Malaysia’s poverty problem needs reframing

The preliminary report of the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, that Malaysia’s poverty rate could be between 15% and 20% is troubling.

More concerning though is the statement by Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, in debunking the report immediately.

Official statistics of the government show the poverty rate as 0.4% of households
living under the poverty threshold. What is unfortunate about Azmin’s statement is that he does not want to seem to entertain the idea that Malaysians would well be suffering and that the country’s economic and social policies are failing.

Azmin would know that one major factor that resulted in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government coming into power was that the rakyat was finding it hard to make ends meet with the increase in the cost of living. The imposition of a goods and services tax (GST) by the previous government was one of the platforms on which the PH based its campaign on.

As much as the PH government may have instituted some measures to combat the rising cost of living such as the scrapping of the GST, the common people of the country continue to struggle.

There is no denying that the mismanagement of the country’s economy by the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government caused a lot of misery to the people, and its impact is still being felt. Having said that, PH has been in power for more than a year now and its performance has been underwhelming. Azmin’s immediate riposte is a reflection of the growing complacency and even arrogance of the PH government.

The poverty line measurement of RM980 for a household of four is not just unrealistic, but a deliberate obfuscation of the poverty problem in the country. How can any household of four survive on RM980, especially in the bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru, Penang, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu? Let us also remember that what is being referenced here is absolute poverty, and we have not yet delved into the issue of relative poverty, the working poor and underemployment.

The indicators used to measure the cost of living should be relevant and practical. This has a major impact on matters such as wage determination. A more relevant cost of living index is needed to counter the limitations of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

The Big Mac Index has been published by The Economist to measure the purchasing power parity (PPP) between two currencies, and provides a test to the extent to which market exchange rates measures against how goods cost in different countries. Perhaps a “teh tarik and roti canai index” could be established in Malaysia to reflect the cost of goods and services for the everyday life of the common people.

The issue of poverty, both absolute and relative, and the cost of living, deserve immediate attention by the PH government. The issues facing people should be viewed at from a practical perspective, and not be buried under an avalanche of statistics and estimates that do not make sense.

It is hoped that this UN study is not discarded or turned around as a “foreign conspiracy”, as the previous BN government has done on many occasions. Let’s look at things based on their merits.

The people of Malaysia have expectations that the PH government will deliver on its promises. For too long, the people-friendly rhetoric used to clamour for votes during elections are followed by policies that serve the interests of businesses almost exclusively, and at the expense of the people.

The PH government would do well to realise that the maturity the population gained in throwing out the BN government will not regress, and only grow and expand. The promise of a New Malaysia has to take on some tangible form for the Malaysian people.

Callistus Antony D’Angelus is an FMT reader.

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