PETALING JAYA: Government figures show a decrease in poverty since independence, but poverty still remains a major problem in Malaysia.
Economist Fatimah Kari, who has an extensive background in poverty research, said official figures were mere numbers that did not reflect the situation on the ground.
Traditional mechanisms to measure poverty and inequality, such as measuring them based on income per capita (PCI), were also ineffective, she added.
“These PCI figures act as a rough guide, to show if there is growth in the economy, and increases in production or exports. It used to be a good measure at one point in time but no longer now,” said Fatimah, a senior fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).
“These types of figures need to be redefined, to reflect the reality of the nation.”
Fatimah said poverty and inequality should be measured across multiple dimensions, and should not be just related to income.
“We want the government to look at the concept of vulnerabilities faced by the poor,” she told FMT in an interview recently.
“Income as a measure of poverty and inequality is weak. We may have good figures coming our way, but the reality doesn’t reflect those figures,” she added.
Her most recent study, which measured poverty beyond income, used a multidimensional index to dissect the underlying issues behind simple numbers on graphs.
The study, modelled on the household expenditure survey conducted by the government, attempted to look at different variables such as nutrition, employment, education, access to healthcare, sanitation and access to government programmes.
She surveyed the poorest of the poor, including the fishing community in Bachok, the Orang Asli, the urban poor who live in the Hardcore Poor Housing Programme (PPRT) in areas such as Lembah Pantai and Batu Caves.
Her study also measured economic inequality, by looking at their access to government projects and initiatives.
“I asked them if they had information on government schemes and programmes, and if the information was accessible wherever they were. For example, if they wanted to start a small business, was there access to an effective support system that could help or guide them?”
Her study also measured inequality by asking them if their representatives, leaders and MPs would visit them to discuss any of the opportunities provided by government programmes.
“Whatever the government has provided—how easy was it for them to access? Were there obstacles, bureaucracy, or discrimination?” Fatimah cited some of the issues covered by the survey.
Differences in poverty profiles
She concluded that the usual poverty eradication programmes are not effective for those in abject poverty.
“There has to be a different programme designed, because the poverty profiles among these different communities are very different,” she said.
For example, she found that the most deprived or excluded in terms of employment was the urban poor, adding that this could be due to fierce competition with migrants in the cities.
“There’s something wrong with the way we develop our towns. Initially, we thought that migration from rural areas to the cities can give job opportunities to the poor, but that’s not the case anymore.”
The poor in coastal villages came second in terms of being deprived of employment.
She said they still could earn a living as fishermen as well as other jobs such as house repairs or small-scale farming.
The Orang Asli community came in third. Fatimah said this was because they were always self-employed.
But the Orang Asli, according to her survey, were most deprived in terms of education, as well as a balanced diet.
“There is enough indication that among the poor, they don’t have sufficient nutrition. They don’t get all the nutrients on the food pyramid,” she said.
But she said food poverty was slowly emerging as a problem for the rural and urban poor.
She warned that it could lead to other problems such as poor performance in schools leading to high drop-out rates, and exclusion from social mobility programmes through education.
Overall, Fatimah acknowledged that Malaysia’s poverty rate had improved, from as high as 60% in the late 1950s to about 3% or 4% today.
“Along the way, there were definitely some policies that worked, and as researchers, we are always looking to find out which of the policies were effective and which weren’t,” she said.
The problem, said Fatimah, is the tendency to generalise poverty eradication programmes.
“It has to be regionally sensitive. Through our study we found that the poverty profiles in the poorest communities, such as the urban poor, indigenous people and coastal villages, were different.”
Current models used for poverty eradication were also not needs-based, or customised to an individual’s present situation, she added.
“The support they get does not change based on their needs, for them to progress into the next level.”
She said this was why there were cases of people falling back into poverty.
“We don’t see a situation where the poor move out of poverty permanently. Instead, we just have people getting out and coming back in.
“If you want to tackle poverty, it needs to be a continuous effort. The government is so fixed in the way they try to solve the problem.
“Poverty eradication programmes cannot be one size fits all.”
She said there should be an “exit plan” for poverty programmes, so that the poor would gradually stop getting government support as they improve economically.