Call for a Joint Ministerial Working Group to tackle the problem of Homelessness

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, MP for Serdang, on the 13th of June, 2014

It was reported yesterday that the government will be planning a major crackdown on the homeless and beggars in KL starting next month in July, 2014.[1] This major operation will be initiated by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry (KPWKM), aided by the police, the Immigration Department, the City Council (DBKL) and the National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK).

The statements made by the Minister, Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim, that were reported in various news reports demonstrated a severe lack of understanding and empathy on the part of the Minister regarding the problem of homelessness.

This operation, entitled “Ops Qaseh”, will firstly entail bringing the homeless and beggars to the Sungai Buloh ‘reintegration’ center where they will be given ‘food and lodging, counselling, recreational facilities, healthcare and practical training such as agriculture, vocational skills and handicraft’.

Apart from the fact that this basically amounts to imprisonment for the homeless – which is not a crime – there is no guarantee that the comprehensive list of ‘services’ listed by the Minister will be adequately provided for in these halfway homes. The example of Anjung Singgah, a Ministry sponsor homeless shelter at Jalan Hang Lekiu which is run by the National Welfare Foundation is not encouraging. Harian Metro reporters, who were posing as homeless people, were turned away by the staff at this shelter including a person who claimed to be a RELA officer.[2]

The fact that the minister found that many of the homeless were ‘able-bodied and aware’ and that ‘some were trying to save as much money as possible to send home and eating food provided by good Samaritans in order to keep costs low’, all discovered when she ‘went down to the ground’, clearly shows that she does not understand the complexity of the homelessness problem. As this article indicates[3], there are many reasons why someone is homeless, including people who seem physically fit and healthy. These include mental illness, falling into debt as a result of gambling, drug problems and alcoholism, being abandoned by children, escaping from abusive spouses, ex-convicts who cannot find jobs and foreigners whose visas have expired, just to name a few. Many of them cannot speak BM or are illiterate which means they cannot have access to government resources and help such as BR1M. Some of them don’t have proper identification.

Hence, for the Minister to assume that they can just get jobs at supermarkets and hypermarkets which are currently filled by foreigners after they have been ‘rehabilitated’ is clearly a mistaken assumption. Just because some of these jobs are low-skilled such as ‘arranging stock, arranging trolleys and sweeping’, does not mean that each and every homeless person can take up these jobs.[4]

Finally for the Minister to ask the NGOS who are currently giving food and other types of assistance to the homeless in KL to ‘redirect their charity to our homes and other places that need help, not on the streets’ clearly shows that the Minister is not interested in working together with and to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of the NGOs in order to deal with the homeless issue. The same two Harian Metro reporters who were turned away from Anjung Singgah found better treatment in shelters run by NGOs, which goes to show that the government should support these NGO efforts rather than trying to stop what the NGOs are currently doing.

I call upon the Malaysian government to set up a Joint Ministerial Working Group in order to coordinate a comprehensive and systematic effort to understand and then tackle the homeless issue rather than to take the heavy handed approach of declaring ‘war’ on the homeless on the streets of KL. For example, in the UK, a Joint Ministerial Working Group comprising the Minister for Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Justice, the Minister for Defense, the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health all came together to come up with a comprehensive plan to end ‘rough sleeping’ in the UK.[5]

In this plan, the Prime Minister, David Cameron acknowledged that:

“In these pages is the recognition that tackling rough sleeping is not just about providing homes. It is about dealing with the wider causes of homelessness, from family breakdown and mental illness to drug addiction and alcoholism. This is a complex, multi-faceted problem, which is why it is so important that Ministers from across government have come together in this Working Group. We are bringing together all the relevant Whitehall departments to try and crack this problem collectively.”

The Minister for Housing and Local Government at the time of the report also acknowledged that:

“But in the end it’s not people working in Whitehall who keep people off our streets – it’s people working at the sharp end that make the difference. The most successful action to tackle homelessness is rooted in local communities – local authorities working together with local community groups, charities and businesses. We must free people from unnecessary bureaucracy so they can work together and become an even better example of Big Society in action.”

In the Malaysian context, this Joint Ministerial Working Group should consist of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, the Home Minister, the Minister of Health, the Ministry of Human Resources, the Minister for the Federal Territories and the office of the Mayor of Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur. This working group must engage with the relevant stakeholders including the NGOs who are working with the homeless on a daily basis. Without a well thought out strategy, what will inevitably happen is that the same homeless people who will be rounded up next month, in July, will end up back on the streets of KL before long, perhaps in a worse condition compared to before they were hauled up.


[2] and