THINKING ABOUT POVERTY IN REAL TERMS

THINKING ABOUT POVERTY IN REAL TERMS

I welcome the statement by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Mr. Phillip Alston, which noted, among others, the dire need for Malaysia to re-evaluate the national poverty line of RM980 per month (or RM 8 per day) and to devise poverty-alleviating framework that take into account the needs of marginalized communities such as migrant workers, refugees, stateless people and the disabled.

Poverty is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that is grounded on lived experiences. Any assessment of the national poverty rate must take into account the ability of Malaysians to live healthily, participate in the society meaningfully and possessing of opportunities for personal and family development. Unfortunately, in my brief experience as a Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya, I have learned this is not a reality for many of my constituents, even as they live side-by-side with their more affluent neighbours.

For instance, a small survey by a team of volunteer pediatricians on 46 children in PPR Lembah Subang found that 11% of them are stunted. Teachers in schools which serve the urban poor have admirably taken up the task of pooling funds to pay for lunches of their students. Many others, including my office, are taking up the task of extending food aid to the under-privileged. Surely, in a prosperous city like Petaling Jaya, this should be considered as a small indication of a much graver problem nationally.  

Although the Government is laudably attempting to address the problem through Bantuan Sara Hidup (BSH) and e-kasih database, these are inadequate or inaccessible.

The questions that Mr. Alston has raised are not unheard of. Our Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry, Dr. Ong Kian Ming, have reportedly stated that our poverty line needs to be revised so that it conforms with reality and expectations of Malaysians. This has since been echoed by Chair of Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Dr. Martin Ravallion, who has estimated our relative poverty rate to be at 12%.

This is something that I have brought up during debates in the parliament for the 2019 Budget, the Mid-Term Review for the 11th Malaysia Plan and during the debate on Speech by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong last March. Again, I urge the Government to look into various reports: Khazanah Research Institute (KRI), for instance, found that households with income below RM2,000 only have after-expenses balance of RM76, indicating low level of long-term financial sustainability. Another report by World Bank found that 1 in 5 children suffer from stunting.

The wide array of studies indicates a growing disconnect between our national poverty line that was devised in the 70’s with the reality of living in the 21st century Malaysia. Where our costs of living have increased manifold, our poverty line remains stagnant. Along with Mr. Alston’s statement, they point toward the need to integrate the notions of relative poverty and “living wage” into the metric we use before this blind spot continues to condemn more people into the margins.

MARIA CHIN ABDULLAH

MP for Petaling Jaya