The Vagabonds and Penang’s Struggle to Become a Progressive State Nurfitri Amir Muhammad

Georgetown is the city center of Pulau Pinang which is situated at the northeast of the Island. Georgetown was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on 7th July 2008 due to its rich history and culture. Envisaged in the National Physical Plan (NPP) of Malaysia, the George Town Conurbation (GTC) consists of the highly urbanized Penang Island, Seberang Prai, Sungai Petani, Kulim and the surrounding areas (see map 1). Georgetown has a population of 1.6 million (National Census, 2000) making it the second-largest metropolitan after Kuala Lumpur conurbation (Klang Valley). According to Kharas et al. (2010) the population in GTC is now estimated at 2 million.

Map 1: Georgetown Conurbation Source: Kharas et al. (2010) Pulau Pinang is a popular tourist spot and important hub for foreign direct investors to operate their multi-national companies. In 2007, 200 multinational corporations had large scale operations in Penang, making it the second growth center in Malaysia, after Klang valley. Manufacturing of electrical and electronic (E&E) goods have generated a

dynamism for the last 25 years, keeping Penang’s GDP growth ahead of the national average, above 7% between 1970 and 2005 (OECD, 2011). Pulau Pinang’s economic growth has not been free from competitors and global economic changes, in fact has been hit by the global economic crisis and the shift of multi-national companies to other countries offering cheaper labour. Furthermore, competitors from other newly industrialised countries with highlyskilled labour and more advance research and design capabilities like Singapore and Taiwan also become major competitors. Therefore, in order not to be overdependence on foreign direct investment, the government under the NCER Blueprint (2007) has come out with a regional planning development under the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) aiming at intensified industrialization program in technological transformation towards a knowledge-based economy producing higher value-added products and services. The focus of industrialization is shifting from the assembly stage of E&E products to high technological value. In order to attract more direct and global investors, Pulau Pinang has to be a livable city in all aspects. Hence SERI (1999) has identified the desired indicators for Pulau Pinang Sustainability Initiative as below: 1. Traffic Congestion and Safety 2. Water, Air and Environment Quality 3. Education and Health Facilities 4. Affordable and Convenience Housing 5. Social Problems and Crime Indicators Despite this socio-economic progress and low incidence of poverty, Pulau Pinang is confronted with new social problems, the increasing number of vagabond wandering around the city. Vagabonds are people who turn to the street as their home and lifelines. Vagabonds cause a significant gap in the Pulau Pinang’s Sustainability Initiatives. The existence of vagabond has tarnished the city’s image and a sign of unresolved social problems despite the state’s high and sustainable economic growth. According to Goheen (1998), vagabond problems are also related to claims over space by public and private sectors. The public sphere are controlled by private sectors and forces the poor, mainly homeless to gather at less comfortable places which eventually develop into vagabond

niche. As far as we concern, indicator number 4 and 5 and the vagabond Issues are interrelated. Many people tent to simplify the Vagabond as the lazy, unmotivated and hopeless homeless (which we also need to help them to be motivated). In this case, Pertubuhan Urusetia Menangani Gejala Sosial Malaysia or UNGGAS Malaysia, one of many NGOs that does advocacy programs and data collections on vagabond point out that we need to expand our perception of who are the vagabonds. They are any of those who make the street life as their lifeline. They are neglected children who are freely out at night, teenagers with empty soul, the homeless, drug addicts, beggars, sex workers and foreign nationals especially the Rohingya with UNHCR status. Vagabond is actually not a new issue. Previously they have been called by many names as Pengemis Jalanan, Kutu Rayau, Kupukupu Malam and Belen. With no doubt, this issue has an impact on the socio-cultural of the society such as drug abuse, crime, out of wedlock pregnancy, dropout problems, infectious diseases and so forth. This problem if not addressed, may affect the welfare of society as a whole. Looking at it from the angle of social threat, Penang is not immune from the effects of various social problems that come from unbalance economic growth and social development. When we talk about developing Penang especially Georgetown as a city with good livelihood to attract more talented peoples to live in Penang, it is irony to know that the municipality or MPPP (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang) has no policies on Homeless (peoples who live on streets). We share our view with the Zakat Management Center or PUZ (Pusat Urus Zakat) and one of the officer give a respond that they has no database to determine who are among the Vagabond that eligible as Asnaf (peoples who qualified base on Islamic rule for the Zakat money). This problem prevents them to come out with a specific plan for Vagabond. We also approach Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (JKM) to get their view on the issue, a JKM officer has brush away the issue as it is not a serious problems but rather a negative perception of NGO. It is the NGOs that encourage peoples to live on streets by give them foods. He insists that their operations to catch the homeless and put them in a rehab center called Rumah Singgah is effective enough even though UNGGAS’s interview with the Vagabond show that Rumah Singgah is not as effective as there are no specific and scheduled activity for personal development. After a few weeks or months, they will be released and become Vagabond again.

Therefore it is very important for us to make more and further research and come out with a policy brief for MPPP as well as the state and federal government to justify the need to address this issue and how its effect the economy and livelihood of the city. We need to find a way to collect the database of each vagabond for screening process. In this case I believe the ‘pigeon strategy’ will fit, provide shelter and food and they will come to you. The screening process is crucial because the type of help for each group of Vagabond is different. The homeless peoples need shelter, the drug and glue addicts need their own type of rehab center, the neglected children need motivation and the list goes on. What more important and challenging is to develop a program to identify the potential talent of the vagabond and create something that can benefit the city. It can be an attraction for tourist and alluring top global talent as the global competitiveness to attract talent can be condensed into the concept of the “livability” of a city, the ability to enjoy a high material standard of living, engage in creative activity and develop a sense of community (Kharas et al., 2011).

References: 1. Goheen, P. G. (1998). Public space and the geography of the modern city. Progress in Human Geography, 479-496. 2. Kharas et al., (2010). Cities, people and the economy, A study on positioning Penang. Khazanah Nasional Berhad 3. OECD (2011) Higher Education in regional and City Development, State of Penang, Malaysia. OECD Publication.

Contact info: Email: nfitriamir@gmail.com / unggasmail@gmail.com Address: UNGGAS Malaysia Serambi Dakwah, Lorong Bagan Lalang 22, Taman Bagan Lalang, 13400, Butterworth, Penang.