~by: Muhammad Fadli~January 27, 2012
The recent news that a man was caught stealing $32 from a mosque for food for himself and his wheelchair bound mother has raised many sentiments. The most pressing is of course the fate of the mother. With her son behind bars, it is urgent that she gets the help she needs.
This incident has also raised some questions of if the mosque should have been more compassionate turning in a man who stole a very small sum of money for food for himself and his family. However the mosque has responded that it had in fact tried to help him extensively for years in various ways.
There are various ways that one could interpret this issue. Depending on whose side one is inclined to, one could demonize or beatify the person or the mosque.
For example, the person could be seen as this mendicant saint who is trying to feed his mother in the face of an uncaring religious institution. Alternatively, this person could be an obnoxious recalcitrant who has resisted the best efforts of the mosque. This dispute frames the two poles of sentiments surrounding the case, whose merits should be judged ultimately on the fact of what actually happened.
However, looking at the issue within the lenses of these two camps obscures two important issues. Firstly, in the age of Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, $32 is really a very small sum of money. The fact that he stole the money for something as basic as food for both himself and his mother at a time when his fellow citizens are debating whether their sacrifice is worth thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars speaks volumes.
We are faced with the moral problem of poverty in the face of plenty and no matter how we moralize and individualize the habits of the poor whilst sipping our $10 lattes there is a part of us which cannot help but feel discomfort. It is the part of us which is most human which cannot help but see ourselves in the predicament of the poor. It is the same part that knows had time and chance been radically different; it could have been us who are utterly desperate to feed our mother. It is the part too often denied by grandiose myths of our ‘talents’
The second issue is the question of whether the mosque was the best institution to handle such a difficult case. In handling cases of poverty, it is not unexpected for the average social worker to tackle a gamut of cases ranging from family problems, educational difficulties, debt, homelessness and employability all stemming from issues in the workplace, the family and societal norms at large. These issues are already challenging without the additional burden of the individual psychological problem this case presents.
Although mosques do give pastoral care and support, its specific specialization is religion. Putting such a person in a religious institution is literally hoping for a religious miracle/awakening to change the person. Has the hope for a religious miracle evolved to become such a key component of our social safety net?
The last point highlights a feature in our social safety net brought up in the last presidential election by Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
“I don’t think I like to see people work within their component groups.” he said. “A poor Singaporean, poor Malay Singaporean, is the same Singaporean. We should look at it at a national level now, no more at a racial level.”
What this ethnic based self-help system does is to group citizens so that the group that has the heaviest burden, namely the Malays, is supported by the group that has the least resources. This systemic imbalance is the root of the mismatch in social welfare requirements.
Although mosques as community institutions do play a part in providing social welfare, they cannot be the primary institution of holistic national welfare system.