Get back on the right track

I refer to the article Tackling income inequality(The Star, June 9) by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Idris Jala.

Jala shows compassion for the poor, having come up dramatically from a very poor village background himself.

He explains the many achievements of the Government’s plans and programmes to fight poverty and states that Malaysia is on the right track to win the big war on poverty.

However, I would agree only generally with his assessment. It is true that we have come a long way to eradicating poverty.

However, I would think that we are not necessarily on the “right track”. To put it aptly, we need to “get back on the right track!”

Why is this so? It is because we are still using the old strategies of fighting poverty through aiding small-time businesses and giving out grants to farmers, fishermen and giving out minor construction contracts to the poor.

All these uplift them in a very limited manner. That is why the Government often proclaims the individual aid given to Low-Income Households (LIH) and Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (AIM). But how effective are we in substantially solving the structural causes of poverty?

There are a limited number of poor individuals who gain from these small aid programmes in the short term. But what about the vast majority of the poor whose mean household income is only RM2,000 per month or lower for a family of four or about RM500 per person per month?

How do they survive and what are their prospects from getting out of poverty permanently?

The public also needs to be told what proportion of the poor benefit from the schemes to uplift themselves permanently.

It is also good if Jala could provide the racial and geographical breakdown of these recipients.

Unfortunately, there is this nagging perception that the very poor orang asli, the poor Sabahans and Sarawakians, and the very poor Chinese, Indians and others, are not given sufficient and equal attention by the Government.

If all the poor are treated fairly, then the Government should highlight it and be proud of this noble act. But is this being done?

Although the Gini Coefficient that measures poverty is said to be improving, it’s a very slight improvement. Moreover, it is well-known that Malaysia’s Gini Coefficient is one of the worst in Asean, despite our considerable wealth in oil and gas and other natural resources and our relatively high income. They need to explain why this is happenning.

Thus, in fighting poverty we need to review our old policies and “get back on track”.

While we need to carry on with short-term measures and perhaps the BR1M programmes for some time, we need to do much more to transform the structural causes of poverty.

Since Jala has rightly asked for “fair and reasonable comments”, I hope my recommendations will be considered, if not implemented.

Firstly, increase the budget to fight poverty through long-term sustainable measures, like better infrastructure for the poor.

Secondly, improve the quality of education. Our educational standards are rated poorly by international agencies.

Thirdly, teach more and better English to help our dropouts, school leavers and even graduates to get higher income jobs to break out of the poverty cycle.

Fourthly, introduce more technical education so that the majority of our children who cannot benefit or are not interested in an academic education, can become independent and be gainfully employed as technicians. Then, they need not depend on government handouts or government jobs for the sake of employing them at taxpayers’ expense.

Lastly, instill the time-tested values of good conduct, strong discipline, racial and religious harmony and a sense of independence and competition.

Tackling income inequality is a vital goal for social stability, progress and especially for national unity.

Therefore, we have to constantly review and revise our policies and practices to ensure we “keep on the right track” in fighting poverty, lest we lose our way in this tough struggle.

Article published in The Star.

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