What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless. Whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy ?

Story in the Star (January 7, 2008)

Entitled, “Rude shock for guard” told how a 61 year old man was mistaken for a beggar and taken to the Rumah Seri Kenangan in Seremban where he was detained for 31 days despite his insistence that he had employment. Lim Tian Swee who was homeless, habitually napped at the Pasar Seni LRT station following his night shift. Lim reported that he had been napping there for about 9 months and that there were hundreds of people who also napped there. On this particular morning, an officer from the Welfare Department asked to see Lim’s MyKad and if he had a home. Lim informed the officer that he did not and he and four others were taken away ina green van. Upon arrival to the home, he had to hand over his belongings including his
money, his identification card, and his hand phone. Lim reported that he was stripped naked and given a sarong, a plastic mat, blanket, and pillow. Lim stated that upon release he was not given money to return to Kuala Lumpur and was told he could walk back. Complaints were lead in relation to Lim’s case.

A May 17, 2008 New Straits Times article (De Silva, 2008) described that the number of people attending the Welcome Caring Services Feeding Programme centre, for free lunchtime food had increased from 90 in December 2007 to between 120 to 140 in May 2008. The article stated that the majority who frequent the place live on the streets. Carl D’Cunha the co-coordinator informed the NST that due to a recent increase in
unemployment, the number of destitutes [sic] had increased. On occasion, the centre now runs out of food.
Several points should be noted from the above reports. First, homelessness in Kuala Lumpur is not new, seven years ago FNBKL were feeding homeless people. Second, these stories suggested that there are hundreds of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur. Third, Lim’s reported experience of his treatment was appalling. In essence, he underwent a 10 process similar to that of a prisoner – possessions taken, stripped naked, detained against his will and denied basic liberties. It is easy to see how reports such as this would deter people from seeking the assistance of the Welfare Department. As noted in numerous interviews were held to gain data for this study.

Homeless people, Elites and members of NGOs were interviewed. The interviewees were selected from three sites: FNBKL Sunday food giveaway; Street Fellowship at Klang Bus Station; and PT Foundation Chow Kit Centre. Four ‘elite’ interviews were carried out. Two with very high ranking academics and two with people at the Director level of Government Agencies. A multitude of issues were raised as a result of these interviews and therefore they are summarised beneath. Of the 27 homeless people interviewed for this study the biggest majority were middle aged and older men. The majority of the men were of Chinese ethnicity, who practiced Christianity. It must be strongly noted here, that this study was not a random sample. Almost half the participants were selected from a Christian Service near Chinatown (a small number of these participants were Malay and Indian). This study makes no attempt to statistically generalise its results.

Most of the participants were single (either never married, divorced, or widowed). Less than one third reported being married. Most participants had some level of secondary education with only two participants having any education beyond secondary level. Of note, 19 of the participants reported having children. However, only 6 reported currently being in contact with their children and most of this contact was impersonal and infrequent. Sixteen reported being homeless for more than one year. Of that 16, four stated they had been homeless for between 2 and 5 years, while 7 reported being homeless for more than 10 years. One participant reported more than 30 years of homelessness. Eighteen of the participants reported coming from somewhere other than Kuala Lumpur. The highest percentages coming from Penang 14.8%, Ipoh 11.1% and Johor Baru 11.1%. It is perhaps surprising that almost one third (29.6%) of the respondents come from Kuala Lumpur. Again, while this study does not attempt to generalise statistically, these findings question the belief held by some, which suggests that all the homeless people in Kuala Lumpur have moved to the city from elsewhere. It is clearly not the case.

A number of participants reported the simple history of not having employment/money and coming to the city to find work only to be disappointed and subsequently finding themselves sleeping on the streets. This scenario appears to be the exception rather than the rule. The self-reported causes of homelessness were numerous and complex. Many of the respondents reported disputes with their immediate family, whether that be, partner and children, or family of origin. Oft times, the final dispute would occur after very long periods of additional problems. The final dispute would be the crisis point that would start the homelessness, for example, the respondent who reported an enduring gambling problem, which the family could no longer endure. Another participant described having untreated bipolar disorder. During the manic phases he would engage in extremely risky financial dealings such as trading money on the internet. This would result in heavy financial losses and the subsequent conflict within his marriage. The final conflict took place and the wife asked him to leave. For a number of participants interfamilial conflict would be combined with drug abuse. One participant who reported many years of drug 11 abuse also reported that when she was 17 years old her father tried to rape her. She left home. Another participant who reported a violent father also reported leaving home and many years of drug abuse. For some other participants, issues of sexuality appear to have been instrumental in family conflict. One participant reported that his having contracted HIV caused disputes within the family so he left. Another participant reported that he is homosexual, has a history of drug abuse and is HIV positive. He believed that his family would not be able to accept either and so rather than confront his family with the truth about himself, and potentially cause the family suffering he sleeps on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. He reported that his family is not aware of his homeless status; they think he has a job in the city. Another participant reported that in 1991 he had a motor bicycle accident and was in a coma for 2 months. In June that year his father died and in December his mother died. He became depressed and was hospitalised in a psychiatric hospital then his marriage broke down because of his ‘sanity’. He stated that he had no support and so he started traveling. One participant informed the author that he has schizophrenia and that two weeks prior to interview he had ceased taking his medication. He stated that during his teenage years he used marijuana. However, he viewed alcohol and his anger as his big problems. He viewed the cause of his homelessness as his family rejecting him because they found his ‘Islamic Conversion Card’. He stated that his family could not accept his conversion. Another participant described how he had failed to cope when a girlfriend, whom he loved, ended the relationship. He stated that he made a bad decision and decided to leave his job. He received bad advice from his friends. He left Johor Baru for the city and became a homeless person.

Some points must be noted here. First, some assume that homelessness only commences after people arrive in the city. This is flatly not correct for all cases. Some homeless people were homeless prior to their arrival in Kuala Lumpur. Second, some may assume that drug use commences after arrival to the city or after homelessness commences. Again, this is flatly not correct for all cases. A number of participants reported drug abuse in their hometowns and abusing drugs before becoming homeless. Indeed, for some it appears to have been a causal factor. Therefore, many homeless people have a history of some form of dysfunction accompanied by a crisis that leads to homelessness. At times the crisis may be posited as the cause of homelessness however, commonly a small number of probing questions can reveal that there are long standing personal, or interpersonal problems, which have lead to the crisis. Commonly the dispute that leads to the commencement of homelessness is only one in a history of disputes that have the same unresolved issues at their core.

Almost fifty percent of the participants reported no prior hospitalisation. Two participants stated that they have previously had mental problems. Six stated that they currently have mental problems, while 19 stated that they have never had mental problems. Diagnosis of mental disorder is by degree and somewhat subjective on the part of the person giving the diagnosis. However, it was apparent that several of the participants lacked awareness of their psychological issues. Only one participant stated that they are currently taking medication for their psychological problems. Of interest, 24 of the 26 participants who provided information on the subject stated that their current medical needs are being met. Access to Medical care in Malaysia is readily available to all, and additional to the mainstream medical services, charitable organisations such as Grace Community 12 provide medical care for the poor and homeless on a weekly basis. Many of the homeless people informed the author of where and when they go to receive medical care. Clearly, the information gained from the above interviews, presents as an explanation, a pattern of crisis accompanied by insufficient finances, as the starting point for homelessness in Kuala Lumpur.

Information gleaned from the elite interviews varied greatly. Some of the elites were aware of the problem and were able to offer theories to explain the situation. However, others new nothing of the problem. One even stated that he would be surprised if there were homeless people in Kuala Lumpur since in Malaysia there are many more houses than there are people. This was surely surprising coming from the head of a government social department. Based on the interviews of this study, in general, the attitude toward the government’s services to the homeless is perhaps best described as look warm. Knowledge of government services varied greatly. Many people interviewed were unaware of any services while others thought the services were bad. A small number expressed fear of the Social Welfare Department Malaysia. Only a very small number of people interviewed for this study reported that the government’s services were good. Clearly, work needs to happen in this area.

Several times the belief that people can sleep in mosques was raised over the course of this study. However, the bulk of the data collected, which related to this issue strongly argues that this has not been the case for quite some time. Evidence suggested that due to anti-social or criminal behaviour, the caretakers of the mosques have felt forced to lock the mosques after Isyak prayers. From numerous sources of evidence: newspaper reports, television documentary, direct observation, participant observation, interviews, and physical artifacts, this study has compiled data that shows that there are many homeless Malaysians who sleep on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Among the numerous places they sleep are bus stations, train stations, public gardens, in car parks, in shop and office doorways and on the streets. The shelter that they are afforded falls very short of the definition of adequate shelter proffered by the United Nations Habitat Agenda. Additionally, as stated by the Director General of the Social Welfare Department of Malaysia, the statistics to indicate the size of the homeless population are derived from the number of people who enter their institutions. The Social Welfare Department of Malaysia does not have statistics on the number of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur, nor does the Department of Statistics Malaysia. The findings of this research are in direct contradiction to the Minister’s 2006 Habitat Day Speech in which it was stated that, “no Malaysian is without a shelter, and we can be proud that, comparatively, homelessness in our country is negligible” (Menteri, 2006). First, there are numerous homeless people in Kuala Lumpur. Second, since the number of homeless people is unknown, how then could the Minister compare homelessness in Malaysia with anywhere else?

It readily becomes apparent that many of Kuala Lumpur’s homeless people can get all their basic needs met primarily by the NGOs and charitable organisations: all except a roof over their heads. The following scenario appears to be representative of the process that occurs in relation to homelessness in Kuala Lumpur. Within days of becoming 13 homeless in Kuala Lumpur, a homeless person meets up with other homeless people. These encounters act as a form of information service whereby the newly arrived homeless person learns where to go and what to do. They learn where and how to get food, clothes, medical care, laundry services, and where to take care of their personal hygiene needs. It would appear that the vast majority of these services are non-government. In a relatively short period of time the homeless person is on a path for survival and dependency. As one homeless person put it, “Homelessness is always accompanied by helplessness!”

The Malaysian government has expressed the will to eradicate poverty in Malaysia. Numerous low cost housing schemes are in place. So what’s the problem? The problem for some is simple. They have no job and no money, or they have a job but it pays insufficient wages to provide them with accommodation. As previously noted, one perhaps unintended consequence of the Destitute Persons Act 1977, Act 183 is that it instills fear in some homeless people. From accusations of mistreatment in government institutions to stories of people fleeing from the Welfare Officers of the SWDM, an image of distain rather than assistance is imagined. This paper wishes to make very explicit that the SWDM does a great deal of very, very good work. However, when it comes to the Destitute Persons Act 1977, some welfare department staff must follow legislation and practices that do not entirely endear them to the homeless people of Kuala Lumpur. While Act 183 may rescue some elderly homeless people, there is a component of the Act that criminalises people for being poor. Under the Act the authorities have the right to remove and relocate people. Leave without permission and you can face charges and possible imprisonment. In addition, Act 183 effectively bans homeless people from busking, or what could otherwise be legitimate ways of earning a living. While undoubtedly there must have been reasons prior to 1985 when begging was incorporated into Act 183, surely one would have to reflect upon the wisdom of denying people who have nothing legitimate avenues to earn a living. Playing music and public performance can be viewed as begging under the Act. Quite strange isn’t it that some people will be given licenses to perform and can earn phenomenal amounts of money from singing in public, while people who have nothing are denied the right to sing for food. This hardly fits with the notion of a caring Malaysia.

Thankfully, several social policies that are a great deal more caring than Act 183 have been written more recently. That stated, Malaysians appear not to acknowledge the homeless that live among them. As the saying goes, ‘the fish can’t see the water they swim in’. While the author encountered many examples of Malaysians not acknowledging the homeless, one example is very telling. It relates to a discussion had with a 30 something, university educated Malaysian woman about the people who sleep on the streets. Surprised, she asked, “Are those people homeless?” This negates two facts. First, she sees people sleeping on the streets and second she is unaware that they don’t have homes. This study asked three important research questions: 1. Why is there homelessness in Kuala Lumpur? 2. How is the government responding to the issue? And, 3. Why is there no specific public policy to address the issue?

Clearly, several factors contribute to homelessness in Kuala Lumpur. A person may have an enduring problem that leads to a family dispute and crisis, which results in his/her loss of accommodation with insufficient money to acquire shelter. Alternatively, the 14 person may have a crisis, such as the loss of job, which results in loss of accommodation again with insufficient funding to acquire shelter. These scenarios may take place in Kuala Lumpur or in any part of Malaysia. Upon arrival to the ‘streets’ the person connects with other homeless people who introduces the person to support services. Once the person enters this circle, they learn ways in which to survive as a homeless person and dependency commences. As a part of this process, the homeless person learns about the ‘raids’ of the SWDM and the police. They learn how to avoid them, or what to say to prevent themselves from being taken to government institutions. As one homeless person stated, “Malaysia has become a dishonest country… promises are made but nothing gets done...Malaysia way of life you must lie.” While a small number of the homeless people interviewed have sought accommodation from the SWDM, some do not qualify, some are unaware of what is on offer, and some do not want the accommodation offered. They view being homeless and sleeping on the streets, as being more desirable than the government run institutions.

The second research question this study asked was, ‘How is the government responding to the issue?’ This study concludes that the government’s response to the issue falls very short of optimum. While the government is to be applauded for its poverty eradication successes and the provision of low-cost housing to many people, it would appear that the government has failed to acknowledge sufficiently Kuala Lumpur’s homeless people. The government does not have statistics on the numbers of homeless people and its current legislation appears not to have kept pace with its own desired policies. At surprisingly high levels, there appeared to be ignorance and incorrect information. On a more hopeful note, the National Social Policy and the National Social Welfare Policy could both be viewed as providing the required authorisation for improving the situation. There is always a time-lag between policy launch and policy outcome. Perhaps when the effectiveness of the welfare policies are next reviewed, homelessness could be placed firmly on the agenda.

The third research question that this study asked was, ‘Why is there no specific public policy to address the issue?’ Several factors appear to be most influential. First, lack of awareness or denial of the problem. As this research has shown, Malaysians from many walks of life were unaware of the existence of homeless people in their midst. Even people who have seen people lying sleeping on the streets have revealed that they did not realise that those people were homeless. Thus, in relation to homelessness in Malaysia, (and perhaps in relation to a good deal many other issues) this study coins the term, ‘social blindness’. By this the author means, the individual’s ability to see social situations and to fail to recognise or acknowledge what they are seeing. As has been demonstrated above, in relation to homelessness, people at all levels within society, the public service, and government may engage in social blindness. Therefore, social blindness is one factor that contributes to the lack of a public policy to address the issue of homelessness. A second factor relates to the misinformation provided by government. When a Minister tells the world that the problem does not exist then some people at least will believe it. A third issue relates to priorities. While many are aware of the issue, they fail to give it a high enough priority to effect action. A fourth reason, relates to failure to recognise the possible negative consequences of not formulating a policy to deal with the issue. Circumstances can change overnight and as the saying goes, ‘if you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail’. Malaysia on its rapid development path must prepare not to fail in relation to this issue.

As noted above, Malaysia is a rapidly developing country with increasing rural to urban migration. Warnings about the need to effectively manage development have been plenty. It is therefore, recommended that the Malaysian Government should create a public policy specifically to deal with the issue of homelessness. The Destitute Persons Act 1977, Act 183 should be reviewed and that review needs to incorporate a more caring approach such as that found in Malaysia’s national social policies. The elements of the Act that can ‘criminalise the poor’ should be removed and all barriers to service need to be removed. Future research could identify and study those who manage to leave homelessness and return to a more normal lifestyle. This could potentially provide answers that may help others end their homelessness.

Why then are people homeless and sleeping on the streets of Kuala Lumpur ?

Perhaps the singly most important and influential document that relates to homeless people is The Destitute Persons Act 1977 Act 183. Act 183 is “An Act to provide for the care and rehabilitation of destitute persons and for the control of vagrancy”. The Oxford online dictionary defines destitute as, “extremely poor and lacking the means to provide for oneself”, while a vagrant is defined as, “1. a person without a home or job. 2 archaic a wanderer.” One could question as to whether or not the term vagrant continues to have such ‘emotionally neutral’ interpretations as those attributed to the term ‘wanderer’.

Section 1 of Act 183 specifies three interpretations that relate to destitution, “begging” means any conduct calculated to induce the giving of alms, whether or not there is any pretence of singing, playing, performing, offering anything for sale or otherwise; 
“destitute person” means— 
(a) any person found begging in a public place in such a way as to cause or to be
likely to cause annoyance to persons frequenting the place or otherwise to create a
nuisance; or
(b) any idle person found in a public place, whether or not he is begging, who has no
visible means of subsistence or place of residence.

Clearly then, as interpreted by Act 183 any person in a public place who is doing nothing, with no visible means of subsistence and who has no place of residence may be considered a destitute person. Having determined what is a destitute person, Act 183 goes on to direct that an authorised officer, …may take into his [sic] charge any destitute person and produce such person before a Magistrate within twenty-four hours: Provided that if the destitute person refuses to be taken or offers any resistance to the officers mentioned in this subsection, such officer may call upon any police officer for assistance in the exercise of his powers, and it shall be the duty of every police officer to comply with such request. The term ‘take into his charge’ is a very interesting use of language. While the destitute person is not arrested the encounter may be experientially similar. 

Upon presentation of the person before a Magistrate, the Magistrate then has, within the limitations of the law, the power to order that the person be admitted temporarily to a welfare home. Following the furnishing of a report by a social welfare officer to a Magistrate in Chambers, the Magistrate may order the person to reside in a welfare home for a period of up to three years. Following a subsequent report furnished by a social welfare officer, a Magistrate in Chambers may extend the duration of the person’s residence in a welfare home by a further period that shall not exceed 3 years. Under specific conditions, the Superintendent of the welfare home may discharge a person. Persons in welfare homes may be required to engage in activities or sent to hospital as required. The next section, Section 11 of Act 183 is extremely powerful and is therefore fully quoted.

11. Any person who— 
(a) refuses to be taken, or offers any resistance to being taken, into the charge of an officer duly authorized in writing by a local authority and acting under the direction of the Director General or a social welfare officer under this Act;
(b) escapes from an officer duly authorized in writing by a local authority and acting under the direction of the Director General or a social welfare officer while committed to their charge under this Act;
(c) without permission of the Superintendent leaves a welfare home in which he is required to reside under section 3 or to which he has been admitted on his own application under section 4; or 
(d) having been permitted to leave a welfare home for a specified time fails to return without reasonable cause at the expiration of such time, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable, on conviction, to be sent to a welfare home or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months. Indeed, Section 12 of Act 183 rules that “A police officer may arrest without warrant any person who he reasonably believes has committed an offence under section 11.” Some points need to be highlighted at this juncture. 

First, while the person initially is taken into charge, his/her going away from the police or welfare officer is construed as ‘escape’. Second, imagine yourself in the following scenario. You have had a crisis. You have no one to turn to. You are homeless. You are committing no crime and are indeed sitting doing nothing. You can then be ‘taken into charge by the police’ and if you leave, you may possibly face up to 3 months in prison. Hence, two things should be strikingly obvious from this scenario a). as the law currently stands, there is an element of Act 183 that criminalises the poor and homeless. b). who would want to go near a welfare officer knowing that you may have your freedom taken from you and if you try to leave, you may face arrest and imprisonment? While in pragmatics, the implementation of Act 183 may take on a more ‘negotiated flavour’, it is obvious that the current legislation is established in such a way that it could deter homeless people from approaching social welfare officers or the police. As such, the system predisposes at least some homeless people to avoid the legitimate authorities or to lie. Indeed, if you cannot sell goods on the street, or perform to earn some money, and you are hungry and you are reluctant to approach the authorities for fear of being detained or arrested, then what is left for you to do to get food? Clearly, this legislation was not written from the perspective of homeless people. And clearly, this legislation has components, which contrary to its intentions, could drive homeless people toward crime. This is undoubtedly a very serious unintended consequence of the Destitute Persons Act 1977.

It is now just over 30 years since the Destitute Persons Act 1977 was enacted and people and society have moved on. From the country’s highest level documents to the social welfare policies, Malaysia through its policy makers are expressing a strong desire for equitable sharing of resources and a more caring society. In a speech by Prime Minister Dato Seri Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi to the National Seminar on Urban Poor and Low-income Families Towards The 9th Malaysia Plan (2005), The Prime Minister acknowledged that, low-income families are deprived of adequate housing and sanitation, insufficient access to education, healthcare, and transport facilities, and that the poor are more susceptible to urban pollution. On March 31, 2006 the 9th Malaysia Plan was tabled in parliament by Prime
Minister YAB Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. There is not a single use of the word ‘homeless’ anywhere in the 9th Malaysia plan. One would have to suggest, that while ‘low income families’ and the ‘urban poor’ are ‘visible’, the category of ‘homeless’ remains below the radar of the policy makers. In the language of public policy, the issue of homelessness is not on the agenda. It must be noted that while Malaysia has many low cost housing initiatives, even low cost houses are out of reach to people who have no money and no source of income.

Homelessness in Malaysia: A Public Policy Issue?

Homelessness in Kuala Lumpur does not exist when clearly it does. If you fully
grasped that statement then you probably know a great deal about the issue of homelessness in Malaysia. If you did not however, fully grasp that statement, but instead found it confusing, then you are on the right path to gaining a deeper understanding of the issue of homelessness Malaysian style.

This paper is a case study of the issue of homelessness in Kuala Lumpur. The study
examined the issue from a public policy perspective. The study aimed, to illuminate the status quo in relation to public policy and homelessness in Kuala Lumpur, to shed light on the profile of homeless Malaysians, and to explore how they become and remain homeless. From the outset, the study asked the following research questions: 

1. Why is there homelessness in Kuala Lumpur? 
2. How is the government responding to the issue? And,
3. How developed is public policy in relation to homelessness in Kuala Lumpur? 

As the study reveals, these are timely and pertinent questions. People have homes for lots of very good reasons. A home provides not only protection from the elements, but also a sense of security and safety. It is a place where people can meet many of their, spiritual, physical, intellectual, social and emotional needs. Additionally, a home locates an individual in social space. It is arguably the most importantpoint of reference to which others may turn to establish or maintain contact with each other . However, many people are homeless and the phenomenon of homelessness is apparent on the streets of Malaysia. So what is homelessness?

The definition of homeless for the purposes of this study is an adaptation of the American definition found in The United States Code, Title 42, Chapter 119. While the American definition includes individuals who stay in private or publicly operated shelters, institutions or public spaces; for the purposes of this paper a homeless individual is defined as ‘an individual who lacks a fixed, regular nighttime residence and who sleeps in public places not designed for sleeping’. Since this paper is about homelessness and public policy, a definition of public policy is provided below.

Lester and Steward (1996) summarised the various definitions of public policy and stated that public policy is: a process or a series or a pattern of governmental activities or decisions that are designed to remedy some public problem, either real or imagined. The special characteristic of public policies is that they are formulated, implemented, and evaluated by authorities in a political system, for example, legislators, judges, executives, and administrators. Public policies are always subject to change on the basis of new (or better) information about their effects.

One could now ask why homelessness should be a public policy issue. According to the UN-HABITAT, The 100 years from 1950 to 2050 will be remembered for the greatest social, cultural, economic and environmental transformation in history – the urbanization of humanity. With half of us now occupying urban space, the future of the human species is tied to the city. How we plan and govern our cities will determine whether our collective future will be bright and sustainable or brutal and chaotic (2007, p.5).
As will be seen Malaysia fits very nicely into the UN-HABITAT’s above prĂ©cis.
Developing countries were given specific mention in the UN-HABITAT 2006 Annual

The report noted that urban population growth in developing countries is tenfold that of developed countries. Malaysia’s population has been steadily increasing. In 1970 the total population of Malaysia was 10,439,430 (Chander, Fernandez & Johnson, 1970). By 1980 the population was 13,136,100 (Saw, 2007). By 1991 it was 18.38 million and the 2000 Census recorded the population at 23.27 million (Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2005). The estimated population of Malaysia as of June 17, 2008 was 27,477,645 persons
(Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2008).

In regard to urbanization, it was observed that the proportion of urban population had increased to 62.0% in Census 2000 from 50.7% in 1991. States with very high proportions of urban population in Census 2000 were Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur (100%), Selangor (87.6%) and Pulau Pinang (80.1%). Conversely, the states with low urbanization levels were Kelantan (34.2%), Perlis (34.3%) and Kedah (39.3%). Clearly, Malaysia population is growing rapidly and it is rapidly urbanizing. So where does Malaysia fit on the ‘developmental continuum’?

The World Bank categorises countries based on their Gross National Income (GNI) per capita (World Bank, 2008a). Countries with low income and middle-income economies are considered ‘developing countries’ (World Bank, 2008a). Currently, the World Bank categorises Malaysia as an upper-middle-income economy and therefore Malaysia is considered a ‘developing country’ (World Bank, 2008b). In consideration of the above then plainly, managing urbanisation is of the utmost importance. One aspect of urbanisation is homelessness. Indeed, homelessness may be a criteria by which successful urbanisation could be measured. Be that as it may, homelessness needs to be managed as a part of the bigger picture of population growth, rural to urban migration, and ‘development’. Seen in this light, homelessness falls well within the ambit of public policy as defined by Lester and Steward above. But does the Malaysian government have any commitments to manage the issue?

According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UNHSP), one element of the right to an adequate standard of living is the right to adequate housing (UNHSP, 2008a). Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to housing for everyone (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948). Malaysia recognises the provisions of the UDHR to the extent that they do not conflict with the provisions of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution (Eraconsumer.org, 2008). This is provided for by section 4(4) of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Act 597) which states that, “For the purposes of this Act, regard shall be had to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 to the extent that it is not inconsistent with the Federal Constitution”
(Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, 2008). As article 25 of the UDHR, is not inconsistent with the provisions of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, then it would be reasonable to state, that under the UDHR Malaysia has an international commitment to provide her citizens with a “Right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing, including food, clothing, housing and medical care” (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, 2008).

In his 2006 Habitat Speech, the Malaysian Minister for Housing and Local Government drew particular attention to the Habitat Agenda, which details the actions that governments should take in order to develop sustainable human settlements and adequate shelter for all. The Minister stated, “no Malaysian is without a shelter, and we can be proud that, comparatively, homelessness in our country is negligible” (Menteri, 2006). In view of the Minister’s claims, it is important to clarify the definition of adequate shelter. According to the United Nations Habitat Agenda, 

Adequate shelter means more than a roof over one's head. It also means adequate privacy; adequate space; physical accessibility; adequate security; security of tenure; structural stability and durability; adequate lighting, heating and ventilation; adequate basic infrastructure, such as water-supply, sanitation and waste-management facilities; suitable environmental quality and health related factors; and adequate and accessible location with regard to work and basic facilities: all of which should be available at an affordable cost (2003a, 22).
As will be seen later, the reality on the ground falls short of the minister’s claims. However, domestically Malaysia has much that should dictate a better life for homeless people.

As outlined in myGovernment (2008), the Rukunegara is Malaysia’s national ideology. It was formulated to guide Malaysia’s nation-building efforts and it was proclaimed on August 31, 1970 by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong IV. Rukunegara calls for the ‘creation of a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably shared’. As outlined by the Economic Planning Unit (2008), the Malaysian government declared in 1991, the objective that Malaysia become a developed nation by the year 2020. This to be achieved by sustained economic growth and structural economic changes. The key to the realisation of this objective is the triumph over the nine strategic challenges. Vision 2020 calls for a ‘fully caring society’, a fully moral and ethical society, and “…an economically just society, in which there is fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation”. It would therefore be reasonable to argue that homelessness is the antithesis of the themes of the nation’s highest documents. When one examines Malaysia’s social policies one can infer that homelessness would not exist.

The National Social Policy is Malaysia’s umbrella social policy, which enshrines the principles outlined in the Constitution of Malaysia, Rukunegara, Vision 2020 and Malaysia’s international commitments. The National Social Policy was launched on August 19, 2003 by then Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Jayasooria, 2003). The goal statement of the National Social Policy is, To create a progressive and established Malaysian society with every member having the opportunity to develop his/her potential to the optimum in a healthy social environment based on the qualities of unity, resilience, democracy, morality, tolerance, progress, care, fairness and equity in accordance with the goal of Vision 2020.

Objective 1 of the policy bares direct relevance to homeless people. It states, “To ensure that the basic necessities of the individual, family and community are provided for”. If one considers a home a basic necessity, then clearly from the government’s social perspective, no one in Malaysia should be homeless. More specifically, Objective 1 not only ensures “sufficient basic necessities”, it also encompasses “a physical environment that is healthy, clean, safe and people-friendly”. The policy also includes in its main objectives, the development and empowerment of humans for life, consolidation and development of social support system/services, and the generation of multi-sector synergy.

The preface of the National Social Welfare Policy (NSWP) acknowledges that due to rapid change, social life is now more complex. These changes have brought added stress to individuals, their families, and communities. Social problems are viewed as causal to higher crime, prostitution, child abuse, drug abuse etc. To combat these increasing social problems, the NSWP calls for not only curative and rehabilitative approaches, but also prevention and development. In particular, the policy calls for increased awareness in relation to the various categories of social problems, for example, domestic violence or abuse of the elderly and for an upgrade in the level of capability in order that these challenges may be faced. The policy warns that failure to address the issues may result in an explosive epidemic that goes beyond control. Thus, one of the central thrusts of the NSWP is to enhance social stability towards social equitability. 

The goal of the NSWP is “A contented and strong society for national development”. The three objectives of the NSWP are, to create a society that is, independent; blessed with equitable opportunities; and caring. One of the main strategies to achieve these objectives “is to build and inculcate the spirit of mutual help and assistance to reinforce a caring culture”. The policy asserts that every individual, group, agency, and community must actively contribute to the success of the policy. An integrated approach among agencies etc is highly encouraged. Evidently, the main themes of the above policies strive to achieve a caring Malaysia; a Malaysia in which every individual has his or her human dignity and worth respected. The policies aim to achieve equitable distribution of wealth and a just society. From the grand ideals of the Rukunegara to the implementation strategies of the NSWP, all policies are entwined in noble values. 


Homelessness is a growing problem. In 2008, for the first time in human history,
more than 50% of the global population dwells in cities; estimates predict 70% by
2050. Malaysia’s development mirrors this trend, with rapid increases in both
population, and urban to rural population ratio. Legislatively, Malaysia’s Destitute
Persons Act 1977, provides for voluntary/involuntary admission to a welfare home,
and the arrest of an “escaped destitute person”. However, a public policy on
homelessness, in the broader contemporary context of population growth and rapid
urbanisation, is nonexistent. This paper is a case study of homelessness in Kuala
Lumpur from a public policy perspective. Preliminary findings suggest that for some,
a pattern of rural to urban migration is associated with homelessness and
consequentially helplessness. However, some homeless people are from Kuala
Lumpur. In view of Malaysia’s recent, current and impending, dramatic, demographic
changes, this paper suggests that Malaysia must now develop a broad based, public
policy on homelessness.