MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Wednesday, February 28, 2024

How bumi economic congress can help underclass


  • 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.”

Participants in the coming Bumiputera Economic Congress are likely to forget about or ignore the plight of the Malaysian poor and the underclass.

Whatever the national poverty situation is - we can expect the dispute over definition and numbers to continue indefinitely - the reality confronting our politicians and policymakers is that the country’s underclass (and this includes more than just households living below the official poverty line) is a sizeable part of our population.

This class is growing and has remained intractable and unyielding despite the billions of ringgit poured into this grouping since the beginning of the New Economic Policy in which poverty eradication was the very first prong.

Why so many 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 in the congress.

It also needs to be a concern for all stakeholders engaged in forging a new Malaysia that they do not replicate the mistakes of projects and programmes of the previous governments in dealing with the underclass.

Fresh start

Here are some suggestions the congress should consider on the fresh start needed in development planning which can make a difference in tackling the obstacles and problems that stand in the way of improving the lives of the underclass.

1. Establish a Social Inclusion Commission answerable directly to Parliament. This commission would be mandated to have oversight over all matters of poverty reduction, affirmative action, and social inclusiveness by reference to, among other considerations, Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

2. Minimise strategies that reinforce rather than reduce dependency. Malaysia is not yet at the same development stage that it can afford the social safety nets found in developed nations. Subsidy and social welfare programmes of any kind should be targeted at the vulnerable such as the disabled poor, and elderly or female-headed households.

3. Review costly agricultural and rural development projects to assess their impact and real benefits. Given continuing rural-to-urban migration, it is in urban and semi-rural areas where an increasing number of the underclass is clustered and where public expenditure will have a greater impact on the poor and vulnerable.

At the same time, hardcore poverty found in remote rural and isolated areas mainly in Sabah and Sarawak requires a mix of infrastructure and social investment to address.

4. Fragile families are a significant contributor to current poverty numbers as well as play a role in the intergenerational reproduction of poverty. It should be a subject of concern. It is also likely to be a contributor to racial and class disparities since the tendency towards family fragility is more pronounced in the Malay community.

5. Together with a focus on fragile families, there is a need to give greater priority and resources to the national family planning programme. It is clear that given the relationship between very large or even just large families and underclass status, early family planning interventions can help many large-sized poor families improve their socio-economic position immediately and in later life.

6. A community’s socio-cultural and religious practices can stand in the way or assist in the stability and upward mobility of its poorer members. There needs to be an openness and readiness for politicians and policy-makers to discuss these issues even if they may appear to touch on sensitive concerns

7. A top-down approach to development has resulted in a stream of opportunities and rewards, especially for the elite and support groups in the civil service and professional class.

This top-down approach needs to be replaced with one where resources and opportunities are directly channelled to and managed by groups at the community and grassroots levels.

8. Experience in other countries has shown that the technical and human resources brought to bear on anti-poverty work - especially in terms of the administrative apparatus used for implementation - has often turned out to be a liability by diverting resources from the poor and redirecting assistance access to themselves and intermediaries. This problem is often compounded by leakages through inefficient or corrupt practices.

9. A combination of strong and sustained political will and technical competence is required to produce good results but the command and control approach and massive leakage and corruption in Malaysia have yielded poor outcomes and elite capture of returns.

10. Given the large proportion of the underclass comprising members of the Malay community, successful members of the community should step in to help the less fortunate members. This has to begin with a critical and candid 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 50 years.

11. The growing importance of religious organisations in Malaysia means that they can be a positive or negative force for socio-economic change. Islamic organisations are being supported by huge resources from the government and private individuals.

The engagement of religious organisations in social development and poverty alleviation needs to be encouraged but it also needs to be monitored to ensure positive outcomes.

12. The massive influx of foreign migrant labour has adversely affected employment opportunities and returns for the local underclass as well as enlarged the overall underclass number in the country. The impact of continuing foreign labour inflows on the situation of the underclass in the country needs to be fully appraised in any economic planning exercise to minimise its adverse consequences.

What is proposed here are possible changes - and paradigm shifts - needed to the conventional strategies and wisdom.

What is important is that the congress will need to think out of the box to challenge long-held orthodoxy which has not been effective in bringing about a resilient society with a diminishing underclass. - Mkini

LIM TECK GHEE is a former senior official with the United Nations and World Bank.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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