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
(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.