‘High time to draw up new poverty agenda’

  • Nation
  • Monday, 02 Sep 2019

Expert advice: Firas (left) and Simler are among the economic specialists urging Malaysia to act swiftly to reduce national poverty.

KUALA LUMPUR: The World Bank is calling for Malaysia to put in place a new poverty agenda, adding its voice to the United Nations and other academicians for this to include a new updated national poverty line.Its representative to Malaysia and country manager Dr Firas Raad said there was a “precious window of opportunity” for the country to make deep-quality changes in poverty reduction and social spending.

He said this was because the government was drafting its next national development plan, the 12th Malaysia Plan, which would likely see the country cross the threshold to high-income nation status.

“It’s the right time for the government to think of putting into place a new poverty agenda that consists of a number of things, including a new updated poverty line for Malaysia, which we believe is long overdue, ” he said in an interview.

Such an agenda, said Firas, could also comprise making changes to the Bantuan Sara Hidup programme – formerly known as BR1M – whose effects are presently shallow as the amount is too little to make a big impact on households.

The new agenda, he added, should also ensure that Malaysians had access to services that “made them feel that they are part of a high-income country” such as high-quality education, health and nutrition, and housing.

“Lastly, we feel this agenda should be accompanied by a new open data agenda. This is important in creating a new ecosystem for researchers, academicians and anyone interested in analysing developmental issues in Malaysia, ” added Firas.Last week, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Prof Philip Alston said Malaysia’s national absolute poverty rate at 0.4% was unduly low and did not reflect living costs.

He also claimed that rigorous independent analyses had suggested that Malaysia’s poverty rate was between 16% and 20%.

In response, Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali said Malaysia stood by its official poverty figure of 0.4% as this was derived from internationally accepted standards based on the second edition (2011) of the Canberra Group Handbook on Household Income Statistics published by UN.

He also said a Multidimensional Poverty Index had been established to measure a wider scope of deprivation beyond the income dimension.On the National Poverty Line of RM980 for a household of four, Firas pointed out that this was last set in 1977 and expectations of what constituted reasonable standards of living had since evolved.

“For example, no one makes black-and-white TVs or handphones without WiFi access anymore, ” he said.World Bank senior economist on poverty and equity Dr Kenneth Simler agreed that RM980 for a household of four was barely enough to survive, much less for a family to lead a healthy, active and productive life and to participate in society.Having a low poverty rate as a result of a low poverty line, he said, was also not practical for analyses and planning programmes.

Asked what the new rate should be, he said Malaysia should decide as this usually involved a “participatory process” on what it meant to be poor or deprived.

Quoting Prof Martin Ravaillon, who holds the Royal Professor Ungku Aziz Chair in Universiti Malaya, Simler said if Malaysia set its poverty line at a level similar to other countries with the same national income per capita, it would be be RM20 or RM21 per day per person.“And the poverty rate will be about 15% to 17%, ” he added.

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