In August 2019, the United Nations sent its special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Professor Philip Alston to Malaysia to investigate claims by the government that it had virtually eradicated poverty within its borders.
Alston spent 11 days visiting a variety of areas nationwide, from urban Selangor and Kuala Lumpur to rural parts of Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak.
At the end of his visit, while acknowledging that Malaysia had made enormous strides towards elevating the net worth of society as a whole, he said the 0.4 percent poverty rate — the lowest of any country on Earth by a country mile — touted by the government was a fabrication.
The reformist Pakatan Harapan government at the time — headed by veteran two-time Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad — initially rubbished Alston’s findings.
In the 22 years of his first spell as prime minister, Mahathir had been instrumental in pressing home the New Economic Policy, which had been specifically designed to raise the standard of living of the Malay community, so he took the criticism as an indictment of his leadership.
However, while Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali continued to deny the findings (which had essentially said it was his ministry that had been falsifying the data), Mahathir and other senior members of his administration came to realise that — in the spirit of the transparency they had promised the people — they must take Alston’s words on board.
Despite the slap in the face, they agreed it would be more fitting for a new government to face up to its critics, rather than try to sweep its troubles under the carpet.
Ministers pledged to make changes nationwide and work towards a presenting more accurate data, not least addressing some of the dire problems that Malaysians faced.
However, in February this year, Azmin led a political revolt, turfing out the reformists and paving the way for the former Malay-dominated authoritarian administration to regain power.
The move had not gone unnoticed by Alston and, indeed, when he published his report on Malaysia earlier this month his criticisms of the new backdoor government were damning.
He accused the administration of “statistical sleight of hand” in its official poverty rate and noted that the new government had backtracked on the promises of its predecessor.
Alston pointed to World Bank data showing that 30 percent of Malaysian households did not have enough money for food, while 23 percent did not have funds to provide adequate shelter.
Meanwhile, he found that roughly half of Malaysians did not have the means to cope with a sudden financial shock, a fact brought into the spotlight with the government’s economic handling of the global coronavirus crisis.
Furthermore, he attacked the Ministry of Economic Affairs for its new multidimensional poverty index of 0.86 percent, a rate that “beggars belief”, despite supposedly taking into account his initial findings.
Alston said a crucial element to this continued fudging of facts was lack of transparency — even for government statistical analysis, with researchers claiming requests for data having to be passed to central government and subsequently denied or simply ignored — for which he said the government appeared to be concealing data if it did not present the administration in a favourable light.
Again, the new government under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin took the tried and trusted method of politicians past in Malaysia: deny, deny, deny.
Since achieving independence, the government has routinely refused to accept criticism of even the most obvious of blunders, while employing a variety of sweeping techniques to discredit and shout down the source.
In this instance, the report was penned by a foreigner with no idea of the complexities or even idiosyncrasies of Malaysian life, so therefore anything he said was to be taken with a pinch of salt.
On top which, officials countered, Malaysia was neck deep in arguably the worst financial crisis in its history, so Alston’s report was just rubbing said salt into the wounds.
Yet, the professor’s words did strike a nerve with people outside the political spectrum.
The heads of trade unions called for a revision in the minimum wage of MYR1,100 ($ 262) a month and further questions of how the government could refuse to accept independent analysis, which put the poverty line at RM980 a month.
Meanwhile, Alston was not finished. His report went on to detail how a significant proportion of this sleight of hand was due to the government excluding minorities from its data, including women, children, indigenous and stateless peoples, migrant workers, refugees, and disabled people.
With regards to the Orang Asli indigenous people, he penned a litany of alleged human rights abuses and general neglect by government officials, which included denial of education and access to basic facilities. Orang Asli also alleged attempts at religious conversion in schools and women forced to accept contraceptive implants.
Now, such a critique may cause a few ripples in the upper echelons of the UN, but Malaysia has been bucking its authority for decades without any repercussions.
Such is its disdain that, at parliamentary level — and despite the acknowledgement of the now opposition — there has been no attempt whatsoever to table the report for debate, lending more weight to the argument that the Malaysian people are governed by self-serving politicians on both sides of Parliament, more interested in their own advancement than that of the nation.
The key indicator is whether Alston’s report will impact directly on the general public. Of course, the informed urban middle class lapped it up and social media lit up with admonishing ‘I told you so’ posts for a few days, but these quickly faded as people went back to concerning themselves with the economic crisis and walking the financial precipice.
Moreover, it is unlikely that the majority of people really affected by the report will even know of its existence.
While Alston talked extensively about marginalised communities, Malays still represent the largest demographic wracked by crushing poverty but potentially with the most power to effect change.
Yet, with the political rhetoric remaining as it has always been — divide by race, then religion — Muslim Malays in impoverished communities instinctively vote their own, fuelled by indoctrination they themselves will be marginalised by the Chinese and the Christians if the latter communities come to power.
So, until we can break this cycle and hard-up Malays learn that continuing to support a repressive administration is in fact not serving their best interests, the words of well-meaning people like Alston will have little if any impact at all.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.