The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston and his team took several months to study poverty in Malaysia, culminating in an 11-day visit and a preliminary report that was released on Aug 23.
One of Alston's key findings was that the threshold for the definition of poverty in Malaysia was absurdly low, leading to only 0.4% of Malaysians being defined by the government as living in poverty. He said that most other countries have a rate of about 15%.
The Economic Affairs Minister instantly released a press statement in response, signed by himself, angrily expressing his disagreement with this finding. We will come to that statement presently.
Malaysia officially uses RM980 a month as the national Poverty Line Income (PLI) threshold. In Sabah the PLI is RM1,180, and in Sarawak it is RM1,020.
If your household income is more than the PLI, you are not living in poverty; if your household income is less than the PLI, you are living in poverty.
RM980 a month translates to RM32.60 a day in a month with 30 days (and less, obviously, in a month with 31 days).
Therefore, if you have RM33 a day to spend on your family of four, the government considers you to not be poor.
Let's break it down. RM33 a day is RM8.25 per family member. If we were to spend this entirely on food, that would be say RM4 for lunch (in urban KL that's rice, kangkung and maybe an egg), and RM4.25 for dinner (rice, kangkung, egg, and maybe a pappadum).
Forgive me, I don't usually eat breakfast, so I forgot to factor that in. At three meals a day, we have say RM1.25 for breakfast (perhaps one soft boiled egg), RM3 for lunch (subtract the egg that you moved to breakfast, leaving you rice and vegetables), and RM4 for dinner (hello again egg).
Tea or coffee is of course a luxury you can't afford - it's air putih (no ice) for you.
So if you have three (relatively) square vegetarian meals a day, that will leave you exactly zero for rent, clothing, electricity, water, transport and so on.
Of course, we don't have to eat out every day, and perhaps buying groceries and cooking could be cheaper. Let's cut it down to say RM5 a day per person for food (rice and a fried egg for lunch, the same for dinner, perhaps with some kangkung) - making it RM600 per month.
Hooray, if you make RM990 a month (ie, not poor) you now have a whopping RM390 left (or RM13 a day) to pay: monthly rent for a space that accommodates four people, your electricity and water bill, your transport costs (monthly payments for your car or motorbike, petrol, or your bus or MRT tickets), household items, clothes, school supplies for your children, and whatever will pass for "entertainment".
But never fear: the government says you are definitely not poor, and therefore don't need aid reserved for poor people.
In a day or less after Alston's report, Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister quickly released a press statement in reply.
The Minister stated, among other things:
"Malaysia is disappointed by the remarks made by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston.
We stand by our absolute poverty rate, which currently recorded at 0.4% of total households in 2016 or 24,700 households.
As such, the assertion made by Alston that there is "a statistical sleight of hand that has nefarious consequences" is wholly unacceptable and irresponsible."
While the Government appreciates the effort by the Special Rapporteur in raising awareness on issues of poverty, certain comments are baseless and uncalled for. For instance, the assertion that a "sizable part of Malaysia's population struggles to get by with tenuous access to food, shelter, education and healthcare...", is both misconceived and erroneous clearly lacking empirical evidence and rigorous scientific procedures."
How incredibly alike to the Barisan Nasional days.
From a communications and public relations perspective, the minister clearly gives the impression that he has taken some sort of personal offence, and fired back a kneejerk response that is vastly more concerned with pride and saving face than it is with addressing poverty in Malaysia in any substantial way whatsoever.
Is one of our nation's top leaders really willing to declassify what is probably 14-15% of all Malaysians as poor and disqualifying them for aid just so that he can look like he's doing "a better job" at running the country?
That would be reprehensible beyond words.
In one day since the report, what could the learned minister possibly know or understand about the empirical evidence (or lack thereof) that was used, or whether or not rigorous scientific procedures were adhered to or not?
I certainly wouldn't make the claim that the methodology was scientifically rigorous or not, and especially not just because this was a white man representing the hallowed United Nations.
I would unhesitatingly make the claim, however, that unless the minister or his underlings were privy to the research methods of Alston's team from day one, he would have zero ability whatsoever to comment on the reliability or accuracy of their research methods.
Assuming they were in fact not privy as such, then we are given to conclude that the minister is accusing Alston and his team of academic dishonesty merely on the grounds that he did not like the results of their research.
This would underline the key difference between academics and many politicians. The former is supposed to present whatever conclusion the research empirically supports, while the latter is inclined to insist their viewpoint is true, absolutely regardless of what the scientific research supports.
I would certainly be open to reading specific, detailed arguments as to any flaws in the findings of Alston and team. The caveat of course is that it should be done in a systematic, academically sound way by an objective party.
The minister of course clearly had some staffer pull up some list of 'arguments' they can make to support their claims:
"However at implementation level, especially when disbursing assistance, a household's PLI takes into account its location, household size and other demographic factors. This may result in a higher household PLI than the national PLI. Hence, assistance is tailor-made according to the needs of the recipients, based on the profiling through the eKasih system which is an innovative initiative by the government to identify the right target group."
The minister did not, however, deign to give specific examples as to how this 'innovative initiative' (the Malay saying 'masuk bakul angkat sendiri' comes to mind) works in reality. Does it adjust so that the PLI in urban Kuala Lumpur is RM1,000 instead of RM980? RM1,200? RM2,000? RM10,000?
The minister goes on to say:
"As such, a significant proportion of Federal operating expenditure is allocated for subsidies and social assistance, cutting across energy, food, healthcare and education. In 2018, a total of RM27.5bil was set aside for this purpose, comprising 11.9% of total operating expenditure."
Certain key details seem to be missing from the statement. How much of this RM 27.5bil is spent on direct aid? How much of it is spent on operating costs for the delivery of such programmes? How is it divided across 'energy, food, healthcare and education'? How much is siphoned out to external contractors with profit margins to take care of? How does this 11.9% compare to similar countries?
Alston and team spent months doing research and produced a 20-page preliminary report, complete with citations. The minister took all of 24 hours to "debunk" the report in two pages that were long on rhetoric, and short on the details that matter.
Perhaps the Economic Affairs Minister could learn from the Prime Minister he professes to admire so very much.
The latter had the presence of mind to respond to Alston's report by saying that the government will study it - pretty much nothing more, nothing less.
This reply displays a much higher level of political maturity, and an openness to differing viewpoints that was lacking in the more hotheaded reply by a minister who seemed to care more about being 'insulted' than he did about the actual science and facts surrounding Malaysians living in poverty.
Alston's report states:
"In the course of 11 days in Malaysia, I visited Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Sarawak, Sabah, and Kelantan, and met with state and federal government officials, international agencies, civil society, indigenous communities, academics, and people affected by poverty in urban and rural areas. I visited a soup kitchen, a women's shelter, informal schools, and a disability centre. I met with families living in overcrowded low-cost housing in Kuala Lumpur, struggling to pay the rent and with children out of school, and with people with disabilities in Kota Baru who are receiving no government support. I met with indigenous communities in Sarawak, Sabah, and Peninsular Malaysia whose livelihoods and way of life are under siege by authorities and corporate actors. I visited settlements of migrants and stateless people who do not have water or electricity and who risk arrest if they seek medical care. I heard from refugee and migrant communities who are systematically excluded from social services and who lack basic rights and legal status. The people I met with made it clear to me that any assertion that poverty has been eliminated flies in the face of the facts on the ground."
Given the minister's response and the level of understanding it betrays, we cannot help but wonder whether Alston has done more on the ground getting to understand poverty in Malaysia in 11 days than the minister has in a year.
The Prime Minister made some recent comments regarding palm oil in which he used a relatively impressive array of relevant facts and figures to make his case.
The Finance Minister also recently commented on the debt situation in the country and why transparency in governance was crucial.
These are the examples that the learned Economic Affairs Minister could perhaps learn from, in order to keep from making kneejerk replies that clearly prioritise saving face over working together to address substantial issues in a constructive manner.
As the country becomes increasingly obsessed about emotive issues like khat or Dr Zakir Naik, millions of Malaysians are dealing with very real issues of poverty and struggling to make ends meet.
This is a sterling opportunity to refocus the national narrative away from artificially divisive issues to issues that truly matter - not least of which is uplifting our neighbours and fellow citizens and empowering them to make a decent, dignified living.
NATHANIEL TAN is a consultant specialising in impactful communication and navigating public perception.
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