UN to assess Malaysia’s real poverty level amid questions over official index

A homeless man is seen sleeping on the sidewalks along Jalan Tun Perak in Kuala Lumpur, May 5, 2015. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
A homeless man is seen sleeping on the sidewalks along Jalan Tun Perak in Kuala Lumpur, May 5, 2015. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 9 — The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights will undertake a 10-day fact-finding mission to Malaysia later this month, amid doubts over how Putrajaya rates its own success in reducing the number of hardcore poor.

While acknowledging Malaysia has very strong policy records, the world body said it will scrutinise past and existing strategies to assess how the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has acted on its own pledge to help those affected by poverty, including dissecting the official index.

“Malaysia can point to a very strong track record on reducing poverty,” UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said in a statement yesterday.

“Yet parts of the population have been left behind, and there are important questions about how the country is measuring poverty and what might be overlooked.”

The PH administration made a range of commitments to address poverty when it came to power 15 months ago as part of pledges to elevate the living standards of marginalised communities, among them, vowing to return subsidies, improve access to welfare and strengthen human rights.

UN said the fact-finding mission will chiefly focus on indigenous peoples, children, women, people with disabilities, and migrant workers.

It also wants to look into the impact of land tenure, environmental issues and climate change; social support and education, and the extent to which people living in poverty are able to enjoy their civil and political rights.

Officials figures suggest Malaysia’s national poverty rate had fallen from nearly 50 per cent in 1970 to 0.4 per cent in 2016, suggesting that poverty has been virtually eradicated.

Yet, the UN said poverty is persistently higher for certain groups including children and indigenous peoples, while independent analysis suggested that if Malaysia’s poverty line were aligned with comparable countries, the poverty rate would be significantly higher.

Such views are held even by local researchers. In June, Khazanah Research Institute published a paper indicating structural weaknesses with the official poverty measures. Among others, it concluded that more Malaysians would be poorer if the index is adjusted to reflect reality.

Alston will travel to Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Sarawak, Sabah, Kelantan and Putrajaya, where he will meet with government officials and representatives of civil society organisations, international organisations, activists and academics.

The UN special rapporteur will also include meetings with individuals affected by poverty in his visit.

“I plan to examine the impact of poverty on people’s capacity to enjoy their civil and political rights, as well as the impact of development strategies, gaps in the social protection system, including access to social support, education and healthcare, and the situation of other groups disproportionately impacted by poverty,” Alston said.

“I will look at the precarious situation of foreign workers, who play an important role in Malaysia’s economy but are excluded from official poverty statistics, and often work for low pay in difficult conditions.”

The UN said its Malaysian mission will be grounded in extensive input and research in advance of the mission, including a thorough review of public information, more than 70 advance phone calls and written submissions from people affected by poverty, civil society, academics, and others.

The submissions made public with the authors’ consent are available here.

Alston will share his preliminary observations and recommendations at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur at the end of his mission on August 23. The visit will start August 13.

The Special Rapporteur’s final report on his visit to Malaysia will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2020.

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