Side Views

Rethinking poverty in Sabah — Elizabeth Gimbad

December 13, 2012

DEC 13 — One of my first field trips as a researcher was to a small kampung in Sabah. I was new to the job and after a day of shadowing more experienced colleagues, they decided that I was ready strike out on my own and dropped me off in front of a rickety house on the edge of the village.

As I stood at the bottom of the stairs, a 14-year-old boy with a toddler in his arms came out to greet me, followed by a bevy of younger children. When I asked him for his parents, he hesitated: “They are not around. Shall I get my aunt for you?”

Sabah has the highest incidence of poverty in Malaysia. According to the latest statistics, the poverty rate has dropped from 23 per cent in 2004 to 19.2 per cent in 2009. However, this means that one out of five people in Sabah is still living below the poverty line. The national average for poverty in Malaysia is 3.8 per cent.

In Sabah, households with a combined monthly income below RM1,050 are identified as poor; while the absolute poor have a monthly income of less than RM630. This is higher than the poverty line set for Peninsular Malaysia which is below RM760 a month — it has to be remembered though that the high cost of living is much higher in Sabah compared to Peninsular Malaysia.

“Not all of the children are mine,” the boy’s aunt smiled tiredly. “Two of my siblings passed away and their spouses asked my parents to help care for the children. There was no one else they could ask and living in Kota Kinabalu is expensive. Luckily some of the kids have financial assistance from the school and my husband is a school teacher. My parents still work on the farm with the older children so that helps with the food.”

“How large is your household?” I asked.

“Well, there are four adults. And as for the children…”

“There are nine of us,” her nephew answered.

Their aunt sighed. “Every year I worry that my husband might get transferred to another school. Who will help my parents then?”

The next person I spoke to was an old grandmother and her 16-year-old grand-daughter. She used to plant padi and work on the farm but was forced to stop after a recent illness. Her daughter was working in the city and sent them money every few months. Luckily, her grand-daughter is on a financial assistance scheme for poor students.

“How much does your grand-daughter receive?” I asked.

The amount she named was far less than the RM200 I used to receive as a college student in Kuala Lumpur.

I found out more from the owner of the local kedai runcit.

“That grandmother?” he said. “Her son-in-law ran off with another woman years ago. Her daughter came home crying with the little girl. She must have been 8 then.”

He lowered his voice. “She’s sick with cancer.”

“And her daughter in Kota Kinabalu?” I asked.

The owner fell quiet. “Actually, they haven’t heard from her in a year.”

For now, at least, the extended family unit is still a reliable safety net during times of difficulty. Although there is not enough food, space will somehow be made for another person at the table and an extra sleeping space can be found in the home.

What worries me, however, is that the traditional family safety net is gradually disappearing. Rural-urban migration is already on the rise in Sabah. As families drift apart physically, so does the emotional bond between them; and this affects their commitment to support one another. It is not rare these days to hear stories where siblings working far from home have been denied their share of the family property. If you cannot rely on your family, who else is left to support you?

In these instances at least, the government and its agencies have been able to help by providing financial assistance to the children in these households. However, these are temporary solutions to more lasting problems.

Thankfully, the cost of primary education and basic medical care is low in Malaysia. But how are children who are busy helping out in the home and working on the farm expected to excel academically when they do not have the time to study? How are elderly grandmothers expected to have regular check-ups when they do not have the means of going to the hospital in the first place?

Households that comprise the very young and the elderly need more than just financial assistance to improve their quality of life. While on-going poverty reduction and assistance programmes are important in bringing about change for the poor, the government needs to look beyond financial assistance and housing; and start considering the possibility of providing other forms of social assistance and improving real access to existing facilities.

* Elizabeth Gimbad was raised in both east and Peninsular Malaysia. Instead of joining the corporate rat race, she worked with the Sabah state government to improve the lives of the rural poor. She has since left government service to pursue a Master’s in Development Studies in Australia.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.