For the urban poor in Klang Valley, home is the longhouse and squatter settlements.
See also No Place Like Home and Housing Woes
IT is seemingly hard to tell who is poor these days. Walk into a temporary longhouse settlement in the Klang Valley and you are likely to see children of all races playing in the alleyways as the noise from television sets blare from houses, some of which have satellite dishes poking from the roofs.
This could be a scene from a typical Malaysian housing estate. But a closer look reveals a different story: dilapidated houses that are unfit for people to live in; blocked drains that are a magnet for mosquitoes; the stench of uncollected rubbish heaped in piles by the houses.
Yet, thousands of Klang Valley residents have been forced to call these longhouse settlements home — and many even pay for the privilege.
M Letchimi supports her daughter and grandchildren on her RM500-a-month salaryM Letchimi, 61, a cleaner who earns RM500 monthly, has to fork out RM150 rental for the asbestos longhouse unit in Section D, Jinjang Utara, where she lives with her unemployed daughter and grandchildren.
Taxi driver Verivaya Marimuthu, 45, who stays in a termite-infected house in the same area, has been waiting 18 years for a chance to own a low-cost unit. After paying about RM50 a day for the taxi rental, he barely has enough to cover the rent and food costs for himself and his family.
Letchimi and Verivaya are not alone. There are many more families like them in the Klang Valley, who live a hand-to-mouth existence, barely making ends meet even as food and transport costs soar. They may live near the hustle and bustle of the city with its gleaming shopping malls and gated communities, but the wealth of the nation has bypassed them completely.
Taxi driver Verivaya Marimuthu can barely make ends meet after paying his daily taxi rental of RM50They are the face of the urban poor in Malaysia.
Yet statistically, their numbers do not seem to matter. A check on the incidence of overall poverty in Malaysia, according to the mid-term review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP) in 2007, shows that the figure stands at 3.6%, with urban poor figures pegged at a mere 2%, of which only 0.3% fall into the hardcore poverty range.
The poverty-line income based on the 9MP considers a family poor if it earns below RM720 in Peninsula Malaysia, RM960 in Sabah, and RM830 in Sarawak. In the hardcore poverty category, earnings are RM430, RM540 and RM520 respectively.
In his speech while tabling the 2009 Budget on 29 Aug 2008, prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi proudly announced that the number of hardcore poor households has declined by 43% over three years from 67,300 in 2004 to 38,400 in 2007.
He added that the government is confident that hardcore poverty will be eradicated by 2010.
All this may give the impression that poverty is a non-issue, especially in urban areas, and that Malaysia is well on course to be rid of it completely. The reality, however, is far different.
Not the whole picture
Dr Denison Jayasooria, chairperson of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Working Group of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, says that while Malaysia has a good track record when it comes to poverty eradication, it doesn’t paint the whole picture.
Denison Jayasooria believes we should use a class indicator to gauge poverty levels“Statistically, we are free, but in reality, from the plight and experience of the lower-income group, there are still the poor among us.
“The government said this is relative poverty; it is not starvation. But the indicators on who is poor should include criteria such as a person who can’t buy a house and doesn’t have minimum transport.
“[We want] to be a developed country by 2020; [we] cannot minimise urban poor as ‘relatively poor’ and not a priority,” Denison says.
Malaysia’s poverty reduction efforts have traditionally focused on the rural poor, and it was only from 2001 that the plight of the urban poor began to catch the attention of the authorities. This shift was caused by an explosion in the rate of urbanisation, from 51% in 1990 to 63.08% in 2005. It is expected to reach 63.8% in 2010, and a corresponding increase in the level of the urban poor is also likely, especially in light of recent hikes in the inflation rate.
Denison says the problem in Malaysia is the tendency of agencies to use average and race-focused statistics, while inter-ethnicity comparisons are common in government statistics and reports.
“If we use a class indicator — instead of race-based — at the bottom end of 40% of society, you will find Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak categorised as low-income families. So we have to move away from our statistical comfort zone,” he says.
Denison opines that the government needs to bring out disaggregate figures (i.e. broken up into parts) that show where the bottom 40% live, their education performance, access to healthcare, infant mortality, dropout rate, crime and security, job opportunity, etc. “When you use income [as an indicator], you cannot see these disaggregate figures,” he says.
From his point of view, historically, we are still caught in the wake of the National Economic Policy (NEP) and the fallout caused by race-based overview of economic and social indicators.
“As we are head towards 2020, we must review our approach and analysis [of the situation]. If you take the bottom 40%, then the figures tell a different story.
“Of course, Malays will still form the largest group by virtue of their population ratio. As such, they will still receive the most benefit [from poverty eradication programmes].
“It is important for the government to stop playing the race card, and move towards using a human-rights approach that cuts across race and religion [when tackling poverty],” says Denison.
Toh Kin Woon says the Economic Planning Unit needs to provide the states with detailed data on povertyFormer Penang executive councillor Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon says the lack of detailed data on poverty is also stymieing efforts by state governments to pinpoint the actual segment of the population that need aid.
“When I was part of the Penang state government, I wrote to the Economic Planning Unit requesting statewide data on poverty. The reply I got from them was very telling: they said that they were not able to release such ‘sensitive’ data. They could only provide macro figures for poverty statistics, which were much more concerned with reflecting ethnic equity.
“But this is not very helpful to the people on the ground who are actually trying to tackle the problem of poverty,” says Toh, who is chair of the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute.
Human rights approach
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s Report on the Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction in the country (Suhakam HRAPR) released in 2007 has proposed to the government that when dealing with poverty and equal access to development, it is important to ensure there is no discrimination involved.
The authorities, the report says, should take a human rights approach to dealing with the matter.
From the research done so far on the poverty problem, Denison says, that even in Kuala Lumpur, Malays make up more than 60% of urban poor. They work in factories and hold low-paying civil-service jobs, and suffer from many disadvantages. Yet, Denison points out, they are unable to benefit from the NEP in a tangible way, like getting taxi permits, for example.
“Taxi permits are given to millionaire bumiputera. But if every Malay who is taxi driver had his own car and permit, his income level would just shoot up, and he would become self-employed,” he says.
Sulochana Nair: Poverty is very multi-dimensionalMalaysia’s Gini coefficient has steadily worsened in the past few years, increasing from 0.462 in 2004 to 0.545 in 2007. However, the indicator for urban residents has improved slightly, from 0.444 to 0.427 in the same period. (The Gini coefficient is used as a measure of inequality of income distribution. It is defined as a ratio with values between 0 and 1. A low Gini coefficient indicates more equal income or wealth distribution, while a high Gini coefficient indicates more unequal distribution.)
Dr Sulochana Nair, executive director of University Malaya’s Centre for Poverty and Development Studies, tells The Nut Graph that the use of income as an indicator is an inadequate and narrow yardstick because it does not look at the employment and housing status of a person. Poverty, she points out, is very multi-dimensional.
Sulochana emphasises the importance of equality and non-discrimination when taking into account poverty reduction efforts.
“There are indications and some statistics on a global level that while we score very well on various indicators of development, income inequality is a serious concern. Development is more than growth,” she says.
A 2006 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on Malaysia’s international trade, growth, poverty reduction and human development shows that the income share of the bottom 40% in Malaysia has fallen since 1990.
However, when it comes to income distribution, the mid-term review of the 9MP still pinpoints as its main objective the reduction of the income gap among the ethnic groups, as well as between rural and urban areas.
Hence, Denison says, the government must now review these factors and be neutral on race; it should go for real problem groups, and not neglect other groups in the urban areas.
“Because now the Indians are saying they are disadvantaged; and the Orang Asli and Penans are also saying they have not benefited from poverty eradication programmes. So, the delivery of these services and benefits must be reexamined and be available to all races. Every government agency must [look at] itself, and question whether it is servicing all the people in need.”
Implementation of government policies
One of the concerns brought up during Suhakam’s pre-roundtable discussion on a human rights approach to poverty reduction in 2007 had to do with the implementation of government policies.
While participants believed that the government policies and programmes at the micro level have no elements of deliberate marginalisation of groups and individuals, they felt otherwise on the performance of the agencies involved in implementing the policies.
And the Suhakam HRAPR report also states that the group most affected by poverty and that faces the most difficulty in accessing poverty eradication programmes are single parents in urban areas.
Sulochana says we must recognise that the poor lack access to information, and that they should be made aware of entitlements, or they would otherwise not be able to access aid.
“There is definitely a big information gap; without information, how do you start? There must be some improvement in information dissemination,” she says.
Children who live in the longhouse settlement of Jinjang Utara Sulochana adds that some of the entitlements are given by the government, but certain politicians use them as a carrot to get political mileage. As a result, she believes, it is important to draw a line between government services and politicians’ interests in dealing with poverty.
Still, the government is slowly realising the need to address the concerns of those who are in the lower-income group, especially in light of higher food, electricity and transport costs.
The 2009 Budget includes several provisions targeted at this group, one of which is raising the eligibility criteria for welfare assistance under the Welfare Department, from a monthly household income of RM400 to RM720 for Peninsula Malaysia, RM830 for Sarawak and RM960 for Sabah. With this increase, the number of eligible recipients is expected to double from 54,000 households to 110,000. This includes an increase in the number of eligible senior citizens from 14,000 to 40,000.
The Budget 2009 also allocates RM50 million to building 1,400 new houses and repairing 1,000 homes. Priority will be given to senior citizens, people with disabilities, and single parents with many dependents as well as victims of natural disasters, said prime minister Abdullah, who is also the finance minister.
And as a short-term measure, households that incur monthly electricity bills of RM20 or less will not have to pay for electricity for the period from 1 Oct 2008 to end of 2009. This move will benefit a total of 1.1 million households, and cost the government RM170 million for the period.
This is but a small step to reach out to the poorest among us, but as long as poverty is measured by race and not by class, many needy Malaysians will fall through the cracks of our system.