that it will serve as an indicator of specific behaviours where practitioners are able to monitor and tackle the root problems of anti-social behaviours in our country.”

Experts also argue that while the Act could be effective in deterring some youths from staying out late at night or joining anti-social activities such as illegal racing, it would not tackle the root cause of why our teenagers get involved in them in the first place.

Prof Madya Dr Rozmi Ismail even describes the Act as only a “paracetamol”.

“The measure will temporarily ease your pain, but it is not a cure. The medicine does not address the real problem.”

We need long-term planning to solve the underlying problem, says the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia social and transport psychology expert who has done extensive research on anti-social behaviour among Malaysian youth, especially the Mat Rempit phenomenon.

“More than law, we need education and awareness raising programmes, especially on safety.

“Our safety ethics is low, not just on the road, but also at home, work and other public places. One way is to have a safety syllabus in school – for example, it can be a part of the Bahasa Malaysia subject.”

As he points out, even without the law, police already have sufficient powers to deal with “public nuisance” among youth and children.

“The police can approach children and warn them for misbehaving. That will scare them,” he notes.

The police just need to be “sensitive” to the goings-on of the society, he adds.

“If it is known that there are youth or children in one particular area who are up to ‘no good’, the police need to be more vigilant.

“They can even organise Rakan Cop-like activities there.”

Dr Geshina Ayu believes there already exist laws that deal with children who are “beyond control” and get “in conflict with the law”.

“They are covered by the Child Act 2001. The existing laws need to be reviewed to clarify and update definitions together with examples.”

The Universiti Sains Malaysia academic says it is important to ensure that parents understand the laws pertaining to their children.

“We should not have laws for its own sake. Parents need to be made aware and educated about the laws, as it appears that having laws gazetted and made available to the public does not seem to be enough – usually it is only when they or their children have been linked to crimes, that parents seek out information regarding legislation.

“So, it is a combined issue of attitude, perception, and daily practices that need to be addressed.

“The problem is not in the lack of laws per se, but the ‘lacks’ in the people – parents who are not bothered to be aware or learn about these laws.”

Ultimately, children’s misbehaviours must be investigated to better understand their root cause, rather than to mete out punishments, she says.

“For example, if the child is in an abusive or neglectful home environment, than the child may benefit from removal from that environment.”

Dr Rozmi stresses that the family institution needs to be strengthened first.

Parents not only need to learn “modern” parenting skills to cope with the new environment their children are growing up in, but also get child psychology and safety tips, he says.

“Parents need to educate their children that staying out late at night is dangerous, but first parents need to be aware of its dangers.

“Curfew, for example, is better imposed by parents at home, but they need to enforce it.

“There are parents who prefer their children to learn from mistakes, instead of enforcing curfews, and that is not wrong either,” he says, adding that the most important thing is for parents to be assertive.

Nadiah says parents still need to play a big role in curbing any anti-social behaviour among their children even if an anti-social behaviour law is enforced.

“The total responsibility cannot be shifted to the police alone.

“The community, especially the parents, should work hand-in-hand with the police to handle this issue.

“If parents practise positive parenting style, whereby they monitor their children’s activities and whereabouts, and implement proper punishment to unwanted behaviour, the police will not be overburdened by this responsibility,” she says.

Dr Rozmi who headed the Kem Perkasa programme to rehabilitate Mat Rempit a few years ago, believes strongly that community-based programmes are more effective than punitive punishments in curbing anti-social behaviour like illegal racing and the basikal lajak groups.

“Community-based rehabilitation including skills training such as entrepreneurial skills, and psychology-based programmes can wean them off anti-social behaviours.

“It will also give them a sense of purpose and belonging as they have something to contribute to the community,” he notes.

Agreeing that community-based rehabilitation will go further in empowering youth and preventing them from getting involved in anti-social behaviour and crime, Nadiah underlines the importance of parents’ involvement throughout the rehabilitation process.

“For example, research has found that parents’ refusal to visit their child in prison or participation in rehabilitation have caused juveniles’ to feel demotivated for a better change as they think that they are not loved and accepted due to their wrongdoings,” she highlights.

Interestingly, many parents in Malaysia support the proposal for an anti-social behaviour law.

However, like their counterpart Curzon in Britain, most parents here fear the overreach of such a law.

“Don’t just blame and punish the parents. It’s what kids today do, hanging out with friends at night ... How do you stop them?

“They will just rebel if we keep telling them ‘No’ and prohibit them from doing what they like,” laments a parent who only wants to be known as Salimah.

Sunita Jamadi from Lembah Subang agrees that while the law is good, many parents have to work at night so they will have a problem supervising their children to ensure that they do not “break” the law.

“If the police round them up, we won’t be able to pick them up.”

Sunita, who is now the sole breadwinner in her family of 10 after her husband got laid off work early this year, hopes the Government will not enforce too hefty a fine.

“The fine will be a burden for someone like me.

“I have eight children to support, and I know I can’t afford to pay any high fines,” says the forty-something mother who sells drinks and snacks outside schools around the Petaling Jaya area.

Aida Azizan, agrees and says the appropriate time, reason for a minor to be out, and other clauses need to be considered carefully in a law like the Anti-social Behaviour Act.

“I think it is alright for children between the ages of 15 and 18 to be out on their own until 11pm on weekdays and on weekends maybe later, say 1am.

“There are many who have tuition until 10pm. But they definitely cannot be hanging out on the highways.”

Anna Ariff agrees. “There are children between the ages of 16 and 18 who work part-time at fast food restaurants and the mall, like my son. We need to factor that in too. And sometimes, if there is an ‘emergency’, I have to send him out to buy what I need from the convenience store. It will be difficult if they are banned from going out.”

She quips, “Anyway, you can introduce a law like that, but will the children listen?”

Saras, who has a 14-year-old son, thinks the law will be effective.

“It will scare them – they will think, ‘if we go out after 11, the police will come after us’.

A big worry among parents, nevertheless, is if the Act will give their children a criminal record.

The Asbo is not considered a criminal offence in Britain and will not appear in the young “offenders” police record.

Children’s rights are already protected under the law in Malaysia, Dr Geshina Ayu assures parents.

“It is already mentioned in the Child Act and is part of the procedure in dealing with children who have come into conflict with the law.

“Unless otherwise specified in the Penal Code, Act 574 and other laws pertaining to statutory crimes; children do not have their names ‘blacklisted’. They are allowed to continue and complete their education, and are allowed to seek jobs. Children are not financially fined. Their parents are,” she says.

She adds, the children may have to go through community service, with other children, or alongside their parents. They may also have to report to the nearest police station and/or attend counselling with their parents.

For Sharon Tan, the law is not the answer.

“No parent wants their children to get hurt, but what we need is not to put them in lockdown at night, but to provide them a safe space for outdoor activities and to meet friends. We should build an extreme park or recreation centre for youths so that they can have activities safely.

“They should not be allowed to hang out on the street,” says the mother of three.

Siti Haryantie Kamaruddin, who also has three children, says parents need to take responsibility for their children’s safety.

“They should be fined if their children are caught out late at night (if the new law is implemented). The buck stops at the parents.”

However, she warns that we also need to do something about children’s access to social media and the Internet.

“It needs to be regulated. There is no point banning children from staying out late if their Internet and social media access is not monitored or regulated.

“After all, they are learning about dangerous stunts and dares – not just the basikal nyamuk stunts and modifications – not from us, but from the social media and the Internet,” she cautions.

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