Poverty alleviation in Malaysia and what we could learn from China

JUNE 17 : One of the biggest problems with the internet age is that shutting yourself off from the news is near-impossible unless you ignore the internet altogether.

My week-long break has been productive and my anxiety, triggered by local political upheaval and the current global mess, is a lot more manageable though I have gained 5 kilos from eating too much of my own baking.null

I spent the last weekend reading up on China’s poverty alleviation measures and its 2020 goal to lift its 1.4 billion people out of poverty by 2020.

The goal was one outlined by China’s president Xi Jinping in 2015, with China defining poverty at earning less than 2,800 yuan (RM1,688) a year or US$1.10 (RM4.70) a day though the World Bank has set the benchmark higher at US$1.90 a day.

Around 775,000 party officials were sent out to go door-to-door and attempt to find ways the government could assist the poor.null

It is an admirable effort, despite my reservations about the way China approaches personal freedoms and its current relations with Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In it together

In 2019, China allocated 91 billion yuan for poverty alleviation funds and President Xi has pushed for stricter oversight of poverty alleviation funds management.

While Malaysia has made progress since independence in poverty reduction, the current pandemic has shown much of Malaysia’s weaknesses in the area.

Like China, Malaysia should make the reduction of poverty a priority and be a lot more creative in doing so.

I was intrigued at how China had successfully made the reduction of poverty a collective effort, with public and private sectors working together to run large campaigns and citizens from all income levels being made to feel they were part of it too.

It wasn’t just the big celebrities hosting large buying efforts to promote buying of local goods on TV shows and shopping sites such as Taobao. There was an understanding that supporting each other, uplifting all citizens from poverty was something they were all invested in.

The problem with Malaysia’s approach is that we are hampered by the obsessive need to pander to racial issues and a general lack of transparency and oversight.

We have been plagued for decades by stories of mismanagement, projects given out to underqualified firms and ill-suited politicians fumbling with policy while being more obsessed with accumulating brownie points.

It doesn’t help that our former prime minister’s disdain for the poor was never a secret. Tun Dr Mahathir is one of those fixated with the bootstrapping myth — that the poor are only poor because they don’t try hard enough.

What the pandemic should have taught us is that the problems of the least-advantaged should be all our concerns. Imagine if the migrant workers Malaysians shamelessly exploit lived in decent, uncrowded dwellings with proper access to healthcare and given assistance to sustain themselves while social distancing.

Instead we round them up like cattle, stuff them into cramped detention centres with inadequate hygiene and then have the audacity to blame them for getting infected.

What our current economic policy and approach to fund disbursement is doing is enriching only those with access to connections within the government or ties with the right people.

We have ministers who take their families on expensive overseas vacations while flying business class, but in the meantime the poor are begging my activist friends on Facebook for food and infant formula.

The first place to start would be by taking China’s lead and marshalling our sizable cadre of civil servants and political party members to actually go out there and ask: how can we help?

It is almost painfully obvious how little those in power do to actually get proper feedback from those they claim to serve.

Did anyone ask the higher education minister for a TikTok contest? Is an RM50 e-wallet handout that can only be used at physical stores all that useful when not everyone has a smartphone and data plans are not that cheap even on prepaid?

What the poor need are more sustainable avenues for steady income, paths to existing poverty via education and micro-loans, avenues for training or reskilling and aid to carry them through times such as the pandemic or financial downturns.

The thing is we should know all that by now but apparently in 2020 we still can’t get our politicians to settle their bills at the travel agency.

Malaysians need to fully embrace that poverty is our problem not just a problem for the poor and true progress can only be made when we all make poverty alleviation a collective goal.

Those of the middle-class who bleat every so often “what’s in it for us” also might need to learn that eradicating poverty means adding more to their ranks, giving them more collective power.

It’s in all our best interests to fix poverty. Now we just need to remind politicians before they get back to pricey holidays and lavish house redecorating.

By Erna Mahyuni – THE STAR

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