Theory of poverty or poverty of theory

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By P Ramasamy

There is more to the genesis of poverty than the simple-minded notion that people are poor simply because they are not hardworking. Such a perspective on poverty needs to be revised in the light of voluminous literature on poverty and its multi-dimensional nature.

Treasury secretary-general Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, given his years of experience as one of the top civil servants, should consider writing a book that could be entitled “A fresh perspective on the philosophy of poverty”. Perhaps, it could even be considered a continuation of Karl Marx’s famous writing called “Poverty of Philosophy”.

Really, it is utterly preposterous for a senior civil servant to have expounded on why some sections of the Malaysian public are poor whereas many foreigners in the country are doing well in business and entrepreneurial activities.

For simple-minded Irwan Serigar, it is simply that Malaysians are not working hard even though they have “legs and hands”, just like the foreigners.

He said if Indonesians and others could engage in flourishing businesses in night markets throughout the country, he could not see why Malaysians are complaining of poverty.

Let me remind Irwan Serigar that even though he is one of the top civil servants with vast years of experience, his understanding of the causes of poverty remain at a very elementary or even superficial level.

Some Malaysians might be lazy and this could be the reason why their earning capacity is below the mark, but to generalise all Malaysians who are poor as lazy is an insult to thousands who simply cannot cross the poverty line due to various reasons.

Is Irwan Serigar willing to say that hundreds and thousand of Malaysians in the public and private sectors, especially those in the low wage categories, are simple lazy and this is the reason why their wages have not gone up?

Has he heard about the term exploitation of workers and how workers despite their hard work have been denied the fruits of their labour. Does he know that only a miserable 9-10% of the Malaysian workers are organised in trade unions.

Thus, when those in the low-earning categories are denied their basic rights to organise themselves and instead face reprimand or termination for the slightest infringement of rules, can they be considered as lazy?

Not all foreigners have done well in Malaysia. Some have done well, but the vast majority are also caught in the vicious cycle of poverty.

Can Irwan Serigar consider the successful foreigners as a good example when there are many cases of how they have flouted the laws in the country to engage in illegal business.

In others words, Irwan Serigar wants Malaysians to be hardworking like the foreigners even if it means that they can engage in illegal activities. What kind of logic is this, coming from a senior civil servant?

There are numerous studies on poverty. In the early part of the 20th century in the United States it was thought that blacks and Hispanics were lazy because of the colour of their skin, however, such archaic and racist notions of poverty have been discarded.

Students of poverty are still coming to terms with the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and what causes it.

Karl Marx argued that poverty was very related to the workings of the class system and how the surplus labour of the working masses are “converted” into surplus profits for the capitalists.

This is one powerful version of poverty that had influenced many intellectuals over the last two centuries or so.

I don’t expect Irwan Serigar to have detailed knowledge of the philosophy of poverty. But surely as a senior civil service officer he should be careful not to venture into areas that he might not have a proper understanding.

The government in power should not allow him to insult the intelligence of Malaysians by basically calling poor Malaysians lazy for not willing to work hard.

P Ramasamy is Penang deputy chief minister II.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.