JANUARY 19 — Last year, the Social Welfare Department (JKM) announced it would be dispersing payments to welfare recipients via cashless means through the JKM Pay cards.

These cash cards came with caveats; you can only use them at JKM-approved shops and only for items on an approved list.
Welfare recipients wouldn’t get all their payments on JKM Pay — apparently only 50 per cent would be credited to JKM Pay but that still meant half of their allowance would be limited to certain uses only.

Behind on your rent? Need to pay a medical bill? Too bad. JKM Pay would be unusable for those purposes and the supposed rationale is to help welfare recipients plan their finances better.

After reading up on JKM Pay, for a brief moment, I felt an overwhelming desire for physical violence.

The problem with people who do not understand the challenges of being poor is they think that the poor can budget their way out of poverty.

I am middle-class and have the option to switch phone plans (which I just did) to save some money. 

To reduce my phone bill, I chose a much lower data plan, unsubscribed Netflix and instead paid RM5 monthly for streaming service Viu.  

The average poor person does not have as many options and must make do with what they have. 

People queue in front of a Bank Simpanan Nasional branch in Klang September 6, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
People queue in front of a Bank Simpanan Nasional branch in Klang September 6, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

If your income is not fixed but variable, just how do you “budget” that? 

A salaried worker will get a fixed pay cheque a month but those who do odd jobs such as collecting cans and boxes for recycling  can never truly predict how much money they will make a month.

I saw some people say that JKM Pay prevents people from wasting the money on cigarettes, alcohol or, horror, drugs.

If you think like that I would first like to say, you should check your empathy tank as it seems to be running on empty.

This moralising about how the poor should spend their money is ridiculous and also part of the whole myth that the poor are that way because they chose to be.

It’s also why too many of us admire the rich and ascribe virtue to wealth due to this fantastical notion that wealthy people “worked hard” to get where they are.

Never mind that the average CEO salary has quadrupled over the years while the average Malaysian factory worker still earns what they did in the 80s. 

The simple solution is really to just give poor people money. Yes, there will be some who will buy themselves a beer or a carton or two of cigarettes.

Why must we deny aid to the people who will instead use it to ensure their children have enough to eat when going to school or that instead of eating only rice and salt, they have fresh vegetables and occasionally a little meat and eggs?

Let’s not even start on poor Malaysians being shamed about their dietary choices when those hipster but nutritious poke bowls cost around RM20 but a greasy roti canai is but a few ringgit.

In my university days sometimes all I could afford was one roti telur a day and if hunger got the better of me, perhaps some instant noodles before bed.

Fast forward to 2022 and the roti telur has become pricey enough that too many people cannot afford making it a daily meal.

Here’s a suggestion: just give the poor people money. Unlike the rich, they won’t be hoarding it in an offshore bank account but instead will spend it to keep the local economy going.

Give the poor money and even more radically, perhaps start paying them enough so they won’t need to be poor. 

I truly believe that poverty is a systemic failure, and one that also feels like a deliberate policy choice. 

There is no downside to helping the poor but at the very least, our welfare department needs to stop telling them just how to spend their money because no one is more conscious about how much or how little they have than the poor.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.