June 11, 2018
New Malaysia’s Underclass: What to do?
by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
“What’s important is that we will need to think out of the box and have the courage to challenge long held orthodoxy; or we will end up with more of the same old Malaysia”.–Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
Underclass by Definition
the lowest social stratum in a country or community, consisting of the poor and unemployed.
a group of people with a lower social and economic position than any of the other classes of society; “they are an underclass who lack any stake in popular capitalism and who are caught in the dependency culture”
Poverty right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur
In the euphoria and after glow of the recent election and current preoccupation with correcting the excesses and abuses of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, it is all too easy to forget about or ignore the plight of the Malaysian poor and underclass class.
Whatever is the actual poverty situation – we can expect the dispute over definition and numbers to continue endlessly – and whether we can believe the previous government’s boast that only 1% of the country’s households can be considered to be poor – the reality confronting our politicians and policy makers is that the country’s underclass (and this includes many more households than just those adjudged to be living below the poverty line) is sizable, growing and has remained relatively intractable and unyielding to the billions of ringgit poured into the group in the last few Malaysia Plans.
A young Penan Maiden–A victim of Neglect
Why have so many socio-economic development and poverty alleviation projects failed to make a significant dent in the plight of the underclass should be an important part of the discourse among politicians. It also needs to be a concern for all stake players engaged in forging a new Malaysia that does not replicate the missteps, mistakes and wrongly focused projects and programmes deployed by the previous government in dealing with the underclass.
Barisan Nasional Leaders in Sarawak–where are they today?
Here are some suggestions on the fresh start needed in Pakatan’s development planning which can make a greater impact in tackling the multitude of obstacles and problems that stand in the way of improving the lives of the underclass:
Ditch or minimize approaches which reinforce rather than reduce dependency. Malaysia is not at the same development stage that it can afford the extensive social safety nets found in developed nations. Expensive subsidy programmes of any kind – and this includes the replacement for BR1M, and petrol subsidies – should be pruned back and targeted at a small number of the most vulnerable such as the elderly or female headed households. Able working age adults below a certain age – say 60 years – should not be eligible for any form of subsidy programme.
Review all costly agricultural and rural development projects to assess their impact and real benefits. In view of continuing rural to urban migration, it is in urban and semi-rural areas where the underclass is mainly clustered and where public expenditure will have greater impact on the poor and vulnerable.
Fragile families are a significant contributor to the intergenerational reproduction of poverty and should be a key concern for the authorities. They are also likely to be a major factor accounting for the racial and class disparities which have caused so much angst within the nation since the tendency towards fragility seems to be more pronounced in the Malay and Bumiputra community.
Together with a focus on fragile families, there is a need to jumpstart the national family planning programme which has been put in cold storage for several decades. It is clear that given the relationship between very large and large families and underclass status – evidence for this can be found in many countries around the world – early family planning interventions will be able to help many large-sized poor and middle class families avoid later life marginalization by improving their socio-economic position through better planning and early intervention in their childbearing practices.
A community’s socio-cultural and religious practices may either stand in the way or assist in the upward mobility of its most needy members. There needs to be an openness and readiness for politicians and policy-makers to discuss these issues and take corrective action even if it may involve touching on sensitive or taboo concerns.
We have had a top down approach to development which has resulted in a stream – even, torrent – of opportunities and rewards especially for the elite and their support group in the civil service and professional class. This top down approach, compounded by leakages and corrupt practices, needs to be replaced with, or at least complemented by one where resources and opportunities are directly channeled to and managed by groups at the community and grassroots levels. Although the decision has been made to abolish JKKKP’s, a revival of JKKK’s with membership of these committees extended to include youth and women members can provide an impetus to local level development. When led by motivated community leaders, JKKK’s can become a catalyst in local level development and slow down the burgeoning of the underclass.
Experience in other countries has shown that the great wealth of technical expertise and human resources brought to bear on anti-poverty work – especially in terms of the administrative apparatus engaged in planning and implementation – has turned out to be a liability by diverting resources away from the target group to pay for staff salaries and operating costs. Some of the most reputable NGOs in other parts of the world engaged in anti-poverty work have ended up with three quarters or more of donor funds being used to meet administrative expenses. Information on public expenditure intended for poverty and underclass target groups should be widely disclosed and disseminated, especially to the target groups to ensure transparency and accountability.
Lastly, in view of the fact that the larger proportion of the underclass comprises members of the Malay community, it is imperative that successful members of the community step up to the plate to help the less fortunate members move out of their depressed situation. This has to begin with a critical and honest appraisal of the causative factors found within the community which accounts for why the Malay underclass continues to grow despite the government’s best efforts in the last fifty years.
The Orang Asli of Malaysia
What’s proposed here is an example of the changes – and paradigm shifts – needed to conventional strategies and current wisdom if we are to make greater progress in arriving at a fairer and more equal society.
They may or may not work. What’s important is that we will need to think out of the box and have the courage to challenge long held orthodoxy; or we will end up with more of the same old Malaysia.