Growing cases of child abuse and negligence in Malaysia are becoming a serious issue for the government and the general public. Just recently in Butterworth, the father of a 7-year-old girl who was found abandoned and abused in an apartment was charged under Section 31(1)(a) of the Child Act 2001. However, it is not an issue of child abuse alone. These cases also highlight another significant problem: the enormous amount of stress that the people living in poverty feel in their daily struggle to make ends meet. In many cases, the parents might be financially unstable or poorly educated. Such forms of scarcity could then lead to abusive behaviour. Similarly, homelessness is another great concern that affects thousands of people across the country. The awful part is that people who are homeless are generally blamed for their homelessness. The public typically perceive homeless people as lazy. The fact is, the presence of homelessness in the city indicates the failure of government to provide adequate social welfare for the poor. In recent years, various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and social groups have been stepping up to provide assistance in terms of food, clothing, medicine and so on to homeless people.
True, much of the assistance provided is essential, but from another perspective, it does not convincingly resolve the problem. In view of this, the crucial role of government comes into place. The Social Welfare Department for example has several programmes that aim to address the problems. Yet the effort is not enough, especially when there is always the perception that poor people have the tendency to commit crime. As Aristotle put it, “Poverty is the parent of crime.” Was he right? No. Although poverty and crime to a certain extent are associated, they are not mutually exclusive. It is important therefore to protect the social welfare of the poor. That means to guard the wellbeing of Malaysians through various policies and regulations. Poverty is the cancer of our society. It is unacceptable for example that some considered children from poor families are incompetent, as if their poverty were their fault.
According to the Malaysia Human Development Report 2013 released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), income inequality in Malaysia is among the worst in the region. The report also highlighted that while absolute poverty has generally decreased, relative poverty has emerged as a growing concern. Although rising inequality does not definitively suggest the existence of poverty, coupled with indication of poverty, it demonstrates that the poor are being left behind. While we move into the 11th Malaysia Plan, it is disheartening to see how being poor in Malaysia can quite literally become a crime. We have to understand that these poor people are a marginalised sector of our society due to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. These people are in fact the victims of poverty. At the end of the day, the reality is that the rich got rich faster than the poor.
This article appeared in The Malaysian Insider on 26 January 2015.