MALAYSIA has many statistics to boast of.
GDP is now six times of what it was since its independence in 1957. The poverty rate is nearly zero – 50 years ago, nearly half of its households lived in poverty. Last year, Prime Minister Najib Razak said Malaysia is now an upper middle-income country, surpassing others in Asia and the world.
Yet, in Kuala Lumpur, said to be almost as wealthy as South Korea, close to all children living in its public flats live in poverty, a new Unicef report has found.
Official government figures measure poverty in terms of absolute poverty, ie. a fixed standard applied to all countries. In this sense, only seven percent of children living in its public flats are poor.
But when it comes to relative poverty, where one is measured against one’s own countryman, almost all children or 99.7 percent of them in its capital’s low-cost flats live in relative poverty.
“Whether we can pat ourselves on the back for doing well depends on this, it should be measured by how our most vulnerable perform, especially chidren” lead researcher Muhammed Abdul Khalid said at the report’s launch in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.
“If our children are not doing well, we cannot say that our economy has progressed.”
Nearly one thousand heads of households and 2,142 children from 17 public housing flats in Kuala Lumpur took part in Unicef’s survey titled “Child Without: A study of urban child poverty and deprivation in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur”.
Firstly, and most importantly, what they found dispel the stereotype usually portrayed of the country’s poor.
They don’t have large families: Each family has, on average, two children, the same as the national average.
They’re not lazy: They work around 48 hours per week, one hour more than the national average. Ninety-percent work full time.
Despite this, they earn much less than the average worker. One in three does not have social safety nets.
For their children, this has devastating consequences – one in five are stunted, a rate higher than Ghana and on par with famine-ravaged countries such as Zimbabwe and Swaziland.
The number of underweight, stunted and wasting among children below five years old are also twice the KL average. Among older children, the situation is worse.
“Believe it or not, there is now only one kilogram of rice in my home,” a widow with three sons said in the report.
High food prices contribute to this. Nearly all (97 percent) said it was too expensive for them to prepare healthy meals for their children. One in two did not have enough money to buy food in recent months.
“This is a national crisis”, Muhammed said.
Malnutrition affects these children’s cognitive development, the effects of which are not reversible, he explained. In the long term, this presages medium and long-term implication on the future well-being and productivity of the economy.
The tragedy goes beyond poor nutrition. Bad hygiene, lack of safety and social ills make the low-cost flats a highly unsuitable place for children to grow up in.
And while education is often touted as a surefire way to escape poverty, it’s a close to impossible task for these children given their living quarters.
One in three households did not have books while eight in 10 have to study in the cramped living rooms, according to the report.
One upside unearthed by the survey is its teenagers perform just as well or even better than the national average in math and science.
“Imagine if they were not poor. They can fly,” Muhammed said.
Social protection floor
All these problems exist despite the country’s access to primary school education, nearly free healthcare, and government help for poor families and children.
The solutions, naturally, lie beyond what’s already available and what critics have long deemed as inadequate.
To assess the true scale of poverty, indicators should be switched to relative poverty measurement, adjusted by household size.
Unicef representative for Malaysia Marianne Clark-Hattingh said the study provided evidence to support more targeted policies and interventions, such as a “comprehensive social protection floor” to ensure “every child in Malaysia has an equal start in life”.
A RM200 (US$51.13) monthly aid, a “universal child care allowance”, to poor mothers with children aged below two could make a huge difference, according to Muhammed.
It’s something Malaysia needs to solve now, he said.
“Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot … To him, we cannot answer ‘tomorrow'”.