New Malaysia’s old underclass

Why have so many socioeconomic development and poverty alleviation projects failed to ease the plight of the underclass?

Homeless people queue up at a soup kitchen in KL - File picture

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By Lim Teck Ghee  


  1. the lowest social stratum in a country or community, consisting of the poor and unemployed.
  2. a group of people with a lower social and economic position than any of the other classes of society

“they are an underclass who lack any stake in popular capitalism and who are caught in the dependency culture”

Why ethnic Malay political dominance has not translated into more resilient socioeconomic gains for the Malay community is a conundrum that appears to remain beyond the reach of our policymakers and politicians.

Yes, the nation has seen much socioeconomic progress since independence. But the failure to ease the plight of the bottom 40% of the population remains a tough challenge for the country.

Whatever the actual poverty situation is, we can expect the dispute over the definition and numbers to continue endlessly.

Whether we can believe the previous government’s boast that only 1% of the country’s households are poor, the reality is the country’s underclass – and this includes many households than just those adjudged to be living below the poverty line – is sizeable, growing and has remained intractable to the hundreds of billions of ringgit poured into the group in the Malaysia plans.

Why have so many socioeconomic development and poverty alleviation projects failed to ease the plight of the underclass? This issue should be an important part of the discourse among Malay politicians and the Malay community especially.

It also needs to be a concern for all stake players engaged in forging a new Malaysia that does not replicate the mistakes of the projects and programmes deployed by the previous government in dealing with the underclass.    

Here are some suggestions on the fresh start needed in the nation’s development planning to make a greater impact in tackling the obstacles and problems that stand in the way of improving the lives of the underclass.

Establish a social inclusion commission answerable directly to Parliament. This commission would be mandated to have oversight over all matters of poverty reduction, affirmative action and social inclusiveness by reference to, amongs other considerations, Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

Ditch or minimise approaches which reinforce rather than reduce dependency. Malaysia is not at the same development stage that it can afford the extensive social safety nets found in developed nations. Expensive subsidy programmes of any kind should be pruned back and targeted at a small number of the most vulnerable such as people with disabilities, older people and female-headed households. Able working-age adults below a certain age – say 60 years – should not be eligible for any form of a subsidy programme, though they should be given assistance in access to gainful employment.

Review all costly agricultural and rural development projects to assess their impact and real benefits. In view of continuing rural to urban migration, it is in urban and semi-rural areas where the underclass is mainly clustered and where public expenditure will have greater impact on the poor and vulnerable. At the same time hard core poverty found in remote rural and isolated areas, mainly in Sabah and Sarawak, require a mix of infrastructure and social investment to address.

Fragile families are a significant contributor to the intergenerational reproduction of poverty and should be a key concern for the authorities. They are also likely to be a major factor accounting for the racial and class disparities within the nation since the tendency towards fragility seems to be more pronounced in the Malay and bumiputra community.

Together with a focus on fragile families, there is a need to jumpstart the national family planning programme which has been put in cold storage. It is clear that given the relationship between very large and large families and underclass status – evidence for this can be found in many countries – early family planning interventions can help many large-sized poor and middle-class families avoid later life marginalisation by improving their socioeconomic position through better planning in their childbearing practices.

A community’s socio-cultural and religious practices may either stand in the way or assist in the mobility of its members. There needs to be an openness and readiness for politicians and policymakers to discuss these issues and take corrective action even if it may involve touching on sensitive concerns.

We have had a top-down approach to development which has resulted in a stream – even, torrent – of opportunities and rewards, especially for the elite and the support group in the civil service and professional class. This top-down approach, compounded by ‘leakages’ and corrupt practices, needs to be replaced with or at least complemented by one where resources and opportunities are directly channelled to and managed by groups at the community and grassroots levels.

The experience in other countries has shown that the great volume of technical expertise and human resources in anti-poverty work – especially in the administrative apparatus engaged in planning and implementation – has turned out to be a liability: it has diverted resources away from the target group to pay for staff salaries and operating costs. Even reputable NGOs in other parts of the world engaged in anti-poverty work have ended up with three quarters or more of donor funds being used to meet staff and administrative expenses. Information on all public and private expenditure intended for poverty and underclass target groups should be put out in the public arena to ensure transparency and accountability.

A combination of strong and sustained political will and technical competence is required to produce good results. But the command-and-control approach and massive leakage and corruption in Malaysia have basically yielded poor outcomes and elite capture of returns.

Because the larger proportion of the underclass comprises members of the Malay community, successful members of the community should step in to help the less fortunate members. This has to begin with a critical and candid appraisal of the causative factors found within the community which accounts for why the Malay underclass continues to grow despite the government’s best efforts over the last fifty years.

The growing importance of Islamic religious organisations means they can be a positive or negative force for socioeconomic change for the underclass. Islamic organisations are being supported by huge resources from the government and private individuals. The role of religious organisations and the billions of ringgit spent on them and the impact need to be monitored to ensure positive outcomes. There are best and worst practices examples that need to be part of the learning process.

The massive influx of foreign migrant labour has adversely affected employment opportunities and returns for the local underclass as well as enlarged the overall underclass number in the country. The impact of continuing foreign labour inflows on the situation of the underclass in the country needs to be fully appraised in any economic planning exercise to minimise adverse consequences.

What’s proposed is an example of the changes – and paradigm shifts – needed to conventional strategies and current wisdom if we are to make greater progress in arriving at a more equal and resilient society.

What’s important is that we will need to think out of the box and have the courage to challenge and put aside long-held orthodoxy. Or we will end up with the same old Malaysia with an even larger underclass.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee is a well-known political commentator

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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