My take on poverty measurement and Malaysian society: A need for radical rethink? — Denison Jayasooria

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SEPTEMBER 24 — Poverty measurement is a hot topic in Malaysia. The UN special Rapporteur on poverty had criticised Malaysia for low poverty measurement. In 2020 the government issued new poverty figures based on the Household Income Survey (HIS 2019). While the methodology of poverty calculation is the same the government adjusted the Poverty Line Income (PLI) from RM980 to RM2,280.00. Of this the Food PLI is RM1,038.00 and the non-food PLI is RM1,1170.

These changes were very much welcomed as it was a fairer capture of who are poor in Malaysian society from an income poverty measurement. In Malaysia we view the poor as very poor (absolute poverty), and another as not so poor but low income and the popular term has been the Bottom 40 (B40) income group. The government gave a break down for the B10, B20, B30 and B40 using a scaling income figures from the very poor to the poor to low income. Here we can note that the level of deprivation and vulnerability can different of different levels in the income stratification.

Urban poverty measurement

The PLI measurements seem suitable for the very poor especially the rural locations, as it is based on very basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, transport and housing. But a very basic approach is inadequate to capture the deprivation experienced by the urban poor families especially living in affluent cities such as KL, PJ, Johor Baru, Ipoh, Penang, Kota Kinabalu or Kuching. In most cases there is a transference of poverty from rural to urban due to rural-urban migration

Poverty researchers have suggested relative poverty measurement using the medium income measurement. Malaysia too accept the concept of relative poverty and based on the HIS 2019 the medium income for urban areas is RM6,561.00 and therefore if we use the half benchmark then urban poverty should be RM3,280.00 which is much higher. This is a fairer indication and closer to the living wage indicators suggested by others. Urban poverty measurement, must include the new measurements to capture the deprivation and vulnerabilities in urban location capturing the new face of poverty which is very different from rural poverty.

Furthermore the non-food PLI of RM1,1170.00 is inadequate for the urban context. One simple example is the rental rate for a low cost flat in the urban areas. It is RM600.00 per month in the Desa Mentari flats in Petaling Jaya. Not all the poor are living in public housing where the rental is about RM150.00 provided by the local authority or State government. Therefore the PLI is unable to capture the deprivation and vulnerability of the urban poor who form a major bulk of the informal sector undertaking micro business with very little or no saving or social protection.

Multi-dimensional Poverty Indicator (MPI)

Malaysia is 2015 through the Eleventh Malaysia Plan released the MPI which was most welcome as it move beyond income measurement to include three other dimensions such as education, health and living standards. With four dimensions the government introduced eleven indicators for measurement. While these are very good and an enlargement of the measurement instrument, it failed again to capture urban poverty. The key in any measurements are the specific details one is reviewing.

The enclosed table provides the details. The dimensions are good but we need to review the indicators or have different sets of indicators for different locations such as interior Malaysia such places in Sabah, Sarawak & among the Orang Asli community in Peninsular Malaysia, second MPI for the rural area and a final MPI for the urban areas especially to capture the deprivation of the urban poor

MPI as released in the 11th Malaysia Plan

DIMENSIONS

 

INDICATOR MALAYSIA

DESCRIPTION

EDUCATION

Year of schooling

 

11 years

School attendance

 

Children (6-16) not in school

HEALTH

Access to health  facility

 

5km

Access to clean water supply

 

Pipe water in the house

LIVING STANDARDS

Conditions of living quarters

 

Dilapidated or deteriorating

Number of bedrooms

More than 2 members/room

Toilet facility

Other than flush toilet

Garbage collection facility

No facility

Transportation

No private or public transport

Access to basic communication tools

No fixed line phone or mobile

INCOME

Mean monthly household income

Mean monthly household income less than PLI

 

 

If we take education, we already know that years of schooling or school attendance is not the real issues but the quality of their achievement. How many pass and especially secure a credit at the SPM level the critical subjects like BM, BI, Maths & science etc? or how many can pursue post-secondary education or training? In 2015 Malaysia indicated 11 years of schooling as basic but in the 2019 HIS survey they reduced it to just six years. Just primary education is no benchmark for Malaysia in 2020. It is sad we are benchmarking so low. We should compare with the development nations and in Asia with Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

Unlike the global MPI where for health the indicator is on nutrition and infant mortality, we in Malaysia benchmarked lower to whether we are with 5KM reach to a hospital and on access to clean water. Malaysia at the stage of development today in the post Millennium Development Goals (MDG) period has moved beyond the status of a developing world. We have a very good public health system. We must therefore aspire for higher targets. The Sustainable development Goals, targets and indicators would be a better benchmark to access the quality of life for all Malaysians at a much higher measurement scale.

Likewise when we look at the six indicators for living standards there are too basic for even the urban poor as we have moved from squatters to high rise low cost housing as a basic standard. The indicators must capture the new realities in Malaysia.

Some suggestions for the 12th Malaysia Plan

First, we must have more public engagement with all stakeholders on the poor and low income measurements including the indicators. This cannot just be an exercise of the civil service technical committee. The academic, civil society and grassroots community group leaders must be part of this decision making process. A more transparent and open and engaging process must be institute on the PLI & MPI

Second, the PLI and MPI must not just be a measuring tools but as a social assessment and intervention check list with well-trained social workers who could serve as the first point of contact and ensure they maintain a case file and follow through to see the families graduate from the program and move on into the next level of social process. This case coordination should ideally be done by the social workers from Department of social welfare however almost 50% of government workers are not trained social workers and therefore the role of CSO/NGOs could complement this gap.

Third, the current e-kasih data base which only capture income poverty could also be enlarge to capture other dimensions, also record the interventions and the progress per family. This must be an inter-agency well-coordinated multi-dimensional intervention at the district level. The case conference and collective review is essential to track the progress. Special training on the MPI as a tool that for assessment and intervention must be introduced to every district level agency staff in the relevant agencies including local CSO/NGOs who can complement the role of civil servants especially the hand holding and empowerment process.

* Denison Jayasooria is the co-chair of the Malaysian CSO SDG Alliance & Associate Fellow, Institute of Ethnic Studies, UKM. Thoughts shared at the UNDP Webinar: Unpacking Malaysia’s New PLI & MPI.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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