Malaysians are normalised to punishment. We grew up surrounded by systems of direct and indirect punishments upon transgressions – punishment for misbehaving, for being different, for making mistakes; the list is long. So it is no surprise that the tendency to punish also permeates into the way policy is drafted and implemented.
Punishment is widely perceived to be an effective deterrent to undesirable behaviour. In our search for fast results, we neglect the harm punishments could bring and fail to critically consider their true effectiveness in framing problems in their complex nature. We therefore fail to address the myriad of complexities and consequences of these problems.
It is especially concerning when punitive frameworks are introduced into policy-making. Public policies often address complex and intersectional problems. Two-dimensional policies, such as punitive policies, could inadvertently do more harm than good.
One good example of how punitive policies could worsen the plight of vulnerable communities is imbedded in the benefits system of the United Kingdom, known as the Universal Credit.
Universal credit is a social security benefit system in the UK for working age people. It merges six means-tested benefits into one payment. The benefits provide for those who are unable to cover basic needs due to poverty and lack of income due to unemployment, sickness, disability or caring for children.
While Universal Credit is accessible to those of lower income regardless of employment status, each claimant must fulfil certain conditions in order to access the Universal Credit services. These conditions are individually tailored and aimed to gradually ease the claimant’s dependency towards Universal Credit (for example, requiring the claimant to spend a certain number of hours each day for job hunting).
Since its roll out, one of the criticisms of Universal Credit is its propensity to sanction or to penalise. Decisions to sanction are often effective immediately and made behind closed doors, and are often unilateral and inflexible. Unfortunately, it provides little room for understanding and empathy.
Sanctions are drafted into social security policies to punish failure to adhere to conditions or terms such as demonstrating commitment to job-hunting. Failure to strictly abide to such conditions, regardless of justifications, would result in penalties. The amount of payment received from Universal Credit could be reduced partially or completely taken away altogether.
Reducing or removing the sources of income amongst the poorest of the poor has led to devastating consequences, including extreme poverty, starvation, homelessness, decline in physical and mental health, acute stress, joblessness and even suicide.
There is a risk of Malaysia going down this same punitive path with similar consequences. A recent example is the RM1, 000 fine imposed upon parents for late birth registration. The intention of this penalty is to encourage parents to register their new-born as soon as possible.
However, besides deliberate procrastination, there are other factors which could contribute to late registration, including difficulty in accessing NRD offices in remote or rural areas of both Peninsular and East Malaysia where assisted and non-assisted home births is still practiced; lack of transport or means of communication; and plain ignorance of the importance of registering.
Punitive policies could be tempting to lawmakers as it is cost-effective in its implementation and paints an illusion of effectiveness. However, the contrary is often the case, punitive policies are ineffective tools to solving human problems.
Punitive policies are crafted and enforced based on the assumption that all transgressions are a result of the fault of the transgressor, most often attributed to laziness or ignorance. It oversimplifies a problem and fails to acknowledge the individual holistically, casting aside consideration into possible factors that enabled the failure to comply, including structural and social forces, procedural and systemic errors, and accessibility to services.
Failure to take into account these complexities in policy-making merely sets up long-term failure, the inevitable waste of taxpayers’ money, and most importantly marginalising and victimising those most vulnerable.
By not considering potential variables that contribute to transgressions or non-compliance, it punishes an already vulnerable community for something that may not have been avoidable, of their fault or ability to control. It is a recipe to drive people to the brink.
A kinder, holistic and more restorative approach towards policy-making needs to be utilised by lawmakers. Extensive consultations and discussions need to be conducted and mainstreamed as part of policy making, implementation and evaluation.
Such an approach will require greater investment and constant reviews over a longer period of time. However, understanding the realities and capacities of the rakyat and possessing a sense of empathy are essential first steps to ensure the protection of our most vulnerable communities.