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Out of sight, out of mind? As Malaysia chases fully developed status, the rural poor are falling behind.

Although urbanisation has pushed up the poverty rate in cities, the rural poor are some of the most impoverished in our nation and they face a myriad of challenges in their struggle to survive. 

According to the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP), our country hopes to eradicate hardcore poverty by 20253. Hardcore poor are households who earn less than RM1,169 monthly, and many of them reside in rural areas6

Who are the rural poor, and where are they? 

If you are a B40 individual or household living outside of a city’s limits, you are considered the rural poor. Rural areas consist of places such as islands, towns or villages tucked inland, floating on our oceans or surrounded by forest. 

The rural poor consist of B40 households living outside city limits. Image Source: Aliran

In recent years, urban poverty has risen due to urbanisation and today, there are more poor people in Malaysia’s cities than in rural areas1. However, these numbers are national statistics and do not necessarily mean that rural poverty is improving. 

According to the World Bank5, Kelantan, Sabah, Sarawak, and Kedah recorded higher poverty rates in rural areas in 2019. The nation’s poorest people are found in rural areas8 where families struggle to put food on the table daily and to pay for basic human rights expenses such as education and healthcare services.  

“Certain groups such as the Orang Asli deserve more attention as the poverty rate among them is 34%…Other figures are the Bumiputera Sabah 20% and Bumiputera Sarawak at 16%.”

Dr. Muhammad Abdul Khalid, Khazanah Research9

The rural poor face unique challenges, including the lack of access to basic amenities such as water and electricity 

While the urban poor often faces stigmatisation, inadequate housing and the inability to obtain stable employment, Malaysia’s rural poor have other hurdles to overcome. 

Access to clean water remains an issue for towns and floating villages, where sewer systems cannot be installed. And after China halted plastic waste imports in 2018, Malaysia became the next go-to destination. The Pulau Indah community, for instance, is still living surrounded by piles of waste from foreign countries10.

A heap of plastic waste piled up high outside an illegal recycling factory. Image Source: Reuters

Other issues the rural poor face include poor access to healthcare or education services, especially those living in hard-to-reach places without proper roads. 

At the same time, a growing problem of disconnectivity is leaving the rural poor lagging behind 

As technology continues to advance, it’s becoming essential to stay connected. However, access, internet connection quality and devices are different issues altogether. 

Professor Dr Yeah Kim Leng, an economics professor at Sunway University cited the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM) ICT Use and Access by Individuals and Households 2020 Survey Report, pointing out that 83% of rural households have internet access but only 55% own a computer. 

“A laptop today costs as much as a B40 household’s monthly income.”

Professor Dr Yeah Kim Leng, Sunway University11

So affordability is one thing, but access and connection quality are also issues that need to be addressed. Professor Madeline Berma of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak pointed out that at the same time, many rural families are unfamiliar with technology.

“There is definitely a need for more competition to provide rural communities with fast and reliable internet service and affordable digital equipment.”

Professor Madeline Berma, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak11
The digital divide is growing as rural poor struggle to afford devices or have proper connectivity. Image Source: Malay Mail

The pandemic and slower development is causing a widening income gap between urban and rural areas

Experts have also identified a widening income gap between urban and rural areas. Prof Yeah said this gap was greater in Sabah, Sarawak and less-developed states along the east coast of the peninsula11.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed attributed this growing divide to slower development in rural areas worsened by COVID-19. 

“Based on the household income survey conducted by DoSM in 2019, the mean monthly household gross income in urban areas was RM8,635 per month compared to RM5,004 per month for that of rural areas.”

Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed 

At every level, efforts are underway to tackle rural poverty

Without a doubt, the government is trying to address rural poverty at its core. In addition to revising the poverty line by the first quarter of next year4, Mustapa said the Special Poverty Unit set up under the Economic Planning Unit is working to identify 50 localities nationwide requiring focused poverty eradication3

“The eradication of hardcore poverty will be implemented regardless of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as well as location, whether in urban or rural areas.”

Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed2

He also said the government was looking at a holistic approach to rural development, including paying attention to road access, digital infrastructure, electricity and water. In the 12MP, the goal is for the average household income to reach RM10,000 monthly by 2025. 

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, in unveiling the 12MP, reiterated the government’s commitment to eradicating poverty. 

“The issue of poverty is very close to my heart. I was born and raised in a rubber tapper family. I truly understand the hardships and difficulties faced by the poor.”

PM Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob12

He went on to state the national target of achieving 98% coverage of access to clean and safe water, as well as 98% coverage of a safely managed sanitation system in rural areas by 2025.13

An Orang Asli villager shows before and after water filtration. Image Source: The Star

Meanwhile, NGOs too are working to address issues faced by the rural poor. For example, Everything Tambunan by Good Shepherd Services is a ginger-based enterprise supporting the livelihoods of rural women in Sabah, while Ladang Care by Malaysian CARE is a long-term development project with Orang Asli in Perak.

What can we do for the rural poor?

Poverty is complex, and sometimes it can seem like too big an issue for one person to handle. It can also seem like a losing battle. However, God calls us to love and care for the poor. Deuteronomy 15:11 reads, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”

The command is clear and as Christians, we can simply obey and trust God to do the rest.

>> Give or support organisations working with rural communities

There are many NGOs and civil society organisations doing good work with rural communities in Malaysia, covering issues including education, clean water and sanitation, economic empowerment, financial literacy and digital connectivity. Head over to our Map of Christian Social Work to find one you can get behind!

>> Volunteer and experience their way of life

Many of us live in cities and possibly quite comfortably too. Volunteer with an NGO or organisation working in rural areas, and experience life there for yourself. It can be hard to imagine what it’s like to live without clean water until you actually have to do it yourself. 

Jesus is our greatest example, for He came to earth and lived as we do. In knowing our struggles, He knows how to meet our needs. 

>> Pray for the rural poor 

Truly, prayer makes a difference — first unseen, then seen. As Christ-followers, we have the privilege of coming before the Lord on behalf of others. Let’s pray for the rural poor in Malaysia, that they will be able to live with dignity, find a way to break the cycle of poverty and thrive even in the environment they live in.

Poverty is a multidimensional issue, and in Malaysia, we face both rural and urban poverty challenges. To learn more about urban poverty in our country and how you can contribute to eradicating it, click here.

1. More poor people in cities than rural areas, says Tok Pa, 2021, Free Malaysia Today
2. Covid-19 affects household incomes in both urban and rural areas – Mustapa, 2021, The New Straits Times
3. Government identifying 50 areas to eradicate hardcore poverty, says Mustapa, 2022, The New Straits Times
4. Poverty line to be revised, expected to be amended in 1Q23, 2022, The Edge
5. Poverty & Equity Brief: East Asia and Pacific – Malaysia, 2019, World Bank
6. Diving into Poverty Reduction in Malaysia, 2021, The Borgen Project
7. Highlights of the 12th Malaysia Plan, 2021, The Edge
8. Yeong PJ, Poverty in Malaysia, 2020, Penang Institute
9. Inclusive Development for Urban Poor and Bottom 40% in Malaysia, 2016, UKM Ethnic Studies Paper Series, Institut Kajian Etnik (KITA)
10. Malaysia still grappling with 2018 plastic waste problems, 2021, Bernama
11. Rural B40 families left in the dark as tech-savvy townies shop, pay their bills online and more, 2021, Malaysia Now
12. Greater clean water access in rural areas, development of regional energy hubs among 12MP initiatives, says Ismail Sabri, 2021, The Star
13. Ismail Sabri overcome by emotion as he speaks of poverty, 2021, Free Malaysia Today
14. Cover Image Source: Iskul Sama diLaut Omadal

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