Malaysia dismisses UN poverty claims 

Malaysia has rejected a United Nations envoy’s claims that it undercounts poverty rates.

Economy Minister Azmin Ali defended the official figure of 0.4 per cent in 2016, which he said was derived from household income statistics published by the UN.

Malaysia’s official poverty rate was 49 per cent in 1970.

The minister said he was disappointed by the remarks made by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human Rights, Professor Philip Alston.

Alston called on Malaysia to reassess its poverty rate, suggesting 16-20 per cent would be more accurate.

The UN envoy called for Malaysia, which aims to achieve a high-income economy status by 2024, to reassess its methods for measuring poverty. He said Kuala Lumpur should consider vulnerable groups excluded from government data like stateless families, migrant workers and asylum seekers.

Those marginalised groups had no access to public education and health care and were not allowed to work and were thus vulnerable exploitation, the UN envoy argued. 

Azmin rejected Alston’s claim that a large number of Malaysians struggled to cope with limited access to food, accommodation, education and health care.

“It is misconceived, erroneous and clearly lacks empirical evidence and rigorous scientific analysis,” Azmin said.

He also dismissed Alston’s allegations about limited civil and political rights, pointing to the May 2018 general election, where 82.3 per cent of voters participated to change the government.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was more receptive to the envoy’s comments, saying the government will investigate the issue.

On whether the government would change its method of measuring poverty, Mahathir said: “If it is necessary we will.” 

Alston said the Malaysian authorities used an “unduly low poverty line” that failed to take the cost of living into account to justify its claim to have the world’s lowest national poverty rate.

He said the poverty line of 980 ringgit (US$234) per household per month was “ridiculous”, as it would mean an urban family of four would have to survive on 8 ringgit (US$1.9) per person each day. 

He said the Malaysian government should urgently revise the way it measured poverty to bring it in line with the cost of living.

Undercounting the poor led to ineffective, underfunded government policies targeting hardship, Alston said.


Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. Malaysia has seen a dramatic increase in affluence in the last few decades. Picture credit: Wikimedia