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A disturbing conversation

Photograph: Choo Choy May/Malay Mail

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Low-income families desperately need sustained government aid to get by during the pandemic, otherwise, they will be forced to turn to money lenders, Jeyakumar Devaraj writes.

A 35-year-old woman from Sungai Siput called me this morning. I do not know her, but she said that she had got my mobile phone number from a friend.

The conversation (translated from Tamil and abridged) is as follows:

Renuka (not her actual name): Is this Dr Kumar? A friend said you might be able to help me. Our house rent is now three months overdue and the landlord is pressuring us to settle. We are also short of food in the house.

Me: How much is the rent?

Renuka: RM300 per month. We could manage before the MCO [movement control order] but my husband lost his job. He has been trying everywhere, but he cannot get a job. Now he is doing odd jobs like painting houses for Deepavali. But it’s not enough.

Me: Do you work?

Renuka: I have four children. The eldest is 13 and the youngest is five years old. I stay at home and look after the family.

Me: You should have got the BPN [Bantuan Prihatin Nasional or National Caring Aid] last week. RM700, I think. Can’t you use that for the rent?

Renuka: The ATM card is with the money lender. My husband borrowed RM2,000 a few months ago and gave the ATM card as surety. The money lender will withdraw RM500 each month and give us the remainder. As we did not make loan payments for a few months, all the BPN money was taken by him.

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Me: How much is the outstanding loan amount now?

Renuka: About RM2,900 I think. Have to ask my husband.

Me: How come RM2,900 when you only borrowed RM2,000?

Renuka: Interest is 10% per month. If we cannot pay, then RM200 is added to the principal.

Me: Can you get a family member to settle the entire amount? Then you just have to settle the principal with the family member.

Renuka: If we had a family member who could do this, we would not have gone to the money lender, sir.

Me: Can I get someone from my Service Centre to visit your house?

Renuka: Can.

Me: Text me your bank account number, and I will put one month’s rental into it.

This is the reality for families in the bottom 20% of households in our society. They are in a desperate position.

The BPN idea is good. But families like this one need more of it and on a regular, monthly basis. Otherwise, they will be forced to go to the money lenders and get entrapped there.

This is why the PSM is proposing a more targeted cash transfer programme – RM1,000 monthly for families with a monthly household income of less than RM1,000.

We estimate that 10% of the 7.3 million households in the country will require this assistance: 730,000 families x RM1,000 per family would be RM0.7bn per month. This works out to RM8.7bn for the entire year. This is a sum the country can afford, and it will be a lifesaver for families like Renuka’s.

You can help Renuka – lobby your MP to push for this cash transfer scheme for the bottom 20% of families who cannot keep their head above water. Ask your MP to bring up this issue in the coming session of Parliament. If enough MPs bring this up, it might be taken up by the government.

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We can make a difference if we act collectively! We need to reach out to each other in solidarity. That’s the only way to get through this pandemic-induced recession.

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