Govt ‘backflipping’ on poverty commitment, says ex-UN expert

Former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston said last year that the national poverty line did not portray the country’s cost of living.

PETALING JAYA: The former United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights today accused the government of backtracking on the commitment of the previous administration to take poverty seriously in the wake of a report from an official visit which said Malaysia’s poverty line was too low to reflect the actual situation.

Philip Alston, whose final report was released today, said government officials then, including the prime minister, had committed to revising the national poverty line of 0.4%.

“However, the new government’s response to (the report) throws that commitment into doubt, stating that ‘it stands by [the] absolute poverty rate’,” he said in a statement, referring to comments made during the UN general assembly this year.

“Malaysia’s new government has performed a backflip on its predecessors’ commitment to take poverty seriously.

“Overall, while Malaysia has achieved progress against poverty, unless the new government takes a different approach, the job will remain painfully incomplete.”

Alston visited Malaysia from Aug 13 to 23 last year. During his trip, he travelled to Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Sarawak, Sabah and Kelantan, and met state and federal government officials, international agencies, civil society, academics and those affected by poverty in urban and rural areas.

Philip Alston

He said then that the official poverty line – the lowest in the world – did not portray the cost of living in the country and excluded vulnerable populations in its official figures.

The final report will be presented to the UN’s Human Rights Council on July 7.

The national poverty line is currently RM980 per household per month, which would mean a family of four surviving on RM8 for each person per day.

Zuraida Kamaruddin, who was housing and local government minister at the time, had said that Alston’s report should be taken as motivation to work harder on eradicating poverty.

However, Mohamed Azmin Ali who was economic affairs minister, said the rate was based on a handbook published by the UN itself.

“We stand by our absolute poverty rate, which was recorded at 0.4% of total households in 2016, or 24,700 households,” he said.

Alston however maintained that the current line was “inadequate and almost universally considered to be misleadingly low”.

“The insistence that the line is ‘derived from internationally accepted standards’ is a smokescreen and ignores the blatant mismatch between reality and statistics.

“Pretending that almost no-one in the entire country lives in poverty doesn’t change the reality that millions are poor.”

He said Malaysia had made “impressive progress against poverty” but warned that the continued use of the current poverty line “obscures the troubling reality that millions scrape by on very low incomes, a situation only made worse by Covid-19”.

“If the government wants to eradicate poverty, revising the poverty line is just step one,” he said.

“Progress will require a better understanding of the nature of poverty, especially in urban areas, improved social policies, and a new approach towards long-neglected populations that face higher rates of poverty.”

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