Sunday, January 18, 2009

The vandals must be kept out of our streets

I WAS driving past the Pelangi Utama Apartments in Petaling Jaya two weeks ago when something caught my eye.

It was not this newly-completed high-density condominium project but rather a row of young trees along Jalan Masjid PJU 6A opposite the apartments.

Nailed to these trees were posters and other hoardings advertising various goods and services ranging from food catering, sale and leasing of the apartment units, and plumbing services to moneylending.

I also noticed that some of these trees had been damaged with the bark ripped out and long metal nails protruding.

Fortunately, these trees were not the trees in The Lord of The Rings; otherwise they would come alive and exact vengeance on us humans.

Imagine also if the posters were not securely fastened to the trees. Strong winds could turn them into flying objects, posing a danger to road-users.

Sadly, this is not at all an uncommon sight throughout the country with lamp posts, telephone booths and Tenaga Nasional circuit boxes being three other favourite structures for such illegal bunting.

Hence, one may ask where the enforcement is when telephone numbers of these illegal advertisers are so prominently displayed on the posters.

In this instance, the question has to be posed to the Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya because advertisements are regulated by by-laws made by local authorities pursuant to section 102(c) of the Local Government Act 1976 (Act 171).

Unless the penalties are expressly provided for in the relevant by-laws, section 119 of Act 171 provides that any person who is guilty of any offence against any by-law shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding RM2,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding one year, or both.

However, more often than not, these offences are compoundable, and the culprits walk away by just paying a small compound fine.

To my mind, this is, in fact, an act of vandalism not dissimilar to acts like damaging and destroying property such as public phones and cars, and drawing graffiti on the walls and doors of toilets and lifts, both public and private.

In fact, a man was hauled up before a district court in Singapore last Thursday for scribbling words on a display wall outside Parliament House.

Koh Chan Meng, 47, was charged with vandalising the wall twice when he allegedly wrote on the wall, considered public property, the words "Hi Harry Lee I love you" and "Go sue me Lee Kuan Yew Go Gavin Son".

Harry Lee is Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

If convicted, Koh could face mandatory whipping of at least three strokes of the cane on each charge in addition to a fine of up to S$2,000 (RM4,700) or imprisonment for up to three years.

Perhaps many would also not forget the case of an American teenager, Michael Fay, who was given four strokes of the cane in Singapore for car vandalism in 1994.

Both Fay and Koh were charged under Singapore's Vandalism Act, 1966.

The 1966 Act defines an "act of vandalism" as:

(a) in the case of public property, without the written authority of an authorised officer or representative of the government or statutory body or of any foreign government or of any armed force lawfully present in Singapore or in the case of private property, without the written consent of the owner or occupier:

(i) writing, drawing, painting, marking or inscribing on any public property or private property any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark, symbol or other thing;

(ii) affixing, posting up or displaying on any public property or private property any poster, placard, advertisement, bill, notice, paper or other document; or

(iii) hanging, suspending, hoisting, affixing or displaying on or from any public property or private property any flag, bunting, standard, banner or the like with any word, slogan, caricature, drawing, mark or symbol; or

(b) stealing, destroying or damaging any public property.

Section 3 of the 1966 Act imposes not only a fine not exceeding S$2,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, but mandatory whipping with not less than three strokes and not more than eight strokes of the cane.

However, whipping will not be imposed on a first conviction in respect of any act falling within paragraph (a) unless the act involved is an offence under paragraph (a)(i) above where the writing, drawing, mark or inscription is done with an indelible substance.

The above is indeed a comprehensive definition of an act of vandalism, and it is one legislation which has probably made Singapore such a clean country today.

However, in Malaysia, we do not have specific legislation to deal with vandalism.

Here, any act of damaging or destroying of property is considered as committing mischief under our Penal Code.

Section 426 of the Penal Code provides that anyone who commits mischief shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months, or with a fine, or with both.

If the mischief causes loss or damage to the amount of RM25 or upwards, section 427 then increases the punishment to a term of imprisonment of up to two years.

Hence, the local authority by-laws and current Penal Code provisions are not adequate to come to grips with this anti-social behaviour which is fast becoming a menace.

The time has come for Parliament to introduce a specific legislation to combat vandalism so that our trees can be saved; our public amenities can be protected from damage and destruction and toilets and lifts in both public and private buildings can be kept clean.

Further, the costs expended in undoing acts of vandalism can be better chanelled to improving and upgrading our public amenities.

The new legislation can be modelled upon Singapore's Vandalism Act.

As whipping can be considered as too draconian or cruel a penalty, convicted vandals can instead be required to do mandatory community service in addition to a fine or a jail term.

Whatever it is, if we want a clean Malaysia, then something must be done quickly which can pose as a strong deterrent to acts of vandalism in this country.

Published in the New Sunday Times, 18 January 2009

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