The problem of homelessness is a reflection of the government's misplaced priorities.
Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor’s decision to forcefully evict soup kitchens that have been feeding the poor and homeless in the capital city all these years is not only appalling in the spiritual month of Ramadhan, it violates the constitutional and human rights of the homeless.
This action suggests he is more concerned about the image of the city rather than the plight and the rights of the homeless.
The fact that Malaysia has a significant number of poor and homeless attempting to survive among the glittering skyscrapers of our city is not an “image” problem. Rather, it reflects the misplaced “development” priorities of a government more interested in creating a playground for the rich and as a draw for tourists, than in attending to the fundamental rights and needs of citizens who happen to be of low wage and unemployed.
Ironically, such marginalised communities have come about as a direct consequence of the dependence on low wage labour to construct those very glittering towers of prosperity, as well as in urban industries.
Other working class citizens have been forced to become urban settlers because their estate communities have been destroyed by so-called “development”, often by shopping malls and houses priced way beyond their reach.
Skyrocketing house prices have ensured that more than 90% of the next generation will not be able to afford to buy a house.
By failing to address the critical issues of inequality and urban poverty, the minister has chosen to criminalise the poor and homeless as well as those who proffer a lifeline of humanitarian aid in the form of soup kitchens.
Suaram would like to remind the Barisan Nasional government that homeless people have constitutional and human rights too and as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, we are duty bound to honour these rights.
In our Human Rights Report (HRR) on Malaysia for 2013, a special chapter on the rights of homeless persons, written by Rayna Rusenko is summarised below.
In this report, Rusenko points out that Malaysia’s Destitute Persons Act (DPA) is a public order legislation founded on the colonial era practice of mass round-ups, lengthy remands, and forced confinement.
Implementation of the DPA today targets homeless and poor persons on the streets.
Despite the fact that persons deemed to be destitute under Section 2 of the Act are neither suspected nor accused of any crime, the DPA assigns the Social Welfare Department and local authorities with the power to deprive them of their personal liberties and detain them at length in a government welfare home for up to three years.
Resistance to government officers and escape from welfare homes, among other acts listed under Section 11 of the DPA, are defined as offences punishable by imprisonment.
The data for 2011 shows that government authorities conducted a total of 1,190 operations across Malaysia, detaining a total of 1,408 people and that between 2006 and 2010, over 5,100 persons were placed in government homes for destitute persons.
The DPA has been used not so much to aid homeless people but to harass them and forcibly remove them “from the eyes of tourists”.
Far from assisting persons on the streets, those rounded up are treated as crime suspects.
“In Kuala Lumpur, 80% of persons caught are released within six hours. In a 2012 survey of randomly selected homeless women and men, roughly half (48%) had been rounded up at least once in operations, and almost three-quarters (72%) of these respondents reported being rounded up between two and ten times.” (Rayna Rusenko, Suaram HRR, 2014: 186)
Equality for all
The implementation of the DPA violates the constitutional and human rights of the homeless to personal liberty, freedom of movement, equal protection, property, and due process.
The right to personal liberty guarantees citizens’ freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as the right to exercise choice in their lives.
Have the authorities ever thought of asking homeless people what they want before they indiscriminately detain them and dump them in state “welfare homes”?
Do enforcement officers respect homeless people’s right to property when they refuse to allow them to take their belongings with them and often throw their personal belongings away?
The same happens when homeless people are taken to remand centres or welfare homes.
Their personal property includes essentials such as identification papers, health records, medication and contact information.
Article 8 of our Federal Constitution guarantees equality for all persons who are entitled to the equal protection of the law.
This reflects the same human rights in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Public space, by definition, should be open to all and not only the rich and tourists.
Homeless persons caught in operations are regularly denied due process, such as their right to be informed of the basis for the action against them, their right to legal counsel, and an opportunity to be heard in court.
As Malaysians go to sleep in their snug warm beds at night, they might want to sing this “Hobo’s Lullaby” to Malaysia’s homeless.
It was written by one of the greatest homeless persons in history, Woody Guthrie:
“Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the city drift slowly by
Can’t you hear the monorails ahummin’?
That’s the hobo’s lullaby
I know your clothes are torn and ragged
And your hair is turning grey
Lift your head and smile at trouble
You’ll find peace and rest someday
I know the police cause you trouble
They cause trouble everywhere
But when you die and go to Heaven
You’ll find no policemen there
So go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the city drift slowly by
Listen to the monorails ahummin’
That’s a hobo’s lullaby…”
Kua Kia Soong is a Suaram adviser.
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