The forgotten political voice of the poor

SEPTEMBER 3 — What’s the largest voting bloc in Malaysia?

Tip: it’s the demography missing leadership.

And no, not Malays. Well, not directly.

Despite a queue of politicians ready to spew venom to top the one before them. After all, six parties compete for Malay votes love— PAS, Amanah, Bersatu Pribumi, PKR, Umno and Mahathir Mohamad’s riffraff band. To the victor, seemingly, a lion share of Peninsula seats.

Meanwhile, a new contender backs youth. And it’s not them either.

Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s new outfit — or full line-up of Malaysia’s Got Avengers — remains unfurled, for now. While Malaysia ages.

The median age was 26.3 in 2010 but set for 38.3 in 2040. The young country narrative expires soon.

Further, youth potency drops when realities are recognised — one, the continued parallel universes of small English- and Chinese-speaking middle-class change agents and politically allergic Malay-speaking working class majority, coupled with number two, traditionally low young adult voter turnout.

What is the dominant group then?

The poor, or B40. (Add the wrong letter in the front, and it becomes an unfortunate reggae band or unemployment form, depending on how old you are. Sorry, ageist joke.)

They make up 2.9 million households and constitute 16 per cent of national income. It’s what they earn which necessitates the discourse, below RM4,850 per month.

How does the wage translate?

If with an average of four per family that’s RM162 a day, or RM41 per family member. Rent, food, transport, clothing and tuition classes among the concerns, and that’s the absolute top earners for the bracket. With 80 per cent of Malaysia urban, their real spending power shrinks considerably because prices inflate.

For perspective, Bank Negara puts RM2,700 per person as the Kuala Lumpur living wage. The B40’s bottom quarter in the capital region already with a deficit of RM700 (RM1,929 is median income) from the living wage, would allocate RM16 per day per person for a family of four.

The Prison’s Board spends RM35 per inmate daily.

Technically, prison’s better — if one chooses to be cynical.

However, despite the gaping need for champions, none emerge.

One party, handicapped by name, lacks scale. The others, despite pretensions, fail to harness the poor’s needs as the cornerstone of their movements. Forgetting, to their own consternation one day when they wake up, that social class is Malaysia’s great divider and possibly the political solution.

Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) is hamstrung by opponents associating it with the defunct Malayan Communist Party’s 41-year war. As it stands, as it was in 2018 and even more so today, they’d lose every seat they contest in the next general election.

PKR, a culmination of PSM’s former mothership Parti Rakyat Malaysia’s (PRM) marriage to Keadilan, often relegates class consciousness behind race consciousness. History will judge whether it lacked the personnel, ideological spine or was simply overwhelmed by Anwar Ibrahim’s multifaceted ambitions, to sustain class struggle as what PRM’s logo of a seladang (Malayan Gaur) and industrial cogwheels represented.

DAP still has a Socialist Youth wing (DAPSY), which is apparently more worried about Chinese tourists losing their way in Kuching without Han character road signs than the fate of the underclass. All of DAP, old and new, would place race above class as a priority. They’ve demoted class struggle to a subset of the race struggle. It’s not the same thing, and definitely not the right order.

Therefore, the leadership gap for the poor is appalling.

The last wide-scale working class driven uprising was Hindraf’s November 25, 2007 Klang Valley-wide protest. The objectives were race-based and the core leaders included lawyers, but the crowd was all about the working class. It was the last time the poor turned up in numbers because they had had enough.

Just a 40?

When the phrase B40 is chucked around, it’s easily mistaken to mean 40 per cent of the country.

After all, the other 60 per cent would be the M40 and T20.

They are the country’s majority.

The bottom 40 means the four lowest income segments — (B1) Below RM2,500, (B2) above B1 and below RM3,170, (B3) above B2 and below RM3,970 and (B4) above B3 and below RM4,850.

It’s not dividing 32 million Malaysian inhabitants (29 million citizens) to equal portions of 3.2 million persons. B40 makes up most of Malaysia.

Household is the preferred term, which reduces the absolute number of people affected. Lumping under household also gives the impression there are far fewer poor people.

The statistics department stipulates 2.9 million households (of 7.3 million households) are B40 in 2019, and if they average five per family or close to it, approximately 15 million people are poor. 

And many of them are eligible voters. In a country of only 29 million citizens, they are the majority. In a country where rural seats and their lower income inhabitants are overweighed, the poor decide elections. More than any other group. If they only knew. Or if any party with imagination cared to inform them diligently about it.

And imagine the B40 prioritising economic advancements and social enhancements when they vote? The effects would be colossal.

When the B40 recognise the value of Malay sentiments and protection of Tabung Haji (pilgrim’s fund) but have their eyes wide open that they are issues easily manipulated for political gain.

Instead, look at bread and butter issues.

Putting the rise of minimum wage ahead in their prioritisation. RM1,200 is not right. Bank Negara says as much. Government can assist businesses to direct more salary to workers, if medium-sized business professionals — now we arrive to the M40 — and owners — some M40 with T20 — can focus on their workers and not guarantee indirect profits to rent-seekers, or the top 10 per cent.

It’s not right Bumiputera companies of decent standing want federal funds rather than them growing the economy themselves, when millions of Bumiputera kids are malnourished in PPRs — low cost housing — because their parents can’t earn enough.   

Schools can be better. There is so much noise over vernacular schools, cultural hegemony or appropriate religious instructions, a more important point is ignored. These state-funded institutions are in most cases, the only way for the young poor to crawl out of their poverty.

If the B40 demand schools become more than childcare centres, but places where their children learn to read, write and count in order to be wired into a morphing global edu-conomy (education, economy and vice-versa) then the future can become brighter.

The time is now, too. As automation, artificial intelligence and universal basic income are set to afflict or empower the poorest depending on the policy decisions to be made soon.

In the past, elsewhere, when pressing needs emerged for the poor, political parties were formed or reorganised to back the poor.

Malaysian political parties committed to winning with new ideas and not whining about old setbacks should pay heed to the advice.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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