THE Government is again considering having new penalties in the legislation that deals with beggars and vagrants. The aim here, said Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim, was to “carry out enforcement against syndicates that exploit individuals, or those who make begging a career”.
A similar idea for a review of the law was floated a decade ago.
The explanation back then was not much different either – to act against those who rely on begging as an easy yet dishonest way to earn money from the generosity of others.
The fact that the proposal has resurfaced after 10 years suggests that the authorities are increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in curbing begging.
There has been no significant decline in the number of beggars and vagrants taken in by the Social Welfare Department over recent years. The figures for 2002 and 2003 were 1,008 and 1,439.
Last year, the department reported about 1,000 beggars, while between January and April this year, 353 beggars were picked up in 484 operations nationwide.
However, is amending the law to target bogus beggars the best way to help the destitute?
Destitute is a key word in this matter.
After all, the legislation in question is called the Destitute Persons Act 1977, which is described as an Act “to provide for the care and rehabilitation of destitute persons and for the control of vagrancy”.
Among other things, it empowers a social welfare officer to put a destitute person in a welfare home.
It also provides for rules for the management of welfare homes and for the handling of those residing in the homes.
It is interesting that the Act defines a destitute person as anybody found begging in a public place in a way that will annoy others at the place or that will create a nuisance.
Alternatively, the Act sees a destitute person as an idle person (whether or not he is begging) found in a public place “who has no visible means of subsistence or place of residence or is unable to give a satisfactory account of himself”.
Either way, these are generally people who need a helping hand; nobody in normal health and socioeconomic circumstances would willingly opt for a life on the streets.
The Ministry acknowledges that, but it is also concerned that the syndicates and professional panhandlers are making the problem worse.
However, amending the Act may be an overkill.
There are other laws to tackle the more worrisome elements.
For example, if the beggars are foreigners, chances are there is a violation of immigration rules.
Under the Child Act 2001, it is an offence to use a child for begging.
And the police have been known to act against begging syndicates by invoking the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007.
Going after swindlers should not be the job of the social welfare agency.
The national social welfare policy calls for a benevolent and positive approach, and that means focusing on the many truly destitute persons. The STAR Says Sunday June 8, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM