UN expert challenges Malaysia's 'lowest poverty' claim

Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur. Alston said Malaysia uses an unduly low poverty line that does not reflect the cost of living and excludes vulnerable populations from
Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur. Alston said Malaysia uses an unduly low poverty line that does not reflect the cost of living and excludes vulnerable populations from its official figures.PHOTO: AP

PETALING JAYA • Malaysia's claim that it has the world's lowest national poverty rate is inaccurate as the official figure vastly undercounts poverty, said United Nations human rights expert Philip Alston.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said Malaysia uses an unduly low poverty line that does not reflect the cost of living, and excludes vulnerable populations from its official figures.

Malaysia's official poverty rate dropped from 49 per cent in 1970 to just 0.4 per cent in 2016.

He said the national poverty line of RM980 (S$325) per household per month was "ridiculous", as it would mean that for an urban family of four, each person would have to survive on RM8 a day.

"This is a tragically low line for a country on the cusp of attaining high-income status, especially since a range of rigorous independent analyses have suggested a more realistic poverty rate of 16 per cent to 20 per cent," Mr Alston said.

He added that about 9 per cent of households survive on less than RM2,000 a month.

Malaysia has dismissed the claims as baseless.

Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali said that the country would stand by its official figure of 0.4 per cent, as the rate was derived from internationally accepted standards based on the second edition of the Canberra Group Handbook On Household Income Statistics published by the UN in 2011.

Mr Alston said that undercounting the poverty rate has led to a lack of effective government policies targeting the problem.

 
 

"Despite near-universal healthcare and high-school enrolment rates for citizens, and a growing economy, large parts of the population are being left behind and many people living above the official poverty line are in fact in poverty," he said.

This fragmented social protection system puts many people's rights to food, housing and education at risk, he said, adding that the new government should not deny the existence of the poor and marginalised.

Datuk Seri Azmin refuted Mr Alston's assertion that a sizeable part of the Malaysian population struggle to get by with tenuous access to food, shelter, education and healthcare.

"It is misconceived, erroneous and clearly lacks empirical evidence and rigorous scientific analysis," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2019, with the headline 'UN expert challenges Malaysia's 'lowest poverty' claim'. Print Edition | Subscribe