In his March 1, 2021, “Setahun Malaysia Prihatin” address to the nation, Malaysian Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin stressed the need for the Cabinet Committee on Poverty to seriously look into ways to alleviate the poverty that affects a sizable portion of the population. I can’t agree more that there is an urgent need to address this issue.
Poverty is not only confined to the developing world, as pockets of extreme poverty can also be found in the world’s richest nation. The issue of poverty is amply reflected in Goals One and Two of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As such, allow me to share a little of my experience in this area with the Cabinet Committee.
When I was the deputy vice-chancellor (Division of Industry and Community Network) of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), we introduced the concept of community engagement to help disadvantaged communities, especially the poor. With some funding from the university, staff members as well as students were encouraged to carry out community engagement projects. Industries were encouraged to participate in such endeavours as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts. In fact, USM even initiated what we called the “Corporate conscience Ccrcle” (3Cs). The idea was to re-orientate the mind-set of corporations so that they would “want” to rather than “have” to serve the larger community – shifting their paradigm from “corporate responsibility” to “corporate conscience”.
Success stories were documented in a coffee-table book which was presented to the then Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin. I understand that the minister was much impressed and as a result requested all public universities to incorporate community engagement in their mission statements. Whether this was followed through, I do not know for certain, as not long after that I retired from USM.
Community engagement goes beyond just providing services to the community. Community engagement involves the active participation of members of the target group in identifying the community’s problems, finding solutions together, and working on identified projects together. It is an exercise in committing to the sharing of ideas and knowledge as well as of mutual learning and respect. In this way, mutually beneficial relationships among participating partners can ensue. Thus it is not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. With buy-in by members of the community and eventually empowering the community to take charge, the sustainability of implemented projects will be more assured.
Recently, I read a report saying that China has, as of early 2021, successfully eradicated absolute poverty within its borders. In the span of some 40 years, China was able to lift 770 million people out of poverty.
The report also indicated that since 2015, some three million cadres, forming some 255,000 teams, were sent to the countryside to help the nation’s efforts in poverty alleviation. These cadres were from the government, state-owned enterprises and public institutions located in cities and towns. In addition, since the 1990s, the practice of pairing rich areas with poor ones so that the latter can be helped by the former was also initiated.
The cadres, working hand in hand with members of the community, identify who needs help, who should provide the help, how should the help be provided, and what standards and procedures to use. Through knowledge exchange, the cadres figure out how to stimulate creativity among the impoverished residents as well.
At the targeted family level, members of the poor family are also involved in working out tailored poverty relief projects and packages that were most suitable to that family. Progress is monitored to ensure that success achieved continues to be sustainable.
If we were to examine the approach adopted in China, we can detect elements that are similar to the community engagement concepts advocated by USM’s Division of Industry and Community network. This means we already have a model that can be adopted by the country to fight poverty. Details of policies and blueprints as well as enablers from relevant agencies must also be put in place for the programme to succeed.
In 2019 there were about 567,000 students enrolled in our public universities and another roughly 633,000 in private higher education institutions in our country. Coupled with the roughly 57,000 teaching staff of different expertise in these institutions, Malaysia already has a large pool of quality “cadres” that can be tapped.
The energy, enthusiasm and idealism of youths should be harnessed to help in the nation’s poverty alleviation programmes. Not only will knowledge be transferred to the disadvantaged, but students will also understand life’s realities better. The efforts put in by students can then count towards any compulsory co-curriculum activities that may be required of them. This is one aspect that the Cabinet Committee may wish to explore.
From 2012 to 2020, China lifted 98.99 million of her rural population out of poverty. If the report is accurate, nearly ¥1.6tril (roughly RM993.5bil) was spent for this purpose. Thus, to lift one person out of poverty, China spent roughly RM10,000. This does not seem like a terribly big figure. Though there may be some disagreement over the actual figures, based on the recently revised poverty line income for residents of Malaysia, the poverty rate is 5.6%, or 405,441 households, for 2019. This means that there are about 1.79 million people classified as poor.
If like China, RM10,000 were to be spent to lift one person out of poverty, then the budget required for lifting 1.79 million Malaysians out of poverty is some RM18bil. This is a sum that the country can afford. As indicated, projects should be targeted and grandiose and costly one-size-fits-all projects must be avoided. Local experiences and expertise ought to be tapped and manpower utilisation optimised by thinking-out-the-box.
If indeed what the Prime Minister said is not just political rhetoric but true national will, then with a sincere mind-set in place, Malaysia should be able to achieve what China did, if not do better. Together we can.
EMERITUS PROF DATUK DR LIM KOON ONG
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia