Taking poverty seriously can promote shared prosperity


The Special Rapporteur visiting an indigenous community in Sarawak. — Photo by Bassam Khawaja

THE Federal Government looks likely to revise its official poverty line to eliminate the false impression that poverty doesn’t exist in Malaysia. This is a momentous and laudable step and it clears the way for a constructive debate over the best policies to improve the lives of the millions currently living in

poverty.

The official poverty rate of 0.4% suggests that Malaysia has achieved a feat that no other country in the world has managed. But the reality is that the figure merely reflects an unrealistic and outdated poverty line. The greater problem, however, is that it has enabled some policy-makers to ignore the challenges of poverty and to avoid taking essential steps that will spread prosperity more widely in Malaysia. My visit to the country as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights last month provided an opportunity to amplify concerns over the poverty line that have long been raised by Malaysian academics, think tanks and politicians. The broadly positive response so far has been very encouraging.

Since the publication of my preliminary findings in August, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his economic adviser have acknowledged that the poverty line must be adjusted, while PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has called for real reforms to poverty policies instead of “small changes”.

A broad range of actors support a new poverty line, including politicians, prominent international economists, Malaysian institutions, academics, the human rights commission and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress.

The issue has been discussed by the Cabinet and scheduled for

discussion in Parliament.

This level of engagement is impressive, and I look forward to seeing new policies emerge. In political terms it is not easy to acknowledge that poverty is greater than previously claimed, and if it does so, the government should get credit for its courage and commitment.

Yet crucial as it is, changing the way poverty is measured must be just a first step in shifting the narrative around who is in poverty, devising policies that respond to their needs and securing their rights. It should spur action to ensure people have access to necessary support and services, and can participate fully in the community. Repairing a fragmented social safety net through the adoption of a comprehensive social protection floor would go a long way in helping the vulnerable, and the government should revisit the national minimum wage, which is just barely above the current poverty line.

More attention should be given to the urban poor, since affluence and hardship coexist in Malaysia’s cities, where the increase in the cost of living has been particularly acute. In Kuala Lumpur, I met with families who struggle to afford childcare or pay their bills and who rely on soup kitchens to put food on the table despite a poverty rate of 0.0% in the city. A recent study revealed shockingly high rates of poverty and child stunting in low income flats there.

The government should also begin to address the situation of vulnerable groups that have so far been excluded from poverty estimates and services. These include migrants, refugees and stateless persons. In each of these cases, policy reforms could bring significant economic benefits to the country, as well as bolstering Malaysia’s progress towards becoming a high-income country.

Malaysia is home to millions of migrant workers who contribute to the country’s growth and often work in difficult conditions for

low pay, yet are left out of official

poverty figures. They are set up for exploitation by inadequate enforcement of labour protections and the risk of detention and deportation if they leave an abusive employer or seek to enforce their rights.

Migrants face high healthcare costs, and irregular workers may forgo care altogether for fear of immigration enforcement.

Similarly, 170,000 refugees live in extremely precarious conditions that all but guarantee they will fall into poverty, cut off from the ability to work, afford healthcare, or enrol their children in formal schools. This creates immense hardship for the families living under Malaysia’s protection and robs the country of potentially

significant economic contributions.

Malaysia’s strict policies on citizenship and registration also put many of the people in these groups at risk of statelessness – even children born to Malaysian parents.

The exclusion of stateless people from a wide range of social services places them at elevated risk of poverty, while their absence from official datasets and the lack of any reliable estimates of their numbers makes it impossible to assess the extent of their vulnerability.

Even for indigenous peoples – whom many associate with poverty – the government does not publish updated poverty estimates, obscuring them within the overall Bumiputera category in regular surveys. Indigenous peoples’ rights and ways of life have long been misunderstood or ignored by officials, and in particular non-recognition of their customary land rights has

led to loss of land with dire consequences for their health, wellbeing, housing and food security.

Malaysia has achieved extraordinary economic growth and made great strides in reducing poverty in recent decades. Revising its poverty line to reflect the current state of the economy is the next step in confirming this success. And it should take an additional major stride towards truly shared prosperity by adopting far-reaching reforms to ensure the well-being of all those in poverty, including vulnerable groups that have so far been neglected.

Philip Alston is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Follow him on Twitter at @Alston_UNSR


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