Cost of living up but only in urban areas, Suhakam chief says of UN rep’s poverty remark

Suhakam chairman Tan Sri Othman Hashim speaks to Malay Mail at his office in Kuala Lumpur August 27, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Suhakam chairman Tan Sri Othman Hashim speaks to Malay Mail at his office in Kuala Lumpur August 27, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

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KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 30 — Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) chief Tan Sri Othman Hashim has conceded that Malaysians do face a rising cost of living, after a United Nations (UN) rights expert said the country’s poverty rate is grossly underreported.

However, the newly-appointed commission chief said this fact only realistically applies to urban areas, particularly the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

“If you look at rural areas like Kedah, there is a vast difference, a big gap between the cost of living. Maybe in Kuala Lumpur you need RM100 a day, you don’t need that much in the rural areas,” he told Malay Mail in a recent interview.

“But the issue of the rising cost of living is of concern to the low income group and the government should be looking at it very closely, but of course, the government has its strategies and programmes for the B40.”

B40 refers to the bottom 40 per cent or the lowest-earning households in Malaysia.

“Maybe their programme for the B40 can take care of the issues and this is an opportunity for the government to do more to alleviate the hardship of the B40 and those who earn RM3,000 and below — looking at the cost of living in Kuala Lumpur is high,” Othman added.

UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Phillip Alston said last week that Malaysia’s actual poverty rate could range from 15 to 20 per cent, despite official government data in 2016 placing it only at 0.4 per cent of households living below the poverty line.

Alston said this is due to the country’s unrealistic and outdated poverty line measurement of RM980 for a household of four per month, that was mainly utilised in the 1970s.

In response, Othman said Alston should clarify if the data he quoted on Malaysia’s poverty level refers to absolute poverty or relative poverty.

Othman said the definition mentioned by Alston could refer to Malaysia’s Poverty Line Index, or the absolute poverty line, as explained by Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali.

“I do not know whether he was talking more about absolute poverty or relative poverty because the figure that he quoted, it’s absolute poverty as explained by Minister Azmin how the calculation was done,” he said.

“But this special rapporteur on extreme poverty, I don’t know what he actually meant when he said it wasn’t correct and that he quoted certain studies but he didn’t quote the figure.

“Then he said the percentage of poverty is between 15 and 20 per cent. Of course, that’s a huge gap. So I would be interested to know more about how they did the calculation, if they say poverty in Malaysia is 15 to 20 per cent. That is really high, so what does it really mean?” asked Othman.

In his report, Alston said Malaysia’s poverty line is not consistent with the cost of living or household income, and said real household income has increased fivefold since then, while the country is now an upper middle income nation instead of a low income one.

His remark was, however, criticised by Azmin who labelled Alston’s comments as “baseless and uncalled for”, and former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin also lambasted Alston, saying Malaysians’ income has improved significantly since the 5th Malaysia Plan.

Following public backlash of the defensive statements, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the government will study the claim made by Alston, while Putrajaya will change its method of measuring poverty if necessary.

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