Poverty Sabah’s most pressing woe

With Sabah going to the polls next Saturday, the news is focusing on personalities, political parties and positioning. This is the norm when covering election campaigns – contenders and their platforms are assessed, and projections made.

For ordinary Sabahans, whose primary concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic are their families and livelihoods, the most serious issue they’re grappling with is poverty.

While rich in resources, Sabah has the highest poverty rate in Malaysia. According to the Statistics Department’s (DoS) 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, the state’s incidence of poverty is 19.5% of households, almost four times the national average of 5.6%.

To put this into context, an estimated 615,000 Sabahans struggle to feed their families each day, or can’t afford phones. They don’t have the luxury of reading online articles, and in some cases, can’t send their children to school.

Poverty in the state is often simplified as the product of federal government neglect, illegal immigration or the lack of funding for basic needs and infrastructure. All these factors matter, but not in clear-cut terms. In fact, there are different types of poverty and various causes.

Given Sabah’s diversity, its poverty issue is complex. Ethnicity and varied livelihoods – which are often linked – matter, as does geography. The poor living in the interior, often from the state’s 40-plus indigenous communities, face different obstacles than residents of urban centres like Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. They are disproportionately, but not exclusively, from immigrant communities, and rely heavily on the informal economy.

DoS estimated that 12.5% of Sabah’s urban households live in poverty, while 31.1% of rural families are classified as poor. This excludes those who are above the new poverty line of RM2,208 per month but seasonally fall below, and people hard hit by Covid-19.

Poverty in Sabah has to be viewed through a different lens. Urban v rural is perhaps best known, but there are geographic differences, too, between the state’s interior and coastal areas.

Women are disproportionately among the poorest as gender shapes the experience of economic exclusion. And, intergenerational poverty, where the plight is passed on to children, is increasing. This affects the estimated one million stateless folk in Sabah (excluded from the official numbers) and a good proportion of the indigenous population among families that lack land and other assets, and often don’t have a last name.

Geography, gender and generational differences translate into harsher social conditions – a higher rate of violence against women in poor households, child marriage, poor nutrition, sickness and drug abuse are but a few of the realities.

Government statistics have shown the starkly varied distribution across the state. Tongud in central Sabah has 56.6% of its households living in poverty, with an average median monthly income of RM2,187, while northwestern Pitas – where student Veveonah Mosibin, the sensational “internet hunter”, is from – and Kota Marudu have poverty incidence rates of 53.6% and 46.1%, respectively. Even places with modest development have worrying rates, like Kudat in the northwest (41.5%) and the northeastern Telupid (40.7%).

Poverty in Sabah is endemic and widespread, and has been so for decades.

Its causes are as complex as its variations, ranging from education failure, discrimination and persistent statelessness to corruption, poor policy implementation and neglect. Responsibility for this problem is also broad, with different federal and state governments having failed Sabahans for many years.

To its credit, the Warisan Plus government did engage an as-yet unfinished United Nations Development Programme study on poverty and has shown greater involvement in the issue, even though it has not developed a clear plan or been able to solicit the needed resources from Putrajaya. Federal funding for important projects, from the Pan Borneo Highway to schools, has been too slow to come in.

One might ask, why does this matter in next weekend’s elections?

This week – on Malaysia Day, no less – Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin called Sabah “a poor state”. It provoked a strong response on how resource-rich the state is and how little the federal government – which Muhyiddin has been part of for decades, serving in various roles – is sharing with Sabahans.

He further said the state requires federal aid to develop, a controversial point given the years of misappropriation and inadequate delivery of basic needs. The conditions that many Sabahans live in – without clean running water, electricity and roads, absentee teachers, infrequent visits by officials – are unacceptable and not in line with the ideals of Malaysia Day.

The state election campaign has seen little meaningful discussion on the challenges to Sabah’s development, and even less recognition of the problems caused by the development that has taken place, namely the depletion of natural resources, rampant corruption and environmental damage.

According to DoS’ 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, Sabah’s incidence of poverty is 19.5% of households, or four times the national average. – The Vibes pic, September 19, 2020
According to DoS’ 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, Sabah’s incidence of poverty is 19.5% of households, or four times the national average. – The Vibes pic, September 19, 2020

In the interior, for example, river pollution and the destruction of forests for oil palm cultivation have had a profound effect on indigenous communities’ livelihoods and land matters. In some instances, development has contributed to poverty rather than ameliorated inequalities.

It is during the elections that this issue can come to the fore. Sabahans’ focus on development is understandable. Lives are at stake. But sadly, promises to provide basic services have repeatedly not been kept.

Voters are looking for sorely needed deliverables, and they put their faith in those seen to be able to deliver. Economic and social realities are at the core of their concerns.

At the same time, Sabah’s high poverty incidence brings attention to governance. There’s clearly a need for better implementation of social protection programmes, and not just those related to Covid-19. This is a failing at both the state and federal levels.

Warisan Plus’ RM300 virus aid was unevenly distributed, while Perikatan Nasional’s RM1,600 Prihatin assistance has reached more citizens and boosted support for the federal government.

The finance minister this week said more than RM2.1 billion has been distributed to 1.93 million people in Sabah and Sarawak, nearly a third of the states’ populations. However, such measures are not nearly enough. One-off cash aid provides relief, but doesn’t improve the dire conditions of a fifth of Sabahan households.

A sad feature of poverty in the state is that it’s part of a strategy to secure power. Malapportionment sees poorer constituencies used to gain a political advantage.

Capitalising on the need for money, parties practise vote-buying. Millions have been poured into the Sabah polls campaign, with voters paid between RM100 and RM700 for their support.

Election season can provide a monthly income for a family – and parties know this. Unfortunately, the system favours those with resources, some of which are reaped by leaders in office, contributing to the festering of Sabah’s poverty.

The state’s poor should not have to use an election for their survival. They also shouldn’t be blamed for voting the way they do, as they’re simply putting their families first.

A meaningful systematic shift allowing for better governance, and a substantive dialogue on poverty in Malaysia will help change the reality on the ground.

Taken from thevibes.com