To give or not to give? Malaysians will have to decide whether they are doing a good deed or aiding a bad cause when they give money to beggars. DEVID RAJAH, IZATUN SHAARI and ZANI SALLEH report on this problem in the first of a two-part series.
IT is 9.30pm in Bangsar Telawi – a trendier side of town. A hunchback with crutches stands out conspicuously as he walks past some wayside tables put up by a restaurant.
He moves from one table to another carrying a red plastic tumbler. The people here, known for their lavish spending, are quick to drop notes and coins into it.
The beggar, with a deformed right leg almost a foot shorter than the other, draws immediate sympathy as he moves. Seven of every 10 tables that he calls on reward him for the effort.
On this night he will call on some 200 tables.
The 35-year-old, who calls himself “Ali Baba,” says in broken English and Malay that he had been begging for the past two years after coming into the country from Haadyai, Southern Thailand.
Malaysians, he says, are very generous, “unlike in Thailand.”
Besides his nightly excursions in Bangsar, where he collects between RM50 and RM100, “Ali Baba” does his rounds in Jalan Chow Kit during the day.
After 11pm or midnight, he takes a taxi back to Chow Kit, where he lives with a local friend.
Others who have found the area profitable ground include Nur Islam Mohd Yusof, 25.
Nur Islam, who also uses crutches, arrived illegally by boat from Myanmar 14 years ago and lives in an abandoned building in the city centre.
“I am from Aryan, a province in Myanmar. Life is hard there. Everyone is poor. Jobs are very hard to come by,’’ he says.
“Here I can use whatever I earn to fend for myself and can even send some money for my family at home.’’
There has been a very visible increase in the number of foreign and local beggars on the streets in recent times, according to MCA Public Complaints Department head Michael Chong.
He has received numerous complaints of bogus monks believed to be part of an organised begging syndicate. The monks are usually seen operating in groups of three or four.
“They walk into coffeeshops, restaurants and other busy areas with a bowl and meet at a designated area after their rounds to board a van or a car,’’ he says.
The majority of the monks are from Thailand and Myanmar and enter the country on a social visit pass.
Some, he says, stay in hotels and have been seen eating ba kut teh (a pork dish) in restaurants.
The presence of these people, dressed in either yellow or white religious robes, has been most obvious in the busy areas of Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Klang and other major towns in the country.
One such group has regularly been seen gathering at 6.45am at the Klang Bus station near the Pasar Seni LRT station.
Our reporter followed the group, which included four nuns dressed in white robes and two barefooted monks in yellow robes, who boarded the 7.05am bus to Klang.
Upon reaching the Klang bus terminal at 7.55am, the group split up, some boarding a bus to Banting. One monk was trailed on foot for 4km as he made his way from the bus terminal through the back lanes to the business centre in Jalan Meru.
As he approached some coffeeshops he took out some blessed strings and the alms bowl from the side of his robe.
He started begging from shop to shop, and when he realised he was being photographed, quickly walked into a restaurant and disappeared from the area at about 9am.
“People are dropping five and 10 ringgit notes into the alms bowls of these so-called monks, who can each easily earn between RM300 to RM400 a day. I have seen it myself,’’ says Chong.
“Even local drug addicts are cashing in on the act. They are dressing up as monks to beg.”
Chong says people who donate to beggars should ask themselves whether they are really doing a good deed or giving money for a bad cause.
“A local woman, who went to the newspapers for public donations after her husband died and left her with three young children eight years ago, is still using the old newspaper cutting so that she can beg and use the money to gamble,” he says.
There are many registered bodies in the country, which are dedicated to helping the underprivileged, he points out. Members of the public could to do their charity by supporting these organisations and helping genuine people.
“People who turn to begging do not want to find employment or do petty trades to earn a living,” opines Mahadi Ibrahim, secretary-general of the Malaysian Society for Disabled People
He says lack of enforcement was a contributing factor to the increase in the number of foreign and local beggars.
World Fellowship of Buddhist executive council member Goh Seng Chai says monks who beg for money and hand out so-called blessed strings were making a mockery of Buddhism.
“The culture of begging for money is not allowed at all by the religion. What these people are doing is so disgraceful and brings disrepute to Buddhist monks in the region,’’ says Goh, who has brought this matter to the attention of the Home Ministry.
He says the bogus monks were believed to be part of a huge syndicate which saw them begging in groups at night and day markets, restaurants and coffeeshops in cities and major towns in the country.
Goh, who is also secretary-general of the Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia (BMSM), says the problem had grown out of hand and the matter would be discussed at the forthcoming World Buddhist Fellowship Council meeting in Bangkok.
“We believe the majority of these bogus monks are coming from Thailand, Myanmar and maybe from other neighbouring countries,’’ he says, adding that the practice of using the alms bowl by monks was only to beg for food and not money.
BMSM has started a poster campaign to inform the public to say no to monks who beg for money.
Goh has called on the authorities to mount a special operation to detain these beggars.
A Welfare Department official says there is a line between soliciting and begging and that the department was empowered to act against the latter and the police against the former.
“The Vagrant Act does not allow the Welfare Department to detain those who solicit money by selling souvenirs such as the blessed strings given by monks and bookmarks and other small items.
“This is different from outright begging, where nothing is given in return.
“Those who do outright begging and sleep in public places are, on the other hand, considered vagrants and we can act against them,’’ says the official.
The police have more powers to detain those who solicited money from the public for donations, he says.
Welfare Department rehabilitation unit director Harun Mohd Isa says the law required those wanting to solicit donations to get validation from relevant authorities before applying for a police permit.
The police will specify certain conditions including stating the person authorised to solicit funds, the areas in which he is allowed to do so and the duration of the fund collection.
Those permitted to solicit funds should not ask others like children or women to carry out the activity, he says.
Members of the public should ask those soliciting funds to show them the police permit before parting with their money, he adds.
Charitable homes should get validation from the department and those seeking to solicit funds to build mosques should obtain validation either from the Islamic Religious Council or the Islamic religious departments.
Harun says the department wanted the public to stop direct public donations to beggars.
The department wants to introduce a new mechanism where donations for those in need would be given only through “proper channels”, he says.