Poorer than we think: Malaysia’s official poverty figures ‘vastly’ undercounted, says UN expert

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s claim to having the world’s lowest national poverty rate is inaccurate, as the official figure vastly undercounts poverty, says United Nations human rights expert, Philip Alston.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said Malaysia uses an unduly low poverty line that does not reflect the cost of living and excludes vulnerable populations from its official figures.

“While Malaysia has achieved undeniably impressive growth in reducing poverty in the last 50 years, the official claim that poverty has been eradicated, or exists merely in small pockets in rural areas, is incorrect and has crippled policymaking,” he said at the end of his recent 11-day visit here.

According to Alston, Malaysia’s official poverty rate dropped from 49% in 1970 to just 0.4% in 2016.

However, the national poverty line of RM980 per household per month would see an urban family of four surviving on RM8 per person per day.

“This is a tragically low line for a country on the cusp of attaining high income status, especially since a range of rigorous independent analyses have suggested a more realistic poverty rate of 16 to 20%,” Alston said.

He added that about nine percent of households survive on less than RM2,000 per month.

“Actual poverty rates are much higher than official figures suggest, and the government needs to reassess how it measures poverty so that the hardship many Malaysians experience is not conjured out of existence by a statistical sleight of hand,” he said.

Alston also urged the government to urgently reconsider its approach if the country is to make any real progress on this issue.

“Despite near-universal healthcare and high school enrolment rates for citizens, and a growing economy, large parts of the population are being left behind and many people living above the official poverty line are in fact in poverty,” he said.

Alston added that undercounting has also led to under-investment in poverty reduction, and an inadequate social safety net that does not meet the people’s needs.

This fragmented social protection system puts many people’s rights to food, housing and education at risk, he said.

Alston also highlighted that poor people in Malaysia, especially the Orang Asli, suffered disproportionate violations of their civil and political rights.

“Indigenous peoples suffer much higher rates of poverty, and despite laudable commitments by the government to ensure their rights, the customary land of indigenous communities remains under siege, jeopardising their livelihoods, food security, and access to traditional medicines.

“I was troubled to hear state officials speak of the need for indigenous communities to ‘adapt’ and relocate to urban areas in order to secure their rights,” he said.

Alston added that non-citizens including migrants, refugees and stateless people who are barred from the public school system, face severe barriers to accessing healthcare and are often unable to work legally, yet are systematically excluded from official poverty statistics.

“The government should urgently revise the way it measures poverty to bring it into line with the country’s cost of living, and it should include vulnerable non-citizen groups in the new measure.

“It should also stop arbitrarily withholding information that is crucial to understanding poverty and inequality, such as household survey microdata,” he said.

Alston noted that Malaysia has made real progress on a range of progressive commitments, but added that the new government should not deny the existence of the poor and marginalised.

“Instead, it should step up efforts to fulfil their rights,” he said.

Alston said he will present a comprehensive report with his conclusions and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June next year.

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