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 précis.
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.