Malaysian poverty is a real problem

  • Watching The World
  • Sunday, 25 Nov 2018

A class issue: Concepts like press freedom and conservation may not matter as much when one is poor and struggling to survive.

THE other day I was having my vegetarian lunch at a Chinese coffee shop and to my surprise when I finished there was an elderly uncle waiting for me on the pavement outside.

“You are from the media,” he said. “I have seen you before, and want to talk to you.”

Well I didn’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed. Was he going to hit me for a donation? Ask for coverage for an event? Get me to petition DBKL to fix a problem?

Or has he mistaken me for Sharaad Kuttan, who hosts this local talk show on television?

“You play an important role,” he said. “In this new Malaysia, people are interested in many things. I want you to write about the most important things for the government to do.”

Well, that was enough for me to listen. And the pakcik talked.

He is in his late 60s, and spent his life in the rubber and palm oil industries. Like many of the residents in our TTDI neighbourhood, he leads a life of relative comfort and prosperity. But Tuan Haji struck a note of caution.

“The government may make some policy changes, and chop and change when it comes to international treaties or death penalty, but for Malaysia to really thrive, the government must look out for the poor. The cost of commodities, the cost of day to day expenses. Too many are suffering,” he told me.

“I worked in the estates and I have seen it. The NEP didn’t work. The old government didn’t really address issues of the hardcore poor Malays. They are struggling. If the new government doesn’t tackle it, we are all in for trouble, especially if they become desperate and turn to radical ideas.”

His comments echoed what National Unity Minister P. Waytha Moorthy and former Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj both told me in recent weeks about Malaysia’s underclass – that there are many still struggling with bread and butter issues. Last year, the Barisan Nasional government was touting the fact that at 3.8%, Malaysia’s poverty rate is the lowest among South-East Asian countries. But this impressive statistic is somewhat misleading. In fact, Deputy International Trade and Investment Minister Dr Ong Kian Ming just called for a higher poverty line to better measure our poverty rates in keeping with a status as a high income nation. There’s no point setting the bar low just to come up with impressive figures if it’s hiding the fact that in cramped low-cost flats, remote fishing villages, sleepy border towns, abandoned estates and jungle interiors, many fellow Malaysians are still engaged in a daily struggle to survive.

While it’s true that there are charitable and humanitarian reasons for wanting to aid the poorest among us, we can also be more cynical. If those at the bottom have more to spend, it creates large markets for business. If there are better opportunities to earn a living wage, there is less chance that gangsterism and other petty crimes will offer a way out.

Poverty eradication leads to a better educated and healthier population. Surely the link between poverty, lack of education opportunities and unfortunate social ills such as child marriage is clear. So while not all of us may be bleeding hearts who are willing to give up part of their tax money to the poor, I think we need to recognise that there are practical reasons why we really need to encourage the government to listen to their voices and not just that of big business.

I argued with my new friend about how we tend to take shortcuts. Yes, palm oil can be lucrative, but surely we can cultivate the industry without wanton destruction of the environment? Surely we can maintain a diverse agricultural base?

Yes, but dollars and cents come first, he said. Concepts like press freedom and conservation don’t necessarily matter to someone who is struggling.

When Brazil’s repulsive President-elect Jair Bolsonaro was elected practically by glorifying past dictatorships and espousing vigilante justice, one of the most worrying aspects was his desire to role back environmental protection. Open protected regions to mining, build highways through the Amazon, cripple activism and pull out of accords.

That is no valid way of combating poverty. New Malaysia must be sincere and holistic in its approach. If we reach the rural poor, Malay or otherwise, then all of us can be engaged in this wonderful journey towards a bright collective future.

I thanked the uncle for his input, although even as I walked away, I still wasn’t sure that he hadn’t mistaken me for Sharaad Kuttan.

  • News editor Martin Vengadesan is still watching the world, but this year, Malaysia is where it’s all happening.
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