With criminals getting more informed and sophisticated, it is crucial for parents to keep abreast on safety issues and watch their children closely.

IF only” is arguably one of the most painful phrases in life. Laden with guilt and regret, these are words that can haunt one for eternity, especially when they are tied to a fatal mistake involving children. One can only imagine the regret and grief felt by the mother of five-year-old Dirang (real name Nurul Nadirah Abdullah) who was found burnt to death after she was sent out to the shops nearby to buy some instant noodles last year. And we can only try to understand the pain felt by the teacher who left her five-year-old in her car while she popped into school to finish something quickly, only to find him dead five hours later after she lost track of the time.

Some may think it heartless and insensitive to question the parents’ sense of responsibility after their traumatic loss, but what is the solution when similar incidents of parental negligence keep recurring at the cost of children’s lives?

Take last week for example. Even after pictures and news of six-year-old William Yau Zhen Zhong’s disappearance were plastered all around the country, how many of us still saw young children wandering on their own in public places; heard announcements of children waiting to be claimed by their parents at the malls’ information counters and walked by parked cars with young children left unsupervised inside them?

“I won’t be surprised if another child goes missing soon,” says MCA Public Services and Complaints Department head Datuk Seri Michael Chong. Parents are not learning from these heartbreaking incidents, he laments, sharing that over the years he has handled countless cases of missing children and held press conferences on the issue. He says he has advised parents to be vigilant about their children’s safety all the time. “For example, we have advised parents not to allow their children to go out alone or leave them in their car, yet many still do it.”

These three cases are only a scratch on the surface of the missing children phenomenon in the country. In 2011, police records showed that 233 children aged 12 and below went missing while 2012 (up to October) recorded 212 disappearances of young children in the same age group. In total, 2,938 children (below 18) were reported missing in 2011 and 2,325 went missing between January and October last year. While the number has not been ascertained, many of these cases involved some degree of negligence on the part of the parents. As such, there are groups calling for parents of children who have been abducted, injured or killed, to be investigated for their failure in protecting their children from harm.

Under Section 31 of the Child Act 2001, it is stipulated that any person having the care of a child who abuses, neglects, abandons or exposes the child in a manner likely to cause him physical or emotional injury, or causes or permits him to be abused, neglected, abandoned or exposed, is considered as committing an offence and shall be liable to a fine of up to RM20,000 or up to 10 years’ imprisonment, or both. Section 33 of the Act, meanwhile, states that parents who leave their child without reasonable supervision are liable to a fine of up to RM5,000 or a maximum of two years’ jail, or both.

Tough love

Some may remember the 1980s as a safer time for children to run around on their neighbourhood parks or run errands for their family at the grocery shop down the road. Still, it was not that safe as the mother of schoolgirl Ang May Hong regrettably found out in 1987. Her nine-year-old daughter was abducted when she went to buy nasi lemak for breakfast near her house. A few hours later, her mutilated body was found in a deserted house 70m from her house, with signs of having been sexually assaulted and physically tortured.

“The world has always been dangerous, even back then, so parents have no excuse for claiming ignorance or not being more vigilant about their children’s safety,” says Anderson Selvasegaram, executive director of Suka Society, an organisation advocating safety for children.

As he sees it, many parents take safety for granted. “Many parents think that it will not be their kid,” he says. “But sometimes it does happen. Children are snatched from your hand when you are walking down the road but most of the time, these things happen because the children are allowed to go out by themselves, or are left alone at home or in the car.”

Many a time, he argues, parents put their children in a dangerous situation because they want to take a shortcut or the easy way out. “For example, if you have to pop into a shop or office, why can’t you take your children with you?” Hence, he strongly believes that while it is cruel to go after parents when they lose their child, enforcing the law in the future may be the only way to make parents take heed of their children’s safety. “You have to be more sensitive about the dangers around you and take precautions,” Anderson opines.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) School of Social Sciences criminologist Assoc Prof Dr P. Sundramoorthy agrees. “In Malaysia, it is generally safe so many people take it for granted, but when you take things for granted, tragedies like this will happen. “We need to get the message across that we cannot afford negligence when its comes to children’s welfare and safety,” he says. What many parents don’t realise, he believes, is that it only takes a few seconds to abduct a child.

“Many have this misconception that the process of abducting a child is tedious, that it needs to be well planned. In reality it is not. It can happen in seconds, at the most, minutes. Your child can be abducted as soon as they disappear from your sight; if they turn a corner, or someone gets in the way,” he says, stressing that many perpetrators do not use violence or aggression to lure a child. Now criminals are more informed and sophisticated, he points out. “They have more access to knowledge, they know the dos and don’ts of how not to be identified. That is why it is crucial that parents keep up with the developments and keep abreast on safety issues.”

Delicate matter

Referring to the recent case, Malaysian Child Resource Institute executive director Brian Lariche highlights the delicacy of the matter and the fact that it is not always black and white. “In this instance, the parents realised that they had made a mistake which caused them to lose their child, and they are already filled with regret and pain, so is it right to compound their pain further by taking them to court?” At the same time, he points out, a child is an individual with basic rights of being protected. “This is a dilemma. I don’t think that there is an answer but it should be put out to the public and be debated,” he says.

Suhakam commisioner James Nayagam agrees, saying this is an issue that needs to be discussed by the public for the sake of the children. “One area that needs to be addressed is parents’ awareness and attitude towards children’s safety,” he says, “Parents are still careless with their children you go to a supermarket, restaurants, hotels and even on the streets, you see the children running around on their own. But now, even the neighbourhood shops are not safe.” While he supports legal action against parents who are found to be negligent, Nagayam clarifies that it should not be a witch hunt. “We have to look at each case individually,” he stresses. Lariche agrees. “We need to see how each tragedy happens, and if the parents were indeed negligent.”

Anderson proposes that safety of children be included in marriage courses, while leaflets on safety awareness be distributed at the maternity wards in hospitals. “You have to drum children’s safety into parents before they even start having children, so that tragedies like this can be reduced.” Ultimately, says Lariche, a public campaign on the laws governing children’s safety and children’s rights needs to be held. “Every parent needs to be made aware that they are responsible for keeping their children safe. Guardians or parents are the key to their children’s wellbeing and safety. If they don’t keep children safe, who will?”


The Star, 27 January 2013