Rising social inequality in Malaysia

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It is always important to ask the key question: who in society is benefiting from economic growth? This question, unfortunately, is not much asked these days. Instead, the obsession is only with growth, writes Toh Kin Woon.

Recently, Malaysia’s mainstream media carried prominently news about Malaysia’s 40 richest businessmen or tycoons. A few among them count as among the richest in Asia, with wealth running in the billions of US dollars.

But I don’t consider having a few billionaires as an indicator of successful economic development. On the contrary, I feel that there is a defect in our country’s developmental record.

The nurturing of several billionaires is one indicator of a heavy concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a few. Little wonder the gap between the richest 5 per cent of households and the bottom 40 per cent is getting wider. Malaysia’s Gini coefficient, which is a crude measure of income inequality, is among the highest in Asia.

Despite rising inequality, there seems little concern about it. Except for a few, policy makers, politicians, especially from the Barisan Nasional, and even the public at large give hardly any attention to such social injustice and its negative ramifications.  

They may be concerned about the incidence of absolute poverty. Even the rich and powerful would be put off by the sight of poverty, such as dilapidated housing, hunger, disease and sickness, and would support state programmes to eradicate poverty.

It is a different matter, however, when it comes to calls for a redistribution of income and wealth through state intervention. The relatively well off, including even the middle class and state elites, are hardly enthusiastic about creating a more egalitarian society. They will not, for example, support high direct taxes to finance state provision of health care, an efficient and cheap public transport system, and welfare payments to the poor and aged. They want low taxes, a small public sector, and more reliance on private initiatives to provide social goods.

READ MORE:  World’s billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people

Many years ago, when I was studying for my MA in development economics in a British university, I learnt that it is always important to ask the key question as to who in society is benefiting from growth. This, unfortunately, is not much asked these days. Instead, the obsession is only with growth.

Until today, I am still troubled by this question. I want to see the realisation of a more egalitarian Malaysian society, in which all citizens lead dignified lives. Hence, I would like the government to adopt measures that can close the gap between the rich and poor.

Rather than having a few billionaires, I would rather have a society where there the bulk of society are members of the middle class. Egalitarianism is a goal we should all strive for.

Toh Kin Woon is an Aliran member

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