Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The impact of Covid-19 on Malaysia’s absolute poverty rate

Science, technology and innovation need to be the way forward for Malaysia and Malaysians.

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As we kick off the month that saw Malaya gaining its independence 64 years ago, the release of Malaysia’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) report for 2021 is timely.

The report, which is released once in four years, documents our progress in meeting sustainable development goals (SDG). For the 2021 report, the VNR brings both good and bad tidings on a number of areas, including absolute poverty.

It can’t be denied that Covid-19 has greatly impacted countrymen from across all four corners of our nation over the last year, with more recent data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia projecting that the pandemic has reversed the decreasing trend on absolute poverty, causing it to increase to 8.4% in 2020.

The snaking lines of people waiting for food aid and the “white flag” movement that have been circulating the internet are indicators that more needs to be done to ensure that Malaysians are able to have equitable access to wealth and a quality life by the end of the decade.

While Malaysia is one of the fastest growing economies in modern history, low purchasing power and high cost of living, fragmented social protection, challenges in accessing to key technologies, and lack of work skills for an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy as well as low financial education are among the challenges that need to be addressed to ensure that no one is left behind, and to avoid social polarisation and injustice.

The revised national poverty line income (PLI), which was reviewed in 2019 to ensure that the poverty measurements were in line with Malaysia’s socio-economic development, saw the PLI increase from RM980 in 2016 to RM2,208 in 2019. This puts a whole segment of society at risk as the current minimum wage is RM1,200 and disadvantages the next generation from quality education and nutritious food.

The VNR 2021 report recorded that there has been an increase in number of children from poor families as a result of rising unemployment and underemployment combined with inadequate social protection. Malnutrition has also increased due to rising poverty, and school closures have made it worse as children from poor families cannot access the Supplementary Food Programme. Currently, about half a million of schoolchildren from low-income households are provided with supplemental meal programmes in school.

In addition, the nationwide closure of schools will also have an adverse impact on their learning progress. The ability of children to learn via e-learning or online classes is limited, primarily due to the lack of affordable information and communications technology (ICT) devices and internet connectivity.

While we may not know the full impact of Covid-19 on a child’s nutritional intake and state of mental development until later, VNR has found that more kids under five are underweight, with the prevalence increasing from 12.4% in 2015 to 14.1% in 2019 while the prevalence of stunting among children below five years of age continue to increase, from 17.7% in 2015 to 21.8% in 2019.

This needs to be reversed as we have a duty of care to ensure that our children all have the right to quality food, education, healthcare and life.

The strategy set forth in Wawasan Kemakmuran Bersama 2030, supplemented by Dasar Sains, Teknologi dan Inovasi Negara (DSTIN) 2021-2030 and the 10-10 Malaysian Science, Technology, Innovation dan Economy (MySTIE) Framework, provides direction for our countrymen to not only build a better life for themselves and their children but also assist with taking our country to the next step of her journey at the end of the decade.

Science, technology and innovation (STI) will need to be the way forward for Malaysia and Malaysians to break new barriers and bridge the gap between people and communities with diverse socio-economic status, as well as ensure that absolute poverty is eradicated.

With the 5G rollout, more households will be able to leverage on sophisticated technology and knowledge platforms to unleash their creative potential to develop new innovations, improve their quality of life and enhance their global competitiveness. Affordable access to the global information highway is critical for children, especially those from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, as it will enable them to access much needed knowledge and skill sets from the comfort of their homes.

A simple “click” on to the information highway for these children will lead to a “giant leap” in empowering them to access the knowledge that will improve their quality of life and the next generation.

Affordable access to the global digital network for our workforce and firms, especially our micro and small and medium enterprises, will be critical for them to enhance their global competitiveness and help them break away from the vicious poverty cycle.

Through greater adoption of STI, solutions to improve purchasing power can also be addressed over the course of this decade and enable the development of home-grown innovations, products and services, all of which will spawn new knowledge-intensive industries and high-income jobs for Malaysians.

STI will be critical to transforming the “old 5D jobs” (dirty, dangerous, difficult, demanding and demoralising) to “new 5D jobs” (digital, data-driven, designers, developers and discoverers).

One sector in which STI will play a core transformation role is agriculture. With greater adoption of smart farming and precision agriculture methods, not only will the productivity of the sector be enhanced but better employment opportunities and higher income for farmers can be achieved.

This transformation will be crucial to attracting a next-generation workforce that is technologically savvy and lifting many families out of absolute poverty or poverty which, in turn, will create a society that has equitable access to basic needs for the 21st century.

While things may look uncertain now, the future is ripe with promise if all Malaysians work in the spirit of muhibbah to build a robust and dynamic national science, technology, innovation and economy (STIE) ecosystem, tackling head-on the challenges that face the nation at present and in coming years – transforming these challenges into foundations for learning, growth and development.

A sound STIE ecosystem will not only enable the nation to manage the current health pandemic and risks to the economy, but also take pre-emptive measures to better protect the economy from future health pandemics and global market uncertainties.

Let us never forget to remain united as that spirit will enable us to collaborate to develop solutions and innovations for the betterment of our future generations.

Mahendhiran Sanggaran Nair is a professor at Sunway University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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