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Sabah’s ‘golden era’ recalled at forum
Published on: Sunday, February 23, 2020
By: David Thien
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KOTA KINABALU: Two panellists at a forum here – IDS Chairman Tan Sri Simon Sipaun and Daily Express columnist Datuk John Lo –spoke fondly of the Berjaya years as Sabah’s golden era.

Both regretted how Sabah, once, the second highest per capita income State after Selangor, now hovers slightly above the lowest State currently on the list, Kelantan, with many Sabahans struggling to make ends meet.

“From 1976 to 1985, Sabah was ruled by the multi-racial Berjaya party. It was the golden years of Sabah,” he told the forum on “Malaysia Economic Monitor: Making Ends Meet.”

“It was bursting with energy. The per capita income was second highest in the country, the highest being Selangor.

“Leadership had a lot to do with it. Leadership is very crucial. An effective leader must have vision, a good communicator and with a caring attitude.

“Speaking of leadership, I am reminded of what Nelson Mandela said when responding to newspaper reporters.

“Mandela said that he slept well at night because he was surrounded by people who had the courage to tell him when he was wrong but supported him all the way when he was right,” said Sipaun, a former State Secretary.

“I still remember Tan Sri Harris Salleh, who was the CM at the time, kept telling me that instead of giving people fish, it would be better for them to be taught how to fish.”

Sipaun said Harris was also conscious that sooner or later the timber resources would be depleted.

“He, therefore, embarked on planting fast growing species of timber. The Sabah Forest Development Authority (Safoda) was set up to handle this project.”

According to Sipaun, Harris, in an attempt to broaden the State Government revenue base, established a palm oil plantation in Sandakan called “Ladang Sabah Sdn Bhd” fully owned by the Sabah Government.

“It was 50,000 acres in size with 340 miles of roads within the estate. Unfortunately, just as the State Government was beginning to earn revenue from the estate, subsequent State Government sold the estate,” Sipaun rued.

Meanwhile, Senior Economist Dr Kenneth Simler of the World Bank Group’s Global Knowledge and Research Hub in Malaysia, said in 1977, Malaysia’s gross national income (GNI) per person was RM200 per month, and the Government established a new poverty line income (PLI) of around RM50 per person.

Since then, Malaysia has prospered and GNI per capita has risen to more than RM3,800 per month, while the PLI has increased only incrementally to RM245 (RM980 for a family of four). Now, an update of the PLI is long overdue.

Regardless of the poverty line used, no one would deny that Malaysia has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty, he said.

“The sharp decline from almost half of Malaysians living in poverty in 1970 to less than one per cent today using the current PLI is among the best in the world.

“Yet it is time to raise the bar. Even ‘absolute poverty’ lines need to be dynamic. Malaysia’s PLI and its companion multidimensional poverty index could serve as key barometers of Malaysia’s progress toward shared prosperity and inclusive development, but only if they are upgraded to reflect the current realities in Malaysia.

“It is a common misconception that absolute poverty lines should be based on the minimum biological and nutritional requirements for survival. It is about more than survival, and includes having the resources to lead a healthy, active and dignified life and being able to participate meaningfully in society.”

Simler explained that was why virtually all countries revised their poverty lines as they developed and living standards improved.  

“What should Malaysia’s poverty line be? Ultimately that is for Malaysians to decide, based on Malaysians’ own values and aspirations, perhaps drawing lessons from other countries that have advanced to upper-middle or high-income status.” 

The multidimensional poverty index (MPI) introduced in the 11th Malaysia Plan is also too low for a country at Malaysia’s level of development. Malaysia’s MPI comprises the current monetary PLI plus non-monetary measures of deprivation such as education, health and living standards.

Even when non-monetary aspects of wellbeing are considered, Malaysia’s MPI counts less than one per cent of Malaysians as multi-dimensionally poor.

At the last World Statistics Congress in Kuala Lumpur, World Bank staff presented new research on a potential alternative MPI for Malaysia, using the same multiple dimensions as the current MPI but setting standards relevant to an upper-middle income country. This alternative estimated Malaysia’s rate of multidimensional poverty at 19 per cent.

It highlights that not only is poverty more prevalent than the isolated pockets often assumed, but also that poverty is deeper among some communities in Malaysia.

Many of these are “statistically invisible” because the Household Income Survey (HIS) that is used as the basis for poverty measurement excludes Orang Asli settlements, foreign workers and refugees.

The HIS does not record the status of persons with disabilities, and its sample design prevents reliable poverty estimates for indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak (non-Malay Bumiputera), whose poverty rates appear to be much higher than those of Malays.

He said the government authorities have the technical and financial resources to amend HIS to make these comparisons possible. It is time to do so, as the absence of this information impedes the formulation and implementation of policies to help Malaysians escape poverty.

Updates of the PLI and MPI to levels commensurate with Malaysia’s state of development can complement the current focus on the B40 to guide policies to ensure that the needs of the poorest Malaysians are addressed adequately, Simler said.


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