I REFER to the report “’Orang Asli not part of income survey’” (The Star, Sept 2). This suggests that the Orang Asli are being treated as outliers and an inconvenient factor in the agenda of groups with specific goals and figures in mind.
It leads inevitably to the question: “What other population segments have been considered as outliers and left out of the national representation of income levels and state of poverty in the country?”
The official response from the relevant department is that these Malaysian citizens are considered a “special group”. This term is both inappropriate and incorrect and must be omitted immediately from the official discourse of all government ministries, departments and agencies. Social scientists have noted the use of terms like this that smack of condescension and their resulting negative impact on the treatment of such communities.
Categorising communities as “special” and removing their representation from mainstream figures point to a worrying state of segregation based on ancestry and class. And as the recent report by Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights indicates, we are not following the international standards on measuring poverty.
Studying household income, establishing accurate poverty line incomes (PLI) and identifying poverty rates should be aimed at improving the lives of citizens. World Bank representative Kenneth Simler noted the relevance of PLIs in enabling citizens to enjoy “a healthy, active and dignified life and being able to participate meaningfully in society”. It is not to win some prize on the world stage. Unfortunately, the official and defensive responses to the latest report on our poverty rate suggest that the main purpose of these figures is to showcase positive achievements of government departments. Such reasoning has only earned opprobrium and drawn further international attention to the official goings-on in our country, however.
Alston’s findings should not take us by surprise. Articles by economist Martin Ravallion, who is currently based in Universiti Malaya, and Dr Ong Kian Ming, the International Trade and Industry deputy minister, have raised questions about the poverty line income rate. Were these crucial findings and studies given any consideration at all by the ministries concerned? If not, there seems to be a disconnect between knowledge producers and policymakers.
One might also wonder how non-governmental organisations working on poverty and minority rights view these official representations of poverty. Omitting segments of the population from official figures distorts the reality and affects public confidence in not only the government but also the NGOs concerned.
The oft-quoted line from the statesman Edmund Burke comes to mind: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
It seems that there are many good people today in powerful positions with the means to tackle the problem of poverty in our nation. The ultimate tragedy would be if such people choose to look the other way.
DR M. VARGHESE