She was only 18 and struggling to survive in Kelantan. Her mother had died, her father had lost his job and there were two younger sisters. She got help to pay the rent, but then the landlord asked for an extra RM1,000 even though they had previously agreed it would be paid in two weeks. He wanted to buy a cow to slaughter for korban (sacrifice) for the villagers for the upcoming Hari Raya Haji festival on July 31, 2020.
“When she refused to pay, he wanted to kick the family out. I had to find the money in two days, ” says Datuk Dr Hartini Zainuddin, founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, a crisis and drop-in centre for children that provides a range of services, including legal, financial, educational and counselling services.
The Covid-19-triggered movement control order (MCO) that began on March 18 in Malaysia hit hard, with the economy basically shutting down, except for essential services, for months. A Department of Statistics Malaysia survey of the self-employed in March 2020 found it left 47% jobless ("Self-employed workers badly hit by restriction"). The country is now in a recovery MCO phase with most sectors re-opened.
After the MCO period began, Hartini came across many cases of landlords threatening to evict families – often single mothers. The peak of such cases was at the end of July 2020. The landlords did not seem to care that this coincided with Hari Raya Haji, a Muslim festival that is about sacrifice.
“I’m seeing a whole ugly side of people preying on the young, weak and vulnerable, ” says Hartini, adding that single mothers and the elderly “were as vulnerable as children”.
The MCO brought to the fore underlying poverty in Malaysia.
“It has made the poor poorer. We don’t think about the security guard who has no job when the shop closes down. Or the gardener with the daily wage. The elderly have also been hard hit. And they can’t work.”
Money is so tight for some that she even saw one family share a single RM1.25 mask (masks in crowded public places became mandatory in Malaysia on Aug 1, 2020, to combat a possible second wave of Covid-19 infections).
At one point, Hartini was receiving 50 calls a day from people asking for food or help to pay rent. There were calls from Kelantan, Sabah and Terengganu, Malaysian states with higher poverty levels.
The most critical and urgent issue was food she says, and that had to be replenished regularly. Next was housing, then utilities, then educational needs. Many of those she gave cash to would later send photographs showing how they had spent the money.
While government programmes for the poor exist in Malaysia, they may not be easy to access. One programme for single mothers has had a low uptake because those needing it “may not be literate, or have the time” to deal with the bureaucracy, Hartini points out. Transport or childcare could also be prohibitive factors.
“Someone has to cook lunch or dinner. Nobody is asking these women what they need.” She says one girl had no time even to pick up her SPM exam results as she had to work to support her family.
Many other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also helped. During the MCO period, 19 NGOs worked with the Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas charity to provide help.
One was MySkills Foundation, which aims to provide at-risk youth (mostly school dropouts) a critical lifeline in vocational and life skills, supporting them to break repeating cycles of poverty and social issues. During the MCO, the foundation ended up helping – among others – the parents of these children, the vast majority of whom earn under RM1,500, which is less than the newly-revised poverty line of RM2,208. About half of MySkills students have single mothers or fathers absent for various reasons (because they’re lorry drivers, for instance).
CEO Devasharma Gangadaran said he received about 150 calls a day at one point – “There was an urgent need for food.” He said the foundation’s number was passed around and there were pleas for direct handouts, which was “quite challenging”, he said.
“The informal sector was badly affected. They rely only on day-to-day earnings.” Those badly hit included factory workers, security guards, contract workers, cleaners and even Grab e-hailing drivers. He said many Indian men in Malaysia were in hard-hit jobs such as drivers or security guards.
Some needed medical assistance; others wanted help to apply for aid. “We helped people fill out forms online or use a smartphone.” Some did not have Internet access.
Overall, NGOs played a critical role helping the poor ride out these last few months. Significantly, they were supported by Malaysians. Just three NGOs raised a total of RM1.6mil, benefitting 52,000 people, noted a report released in May by Singaporean research institution Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.
The institute also reported that 95% of households earning less than RM2,000 a month and 71% of self-employed had only enough savings to cover one month. Thus, any dip in income was bound to hit hard.
Ultimately, Malaysia needs a social protection system that provides a safety net in such crises and a programme that really reaches out and serves the poor. A society that provides for the vulnerable and disadvantaged is a more stable and caring one.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.