There has been some discussion recently about poverty reduction. University Malaya's Department of Development Studies head Dr Sulochana Nair has stated that: 'We need new approaches because past ones have not had significant impact on poverty reduction'.
This calls for some comment because what she is saying in effect is that the policies of the government have failed to achieve targets, and therefore new or more meaningful approaches are needed.
Such an observation - particularly when viewed against the background of the many government reports claiming success in poverty reduction and UNDP's recent astonishing report that Malaysia has successfully attained all its UN Millennium Goals - clearly suggests that something is not quite right.
Perhaps it might be useful to try to understand what are some of the basic conditions that can create poverty. Clearly, a starting point must be family income. We need to remind ourselves that the vast majority of families, particularly in the rural areas, do not receive a regular monthly income.
This means that they are unable to budget and consequently, invariably become indebted in order to meet their regular household commitments such as housing, sustenance and education. Anyone who has undertaken socio-economic research in these areas will be familiar with the 'prayer' of these families for a 'gaji tetap' (regular fixed income).
Where families do get a regular monthly pay packet, particularly in urban areas, the cry is that it is woefully insufficient to make ends meet. Once again it is a matter of time before these families become indebted and a culture of poverty becomes manifest.
Then there is this question of the 'poverty line'. We have not questioned the basis on which this 'line' was determined. Nair thinks that the 'line' is 'way too low' and hopes the government will come up with different poverty lines.
But the point is whether this 'line' takes into account basic living standards and whether it was calculated on a scientific basis involving, for instance, minimum nutritional needs as is the case in countries where there is a basic wage.
Indeed, in this connection, a serious question also arises in ascertaining the basis on which we accept that poverty levels have been reduced in the first place. Have there been any systematic scientific studies undertaken over a period of years to come to this conclusion?
It appears that this is not the case Instead, according to the response of a deputy minister some time ago, the figures on poverty levels (at least in the rural areas) are compiled by the 'penghulu' and 'ketua kampung' (village heads)!
On the basis of the above, it seems that in not questioning what we are told, we may be deceiving ourselves that all is well. One indicator that this is not the case is the UNDP data on the level of social inequality where Malaysia is recorded as the worst in the region. Indeed, an IBM survey undertaken sometime earlier revealed that Malaysia was also the worst for 'power distance' i.e. where all policy decisions are monopolised by the class of senior management (MDs and CEOs)
I believe, therefore, that there is the need to take seriously the question of whether there has been poverty reduction and face reality before it is too late. For instance, when the Kampung Medan incident occurred, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister, is on record as saying he was very surprised because the government had been assured that poverty levels had been significantly reduced.
But a former minister of national unity was more realistic when she informed Parliament then that on the basis of research undertaken by her ministry, there were at least 40 squatter areas throughout the country where the socio-economic conditions were similar to that of Kampung Medan.
Nair is therefore correct is saying that the 'basic poverty patterns remain unchanged'.