According to UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston, despite the impressive growth, Malaysia has seriously underestimated the extent of poverty.
The official figure of 0.4% in the country grossly downplays poverty where people in the lower socio-economic bracket are finding it difficult to meet their daily subsistence needs, housing and healthcare services.
While Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has agreed to study the UN report, Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali has taken a defensive stand on the matter.
He said that the UN report, by over-estimating poverty in the country, does not give credit to the measures undertaken by the government over the last few decades to reduce poverty by extending economic and social programmes to the poor.
The UN report states that poverty in the country is around 16-20%.
The report claims that underestimation of poverty in the country might influence policy-makers to gloss over the basic needs of the poor segment of the population.
Mahathir might be accommodative to the idea that something is seriously amiss in our estimation, or underestimation, of poverty.
I don’t know why Azmin is being so defensive of the government’s figures.
Perhaps, Azmin, if he wants to, can refute the figures by informing how poverty is determined in the country rather than saying that the government relies on accepted procedures on the estimation of poverty.
Common sense tells us that it is better to over-estimate poverty to some extent from the official figures to ensure that poverty eradication measures do not leave out those who might not be factored in when official statistics are used.
Disputing poverty figures should not be reduced to a game of ego or “we know better than you”.
The ultimate figures should not be just based on statistical analysis but by the backing of sound empirical data based on ground realities.
While I might not necessarily agree with either the UN representative or Azmin, I think official figures are not the ultimate truth about the actual situation of poverty in the country and segments of the population are deprived of basic needs.
This is the reason why a sound empirical study needs to be undertaken to complement statistical analysis.
Given the two views on the extent of poverty in the country, wouldn’t it be better for the government, rather than being on the defensive, to come out with a better understanding of poverty in the country?
At the end of the day, it is not so much an argument over the figures, but whether the poor and marginalised are benefitting from the country’s economic growth.
I wonder whether we are indulging in the poverty of our own analysis or a more informed analysis of poverty.
P Ramasamy is deputy chief minister II of Penang.
The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.