Friday, April 16, 2010

Chinese poor and lower class in M’sia: How well off are they?

CPI Writings
FRIDAY, 16 APRIL 2010 12:40
“What Chinese poor?”
Soon after I returned to Malaysia in late 2005, I met with a former president of the country’s major Chinese party in his office. During the discussion which covered a range of issues, I expressed my concern at the failure of the Chinese political leadership to deal effectively with the socio-economic problems and challenges that the community was facing.
I had known the leader since the 1970s but especially in the late 80s and early 1990s when I was a panellist in the 150-member National Economic Consultative Council (NECC) which had been set up by the then Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to come up with a post-1990 economic policy to replace the New Economic Policy (NEP).
The response of the former president to my concern shocked me. Besides defending his party and his leadership, he declared that the Chinese were very lucky to be able to live in Malaysia. “Where else in the world can you find a simple char koay teow seller become so rich and drive a Mercedes!” was his rejoinder.
This view that the Chinese have done very well for themselves – and by extension, do not require assistance from the Government – is not uncommon. However, it is a gross generalization and erroneous on several counts. Taken to its logical end and juxtaposed with the fact that many of the country’s richest individuals are Chinese, such a simplistic view has provided the underpinnings for the racially biased public policies pursued in a wide range of sectors and over such a long period of time in the country.
Off the public radar
Let us consider some of these facts and figures of the Chinese poor, disadvantaged and marginalized.
Firstly, many of these Chinese individuals and households do not appear on the government’s listing of poor Malaysians because the Government has used an unrealistically low poverty line income to decide who comprise the poor. Should there be a readjustment of the poverty line to a more realistic figure, it is likely that several hundred thousand Chinese households (as well as a larger number of Bumiputera and Indian households) will fall into the ‘poverty’ category.
Secondly, income distribution within the Chinese community is worsening. In fact the gap between the Chinese poor and well-to-do has increased in the last two decades, for which data is available. According to the Gini coefficient of income inequality, income inequality within the Chinese community has increased from .423 in 1990 to .434 in 1999 and .446 in 2004. Incidentally, this is the same for all the communities, including the Malays.
The worsening income inequality points to an entrenched and worsening poverty problem within the Chinese community that is not discernible if we simply rely on the conventional statistical indicators used by Government.
Excluded from NEP
Why is Chinese poverty so entrenched and intractable? The answer is that, for the most part, the Chinese poor and lower classes have not benefitted from the NEP and other national policies in the way that the Chinese elites or even upper middle class have. Consider the following
1. They have not been targeted by any of the government’s anti-poverty programmes.
2. They have been disadvantaged by lack of mastery of English and Malay.
3. They have educated their children in Chinese schools which have been the victims of unequal treatment. More than a quarter of Chinese school kids drop out before the age of 17 with many coming from the poorer achieving and less endowed Chinese medium schools which we seldom hear or read about.
4. A large number of them live in New Villages or in geographically remote rural areas which have been cut off from the enclave of affluence located in the main cities and in the Klang Valley area.
5. Many come from the agricultural sector and are vegetable gardeners, fruit farmers or fishermen or engage in agricultural services. Unlike their Malay counterpart rural poor, they have had limited access to Felda, Felcra, IADPs and other federal and state schemes that have reduced landlessness and indebtedness and provided access to housing, infrastructure, utilities as well as enhanced incomes substantially. Even worse, they have been denied their legitimate land rights so that many remain squatters or operate on TOLs or short-term leases.
The recent report that the new MCA president, Chua Soi Lek, intends to meet with the Perak Menteri Besar, Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir to discuss matters pertaining to squatters, land premiums and discounts to new villagers and the issue of limited allocations shows how ‘lucky’ the Perak Chinese are to be able to live in the state and the ‘tremendous’ advances they have made after 50 years of Barisan rule.
6. In the discussions on the country’s brain drain and loss of talent, much has been made about the out-migration of Chinese educated and professionals. In fact, if the proper surveys are ever carried out on out-migration from the country (according to the Deputy Foreign Minister in Parliament recently, 304,358 Malaysians migrated to other countries from March 2008 till August 2009 compared with a out-migration figure of 139,696 in 2007), I will not be surprised if just as many less educated poor and lower middle-class Chinese are found to have left the country because of poverty and lack of opportunities for themselves and their children.
Chinese SMEs and other towkays
Much has also been made of the prosperity of the Chinese that comes from their domination of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the country. However, not all SMEs are prosperous or can provide the secure and sustainable livelihood and incomes that others who are ignorant of the real conditions of these enterprises seem to imagine is the case with every SME.
Most Chinese SMEs are family-run businesses that are barely able to scrape a decent living through heavy self-exploitation of family member and extended family labour. Often working in dangerous and appalling conditions, they are ill-equipped to compete in an increasingly competitive and globalized environment.
The reality is that besides continuous harassment from government officials and politicians bent on extracting coffee money and beating them down for non-compliance with various local council rules and regulations, many SMEs are trapped in low productivity operations and lack access to technological know-how, larger markets and R&D capacity.
In the near term as regional and international competition heats up, many SMEs face a bleak future and are likely to go bust.
These small fry towkays’ of micro-SMEs (over 90% of the SMEs in the country belong to this group) and their poorly paid employees, eking out a modest living in the country’s workshops and squatter areas, however, have never been on the government’s radar screen, except perhaps for taxation purposes.
How much (or rather little) budgetary support and other assistance has actually reached the SMEs – directly and not through proxies or parasitic agencies – in the last few Malaysia Plans would be an important question for the government to respond to.
Members of the National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC)will find that there is a whole generation of bad policy planning and implementation that needs to be undone with regard to the SMEs if they are serious about the objective of revitalizing this sector in the 10th Malaysia Plan and the New Economic Model.
No social safety net
There is one more important consideration that is seldom discussed when the issue of Chinese socio-economic well-being is raised. This is that arising from their self employment or work as employees in SMEs and the informal sector, only a small proportion of Chinese households are covered by the social safety net for health, insurance and old age that comes with employment either in the public sector or with formal private sector employment.
This absence of participation in a social safety net will increasingly make itself felt on the future well being of the Chinese as the community ages rapidly and with the loss of traditional safety nets provided by the extended and large nuclear family.
The trend of Chinese vulnerable elderly who are either abandoned in old folk homes or live in miserable conditions on their own is already gaining speed. This trend is unstoppable without major changes taking place within the community and at the macro level where the state is the key player.
Malaysia’s presentfuture and past
Will the ‘1Malaysia’ concept and New Economic Model remove the blinkers that stand in the way of assistance and resources being provided to the Chinese disadvantaged?
Will the Prime Minister’s promise of raising income levels of all disadvantaged and marginalized groups be kept? Will we see merit-based, transparent and needs-based policies targeting the bottom 40% of the country’s income strata, irrespective of race and region, implemented?
We will have the opportunity to assess if this new vision of development for the country is more political rhetoric or a genuine path-breaking initiative soon.
As for me personally, I am not so sanguine. I was a member of the five- person team that finalized the NECC report which was presented to the government after more than two years of acrimonious debate. The major recommendations of the NECC to dismantle the NEP were never implemented. The NEP remained in force for another 20 years after it was supposed to have ended in 1990.
Will history now repeat itself again?
This is an amended version of an article which first appeared in the Chinese daily Red Tomato.

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