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Can the poor in Malaysia overcome during COVID-19 pandemic?

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Those who are not officially employed have not fully benefited from the economic stimulus package. Photo: CNA
According to one estimate, about 1.5 to 2.4 million Malaysians may fall into poverty. The Insight plan focuses on the struggle to survive at the bottom of the country. According to a report by CNA.

Vivian Wong, a member of Parliament from Sandakan, Sabah, received many calls for help this year. Especially some mothers cannot afford the baby’s expenses.

Therefore, she approached an NGO named Future Alam Borneo. Through crowdfunding, they raised approximately 15,000 ringgit (S$4,900) to buy 400 packs of infant formula.

The 31-year-old said: “With the pandemic that’s going on, Sabah is definitely facing a big challenge compared to the past years — a bigger challenge.”

It is the poorest state in Malaysia and faces high living costs for rural residents with insufficient infrastructure, low education and stagnant wages.

According to the 2019 poverty line, Sabah’s poverty rate is 19.5%. Sabah has nearly 100,000 families, constituting some of the poorest communities in the country.

Now, with the advent of COVID-19, years of efforts to reduce poverty to this level no longer exist. Just this week, Sabah was again under the control of the Conditional Action Control Order (MCO).

There are also difficult stories all over the country, because the pandemic has made it difficult for many families to make ends meet.

According to the Merdeka Centre, a public opinion research company, 5% to 8% of the Malaysian population will fall into poverty. In addition to the 405,000 families already living below the poverty line, there are approximately 1.5 to 2.4 million citizens.

Since the 1990s, as the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated poverty levels in Asia, Insight plans to ask the disadvantaged Malaysians whether they can cope with the challenges.

“We feel uneasy”

In Sabah, Wong helped families from rural communities on Berhala Island.

For many of them, their struggle began with the nationwide blockade that was first imposed in March, which included restrictions on fishermen such as Sadiya Lauddin’s husband.

“Sometimes he could go to sea and sometimes he couldn’t … When he was able to go to sea, he didn’t get that much — around 20 to 30 fish. That’s able to feed us for two days,” the 50-year-old said.

“We felt uneasy because we were already struggling.”

Can the poor in Malaysia cope with the challenges posed by the COVID-19  pandemic? – The Stringer

Sadiya Lauddin. Photo: CNA

She also cannot go to work, but she feels lucky that she has not lost her job as a part-time cleaner at the Children’s Learning Center. However, her salary came late, and the family found it difficult to survive.

“So it was hard to get milk powder because I didn’t have enough money.” The mother of six recalled.

“Thank you very much for the (government) cash assistance program for giving me 1,600 ringgit. But so far, I have received RM1,000. The rest has not come.”

“This is what we use to pay for our daily expenses…every month, we spend a little bit of money, and we don’t immediately waste all the money.”

Many other Sabah people directly or indirectly rely on tourism. With natural attractions such as Mount Kinabalu, forests and beaches, the state has always attracted tourists. But between January and July, the total number of tourists dropped by 66.2%.

Why Malaysia's Mt. Kinabalu is So Sacred

Mount Kinabalu. Photo: Alen thien / Shutterstock

Sabah first stopped flights from China on January 30 to protect its tourism industry, which accounts for 15% of the state’s gross national product. But there is nothing to avoid falling.

How will the government work?

As long as the health crisis persists, the pressure on low-income families will continue to increase. However, in order to help alleviate their suffering and maintain economic development, the government announced a stimulus plan totaling RM305 billion.

These measures are part of a series of fiscal measures to alleviate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses and households. The economy is expected to shrink by 3.5% to 5.5% this year.

Among the various plans, Wan Ya Shin, research manager of the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs, pointed out that the wage subsidy program is an “effective” way to reduce employment losses and help companies maintain their livelihoods during this period.

Although these economic programs are valuable and the government has developed other aid programs and cash subsidies, those who are not outside the scope of formal employment have not fully felt the benefits.

For those who have not yet registered through an effective distribution assistance mechanism, special outreach efforts are required so that they are not completely ignored.

For example, Kechara Soup Kitchen provides food for the homeless in Kuala Lumpur, and its operations director Justin Cheah has seen some new faces in every corner of the street.

“The situation before the pandemic was very different. We were seeing a lot of poor people, no doubt about it. But after the MCO, we’re seeing more and more people … struggle,” he said.

The restrictions imposed to contain the epidemic have also made some familiar faces worse. For example, Adnan has been living on the streets for more than 15 years.

He lives on fixing the fans and uses the small amount of money he gets to buy food. But maintenance work has become scarce.

Hartini Zainuddin, the co-founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, the crisis and rescue center, said the authorities are currently working on an “amazing” plan to coordinate the various types of community help, products and services needed.

In terms of poverty reduction, Malaysia’s performance is “pretty good”.

Wan believes that he views economic growth as an “important factor”. But she also agreed that “certain segments of society are excluded from social assistance.”

She pointed out: “The mechanisms that we have aren’t holistic enough to … target everyone.”

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Ibrahim believes that the government is largely “aware of the severity of the problem.”

He said: “They’re trying to be quite prudent in the way that they’re trying to address it.”

“They haven’t turned on the taps in a very great way, flooding the country with cash. They’ve done it very judiciously in stages, in order to counter specific effects of the pandemic in parts of the economy.”

The remaining question is “whether all these efforts are sufficient to offset factors beyond the control of the Malaysian government”.

One is the global economy; the other is the global economy. The other point he mentioned was the “strength” of Malaysia’s trading partners to resolve the pandemic in their respective countries and resolve their economic difficulties.

The poor in Malaysia can only hope for an early recovery, not a later date.

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