Do most of us have a living wage?

Opinion  |  P Gunasegaram
Published:  |  Modified:

A QUESTION OF BUSINESS | Yes, we have almost eliminated poverty in Malaysia, but do the majority of us have enough money to live comfortably and play our role in society?

Government officials are fond of blithely saying that we have achieved much over the years because the incidence of poverty has fallen from 49.3% in 1970 to a mere 0.4% now. But that statement is rendered meaningless when what is defined as poor is revealed.

I had trouble finding what the poverty line for Malaysia is - no one seemed to really care what that was despite quoting widely the latest poverty rate which indicated that poverty had been virtually wiped out in Malaysia. Eventually, I found one from the Economic Transformation Programme website.

This defines the poor as people who “fall short of certain standards of consumption which are deemed necessary to maintain ‘decency’ in society, for example, those who cannot afford healthcare and education. Households with average monthly incomes of less than RM760 in Peninsular Malaysia, less than RM1,050 in Sabah and less than RM910 in Sarawak are defined as poor.” Let’s just round that off to a nice easy cut-off figure - RM800 per month in household income.

Now, I ask you, if a household earned RM801, would it no longer be poor? Certainly not. If the average household is considered to be four people is RM200 per person enough? With that, you have to provide food, shelter clothing, health costs, education, etc. By my reckoning, a household can be earning RM800 and still be extremely poor.

When we are talking about poverty levels, we are talking about subsistence. It would be more accurate to say, in the common usage of language that hardly anybody in Malaysia starves these days, not that they are not poor. We can’t even say that there is no malnutrition among many. Such statistics are simply and conveniently unavailable.

The question to ask these days is whether we have a living wage - enough income for us to have a meaningful life free from need and not whether we are above the poverty line - it really does not take much for a resource-rich country like Malaysia to eliminate poverty the way it is defined.

But is there a living wage for a vast majority of Malaysians...

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