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Absolute Poverty in Malaysia

In Sabah, a family of six is being forced to live on RM5 a day. Absolute poverty is present in Malaysia, and this absolute poverty is resulting in wasted human potential.

Written by johnleemk on 6:38:04 am Apr 15, 2007.

The World Bank defines absolute poverty for an individual as living on less than USD1 a day. This measure has been criticised for not taking many factors into account, and aiming for a nice round number instead, but let's take this at face value anyway.

Recently, it was reported that in Penampang, Sabah, a young boy killed himself after he could not afford to buy ice cream in school, and his classmates called the food he packed from home "dog vomit".

According to the New Straits Times, the boy's mother (who suffers from thalassaemia and a heart problem) is supporting a family of six (after his death) on RM70 a month from the Welfare Department. After the son's suicide made headlines, the Welfare Department upped it to RM150.

Perhaps we aren't as great a country as we'd like to think. We think we've made great strides forward, but yet there are people virtually dying of starvation. True, they might not die directly of hunger — but if they are committing suicide because of poverty, the consequences are exactly the same.

RM150 a month works out to less than USD1.5 a month for a family of six. How can such a travesty take place in a country which can fritter away taxpayer money on sending "astronauts" to make teh tarik and play batu seremban in space?

It occurs to me that part of the problem may also be psychological; why, for instance, the need to buy ice cream? But the New Straits Times' reporting is less than accurate, apparently. According to The Daily Express, the boy's declared intention was to reduce the number of mouths his mother would have to feed.

According to the mother, she is living in a house borrowed from someone she met at the hospital. Her rice is borrowed from her neighbours. How can this happen?

A more efficient welfare policy has to be put in place. Besides public provision for healthcare and education, some basic quality of life has to be provided for for all citizens.

We want to ensure some equality of opportunity for all Malaysians. That boy could have done something great for the country and for humanity; in the genetic lottery, you never know what someone's potential is until they actually realise it.

A country cannot exploit its people if its people aren't alive to begin with. The negative income tax, which provides a certain amount of money to those who are not earning enough to pay taxes (dependent, of course, on income), is one proposal to ensure a minimum quality of life that many economists have backed.

Whatever policy we settle on, we must ensure that our citizens are healthy and well, both physically and mentally. If they are too depressed to work and learn, in the end, it is our country that suffers from unused and unrealised potential.