The picture that emerges is one of deprivation and marginalisation and a failed affirmative action programme despite the incredible wealth enjoyed by the top 10 per cent, observes Wandering Malaysian.
So how are our fellow Malaysians across the South China Sea faring?
Let us begin with average household monthly incomes. In 2012, average monthly household incomes in Sabah and Sarawak were about half that of households in Kuala Lumpur.
Sabah, with 10 per cent of the Malaysian population, has a poverty rate of 8.1 per cent (based on the official poverty line income) and is the poorest state in Malaysia.
Sarawak is the third poorest state in Malaysia with an official poverty rate of 2.4 per cent.
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As we all know, both Sabah and Sarawak are extremely wealthy in terms of natural resource endowments and with a relatively small population. So what gives?
Based on 2009 household income statistics for Sabah (Figure 3.17 of the MHDR), the Bajau are the poorest community with a poverty rate of 28 per cent, followed by the Murut (26 per cent) and the Kadazan Dusun Sabah (25 per cent).
The Iban, Bidayuh and Melanau are the poorest in Sarawak (about 11 per cent) followed by the Sabah Malays (7 per cent). According to the same source, the Sarawak Malays, with a poverty rate of 3.8 per cent, fare slightly better than the Malays in Peninsular Malaysia (4.3 per cent). These rates are based on the unrealistic measure of poverty line incomes … so feel free to extrapolate the real figures.
I do not have more recent data but the point to note is that the combined population of the major ethnic minorities in Sabah and Sarawak (who are Bumiputeras) is about 8 per cent of the total Malaysian population and a significant proportion of them are living in poverty.
The situation of some of the smaller ethnic minorities is indeed dire. The Penan in Sarawak have a hardcore poverty rate of a shocking 65 per cent while more than 50 per cent of the Kajang are considered as hardcore poor.
The picture that emerges is one of deprivation and marginalisation and a failed affirmative action programme despite the incredible wealth enjoyed by the top 10 per cent of the population of these states.
So how did the affirmative action programme for Bumiputeras fail for these communities? Many of these poor, rural isolated communities do not have access to quality education, social development and job opportunities which hinder their social mobility.
Take the Penan as an example, their culture and very identity are under threat and the destruction of their traditional lifestyles and communities through forced assimilation have not been compensated by an equitable share of the revenues from the logging industry.
The official response is that despite the best efforts of the government, these communities are either unable or unwilling to take advantage of the support being provided.
That is an unacceptable response. There could be elements of ethnic and religious discrimination in the delivery of the programmes which need to be investigated in an objective assessment. Forced assimilation has not worked. There is a need for a new policy that is respectful of the cultural identities of each of these communities and designed and implemented with their direct participation and monitored independently.
That would first require an honest admission by the federal and state governments and all Malaysians that this is indeed a national problem and not something tucked away across the South China Sea.