Hardcore poverty: It is expensive to be poor
KUALA LUMPUR -- In this quiet little hamlet, smack dab in the middle of the sprawling metropolis that is Kuala Lumpur, dozens of people stand in line patiently to receive food aid, a daily occurrence for many.
One woman easily stood out from the throng, her wizened brown countenance setting her apart. She is small and stick-thin, her bony body slightly bowed as if burdened by the passing years and life. Despite that, she is quite spry for her age which she, after several meetings, divulges is 74.
She tells Bernama she recently returned to the soup kitchen in Medan Tuanku here, organised by Pertubuhan Tindakan Wanita Islam (Pertiwi), after stopping for a few years. She had no choice after losing her life savings to a scammer, she says.
"I lost RM31,000. He (the scammer) told me he was going to give me Eid money. It was like I was hypnotised. I went to the bank, signed the paper. I thought he was going to put the money in, but he took the money out instead. Everything is gone,” she said, upset. "I didn’t eat for two days. All I could do was cry.” What really upsets her is that she feels she has run out of options as she is unable to work and dependent on the RM500 monthly stipend she receives from the Social Welfare Department (JKM). She contemplates returning to Kelantan where she has family but is afraid her situation will be worse over there. At least here, she says she has a home. She is renting a low-cost apartment unit for RM150 monthly together with her 28-year-old adopted son. A daily wage earner, he gives her money when he can. Otherwise, they both depend on her JKM allowance. So far, her son has not been able to get a permanent position.
With the loss of her savings, life has become more precarious. She and her son are likely one major health emergency away from being completely destitute. Even now, she complains of stomach ache and pain in her knees. In this, she is emblematic of the risks and lack of choices some two million people living in abject poverty in Malaysia face, an issue Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has vowed to alleviate, if not eradicate. It is an uphill battle, however, with many tangential issues that will need tackling in tandem.
THE COST OF BEING POOR In Malaysia, the incidence of poverty is defined as the percentage of households that has a gross monthly household income lower than the poverty line income. The government revised the national poverty line to RM2,208 in 2020 from RM980 previously. Consequently, the number of households living under the poverty line increased to 5.6 percent in 2020, according to the latest figures from the World Bank.
For decades, Malaysia has provided assistance to the poor and lower-income groups with targeted subsidies and financial assistance. While it has largely worked, lifting Malaysians from a 50 percent poverty rate in the 1970s to less than 10 percent now, there remain pockets of poverty in rural areas as well as in urban areas.
Experts say alleviating hardcore poverty is not that easy although they lauded the effort. While there are many facilities and services available for the poor, gaining access to such services can be a challenge in a multitude of ways. In short, many people in abject poverty cannot afford the cost of being poor.
Economist and former Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Prof Datuk Dr Madeline Berma, who has done a lot of research on poverty, said Malaysia uses the targeted approach method, where the indigent and poor have to register with the government first and then undergo the process of verification. This can be a stumbling block for many poor people.
"You have to be registered in e-kasih (National Poverty Data Bank System) in order for you to qualify for support. So if you are a Penan living seven days walking distance (from the nearest assistance centre) and you don’t know about e-kasih then how are you supposed to register?” she said.
She said even when people have managed to register themselves, they may still face obstacles such as transportation. Depending on where they live, some can ill-afford the cost of travelling to the district office which is responsible for disseminating aid and financial assistance to the poor.
She gave the example of getting financial aid in Sarawak: "In the old days, the JKM allowance was RM70. The cost of traveling from the longhouse to the district office to get that assistance will cost you about RM30 to RM40 by boat.
"For the poor, the most expensive thing in their budget is food. Next is transport. If we can address these two issues, it will help a lot in terms of (alleviating poverty),” she added.
ACCESSIBILITY One visually-impaired man Bernama talked to knows very well what it means to spend what little money he has to collect money and assistance to survive. The 62-year-old man, who asked to be identified only as Low, takes a bus from Rawang to Kuala Lumpur and then the MRT to the soup kitchen every day without fail.
He gets three packs of free food, consisting of rice, a protein dish and vegetables, for his breakfast, lunch and dinner. He leaves at 11 am every day to make sure he arrives on time so as not to risk the soup kitchen running out of food. He then takes the MRT and bus back home. Low said he receives RM300 a month from JKM. His travelling expenses per month alone come to at least RM110. He lives in an illegal dwelling rent-free on someone else’s land which allows him to save a little money. He tries not to spend more than necessary.
"What I don’t use, I put into (my EPF account). I don’t want to use the money,” he said, adding he has RM20,000 in the account. He has already earmarked the money for an old folks home when the time comes.
He has no family, save for a sister who lives away from him. The house itself is very sparse, he said, equipped only with a kettle, washer, bed and radio. Low said he does not find his daily travel too arduous although he gripes about the state of facilities for the disabled at some of the stations. Being legally blind, the lack of working elevators in some places puts him at risk of falling, Disability advocate Murugeswaran Veerasamy, who prefers to be called Muru, said improving disability access everywhere, not just in public transportation, will help reduce abject poverty overall. Although Malaysia does not have exact figures on the number of disabled people living in abject poverty, research has found that many disabled Malaysians are unable to earn an income. This includes the elderly, who become more physically disabled as they get older, even if they remain mentally alert.
"The quota (for hiring disabled persons) in the government sector and private sector is one percent. At the moment, I think only 0.02 percent of employees are disabled whereas this quota system was implemented (decades ago),” said Muru.
He and other experts warned that policies to alleviate poverty cannot have a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. As such, Muru said part of disability access means the assistance should be tailored to what the people need.
"Identify and separate them and give them the proper assistance so they can contribute to themselves, to the family and to the country. If we give them proper guidance, they can do well,” he said.
DOCUMENTATION But identification and classification can be a sign of some privilege as well, presenting insurmountable obstacles to some who are hardcore poor. Much of the poverty assistance in Malaysia is reserved for Malaysians which requires documentation. Experts said the lack of documentation among the poor is a common issue that continues the cycle of poverty. Pertiwi president Datuk Munirah Abdul Hamid told Bernama she would not be surprised if the number of people living in abject poverty is higher than the governmental figures.
"It’s always the privileged who are able to get classification, the rest fall in the margins,” she said.
Mega, a 38-year-old homeless woman, can attest to the state of limbo being undocumented brings. She used to live with her mother, an Indonesian domestic worker, in a shophouse. She never knew her father who may or may not be Malaysian.
Now her mother is dead. She told Bernama she does not have a birth certificate. She has never been to school, only learning how to read and write from friends. She does not know if her parents were married and if her father was Malaysian which would have qualified her for assistance from the government. Being undocumented, she cannot be employed formally which makes it difficult for her to earn an income or afford her HIV medication.
Despite her hardship, she is friendly and quick to smile, despite missing some teeth.
"Life is hard now. I’m still happy but I miss my mother,” she said.
Dr Berma said many among the hardcore poor lacked awareness of the importance of getting the necessary documentation. She acknowledged that registering for MyKad was a lengthy process, usually taking a whole day, which is difficult for daily wage earners who may have to give up a day’s wages or those who live far away.
However, she said it was a necessity.
"If they know the importance of their children having their identity cards, then they would really do it,” she said, adding the process could be simplified. - BERNAMA