The new government has to plan and implement new priority policies to do much more to help the rising urban poor, says Ramon Navaratnam.
I wish to commend Maria Chin Abdullah for her pertinent article “Uplift the poor now” in the Sun today.
Her article raises urban poverty issues that are relevant for all the mass media and all Malaysians to review and to provide solutions, with greater priority.
For too long our economic planning has focussed on measures to reduce rural poverty. This is still important. But we can take pride and satisfaction that national poverty has been considerably reduced from about 50% of our population at Merdeka in 1957 to a low figure of about 1% now.
In the past, the poverty was mainly in the rural areas. But with the steady rural-urban migration, urban poverty has become more significant in terms of numbers and the greater challenges faced by the urban poor.
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For instance, the urban poor have to buy all their food and cannot subsist on farming and fishing as in the rural areas. Transport, housing and healthcare costs are more expensive for the urban poor. Indeed the quality of life for the urban poor could well be generally lower than that for the rural poor.
This thesis is worth studying and the Economic Planning Unit and the Treasury could undertake an updated survey to come up with new policies and measures to better combat urban poverty and to do more for the rural poor.
Maria Chin has indeed drawn public attention once again to the great concern we all have for the widening gap between the rich and the poor in our country. Prime Minister
Dr Mahathir Mohamad has recently been emphasising the need to do more to narrow the wealth gap.
But new socio-economic policies are need to be given higher priority to resolve the problems of the poor, before the poor from the bottom 40% of the population become more restless. This can cause more insecurity and much social instability.
Our economic and budget planning and implementation should also become more balanced. We should be concerned more about anti-poverty problems and the fulfilment of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals than the earlier preoccupation with higher economic growth rates.
We have to ask ourselves, more and more, who is benefiting from more economic growth? Is it Big Business or small and medium-sized businesses and the poor in rural and urban areas.
Furthermore, in dealing with iimproving the welfare of the poor (both rural and the new urban poor), we have to be much more multiracial in our strategies. Otherwise, we can cause national disunity rather than achieve our national aspirations of promoting greater national unity at a faster pace.
Even the prime minister and most Malaysians have expressed anxiety over weak national unity. Much of the cause of some disunity is poverty. Reducing the income gaps should therefore be given greater priority under the new government.
Social safety net and the Budget
Maria Chin has proposed a deeper and wider social security net to look after the poor more generously. The minimum wage of RM1,100 per month is claimed to be “hardly adequate for the poor”. This could well be a correct observation.
It is suggested that there should be a “liveable income” or a “living wage’”. This should be higher than the current minimum wage, which was only recently raised.
But how much more can we afford to raise the minimum wage to a living wage? We are now facing the challenges of a persistent budget deficit and a large debt burden. So while some improvements can be made to the social safety net, there are serious constraints to do more for the poor at this time .
How to solve poverty
The way forward is thus to raise priority spending and to do more for the urban poor. This can be done but at the expense of slowing down the implementation of some of our major development projects and programmes. The big government projects could be delayed and carried out over a longer period of implementation.
Also, those in the bottom 40% need to be given better education that could raise their earning capacity. That is why more technical and vocational training should be introduced in schools to ensure a higher proportion of school graduates are employable. These graduates should also be “’self-employable”.
They wouldn’t have to depend on the government to give them jobs. The government is not in a position to add more staff to its already large public service of 1.6 million employees or more.
The same arguments can also be used for raising the employability and incomes of our college and university graduates. Many of them cannot find jobs or suitable work, because of their unsuitable training. The lack of English proficiency also handicaps them through no fault of their own. They have become frustrated, the victims of faulty policies and poor implementation. All these weaknesses, derived from the past, need to be rectified soon.
New anti-poverty blueprint needed
Maria Chin and many non-governmental organisations have highlighted the needs of the urban poor. They have also underlined the need to do more to alleviate the suffering of the urban and the rural poor.
But the priority must now be developed to do more for the urban poor. The rural poor have the traditional food and shelter and basic health and other government facilities , that have been provided over many years to make rural living less strained and stressful now. The urban poor often face more painful problems now.
The new government has to plan and implement new priority policies to do much more to help the rising urban poor.
It will be useful to introduce a new blueprint to resolve sensitive urban poverty problems, which can lead to more crime and social unrest now and especially in the future.
The government must therefore move faster to reduce urban poverty, and civil society could supplement government policies in this quest.