Connexion: Why poverty may spread to your doorsteps

By Joachim Ng

Throughout the COVID-19 movement control order periods, at least a dozen NGOs and corporate bodies have given food aid to poor families in housing estates such as Pasir Puteh, Pasir Pinji, Bercham, Simee, Tambun, and Buntong. 

These charitable groups included the Perak Women for Women Society, Universal Peace Federation Perak branch, Perak Indian Muslim Association, Kiwanis Malaysia, Salvation Army, Pertubuhan Amal Ai Xin Fan Tong, Food Aid Foundation, We Care and Share, Honda Ban Hoe Seng, Pantai Hospital Ipoh, and Majlis Bandaraya Ipoh. 

Some observers think COVID-19 has made the poor in Ipoh even poorer, but that is only partially correct. Hundreds of middle-income families who lived in the borderline zone were also dragged into poverty by the virus. 

What surprised many volunteers was the significant number of poor Chinese families that they encountered. Poverty isn’t just among the Indians, Orang Asli, and Malays. Like the coronavirus, it can hit anyone. This is also evident throughout the Klang Valley, Johor Bahru, Penang, Melaka, and other urban centres where among the homeless are some Chinese.

Contrary to the wrong view that one former prime minister expressed last year, most Chinese are not wealthy. Statistics indicate that 70% of Chinese are just ordinary wage earners. You can see for yourself by visiting the office of any large corporation. It is because of such dangerously false statements emanating from senior politicians that shop assistants are sometimes heard to say whenever a Chinese customer walks in: “Orang kaya datang. (Here comes a rich person.)”

The 2019 national statistics indicate that roughly 100,000 Chinese households throughout the nation earn below the poverty line income of RM2,208. Thousands more Chinese households are expected to fall into poverty with the loss of jobs.

Have you ever pondered why, after 60 years of independence, the number of poor families in Malaysia is on a climb even before COVID-19? You can’t say that the New Economic Policy isn’t working. It is, because the number of rich Malays is fast rising. But how do you explain the large numbers of poor Indians and Chinese? And why are there still 400,000 poor Malay households? 

A country needs only 40 years to eliminate poverty. China has managed to uplift 700 million people, starting the effort in 1978. To work the miracle, three ground factors play a big role: improved healthcare, quality education, job opportunities. 

Abundant with high-demand natural resources such as oil and gas, rubber, and oil palm, we have enough money to eliminate poverty. But Malaysia’s healthcare system remains woefully inadequate, schools don’t impart sufficient quality lessons, and many job opportunities have gone to foreign workers.

Combating poverty is a generational effort in that we have to invest in the children, and the baseline for that is healthcare. Children need education to get out of poverty, but poor nutrition leads to smaller brains. Expert findings on brain size differences between children of rich parents and children of poor parents have been reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Why is it that poor children show weaker brain activity? It’s because the brain needs good food, which poor families often cannot afford. The poor in Malaysia survive on heaps of white rice and loaves of white bread, neither of which gives enough nutrition to the brain.

What the Government must do is to provide free breakfast and lunch in all publicly-funded primary and secondary schools. Don’t leave it to the canteen operators but get dieticians involved to plan nutritious meals.

Although the Government has lately started providing free breakfast, it is a mistake to confine it to B40 students only. Let the M40 kids join in the free meals. There are two important reasons for this: first, M40 households are partly funding the meal programme through income taxes and hence their kids shouldn’t be left out; second, the B40 kids need to mingle with M40 kids to create social networks for adult working life.

Breakfast isn’t enough, though. Free lunch should be thrown in as well. If Scrooge is handling public funds, the alternative is to start a Free School Meals Foundation that Malay, Indian, and Chinese billionaires can fund generously. The Foundation can engage committed staff to supervise the expenditure and dietary selection.

The next factor is quality education. How can poor kids move out of poverty if they are getting a poor education to begin with? Why do wealthy parents send their children to the best schools? It’s because quality education gives them a head start in many ways. 

If we want the next generation to leap out of poverty, the Ministry of Education (MOE) needs to train up better teachers and design a better curriculum. For instance, Japanese public schools do very well, and we should have adopted their styles during the “Look East” heydays.

Well-schooled students become productive workers earning high income, and the way to run good schools is to begin with the MOE. Is it creating the right environment for students to acquire productive skills? 

The “Rosetta Stone for Human Capital” study in 2019 measured the test scores of students in 80 countries. One of the inferences you can draw from the study is that environmental factors play as big a role as family income. A rich kid may underperform in a bad school environment, but a poor kid will likely do well in a good school environment. Who controls the school environment? The Education Ministry, and this Ministry holds the key to abolishing poverty.

Thirdly, are job opportunities growing or shrinking? They are shrinking because of the decision by employers across most industries to replace locals with cheap foreign workers. This is done with approval of the Human Resources Ministry.

Almost all construction, plantation, manufacturing, and service jobs 20 years ago were held by locals. Restaurant staff were locals. Today you hardly find any locals in these industries. While foreign workers have steadily gained skills enabling them to start businesses here, locals are pushed into becoming delivery personnel and roadside stall operators. Many locals are now employed in low-grade jobs by seasoned foreign workers who began their careers in Malaysia as bricklayers 20 years ago.

The resultant loss of local expertise is very apparent. In the construction industry, young local supervisors lack hands-on skills in the building trades as they are in supervisory positions just because they hold university degrees. They can’t properly supervise the work done by new batches of foreign workers and one consequence is the devastating number of defects that purchasers discover at vacant possession. 

Eventually, the flow of skilled foreign workers will dry up when their economies back home improve. But Malaysia will still be left without a skilled local workforce as the employment recruiting agencies will likely then look for workers from war-torn Africa. Will the Human Resources Ministry go along with this?

Take heed of JD Lovrenclear’s remark in the Aliran newsletter last month: “If we still fail to evaluate where we stand, then we must prepare for a deeper plunge in a post COVID-19 climate.”


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