Malaysia’s poverty benchmark gets a much-needed revision. But does the new estimate mean we’re no longer poor?

Elsewhere in today’s newsletter, the transgender community warns of hate and violence following a minister’s remark, PM Muhyiddin Yassin gets ready to test his support in the Dewan Rakyat, and we register our first Covid-19 death in over three weeks.

Revising poverty

Are we still poor?

On Friday, days after being accused of backtracking on its commitment to eradicate poverty, the government announced a recalibration of the national poverty line to more than double what it originally was.

The previous methodology, that’d been in place since 2005, had determined poverty in relation to a household monthly income of RM980. However, the new calculation, announced by the Department of Statistics, bases it on a monthly income of RM2,208. This, in a nutshell, means that Malaysia is poorer than was previously acknowledged.

If you recall, in August last year, Philip Alston, the former United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, had faced a lotta criticism when he contended that Malaysia had been under-representing our numbers and was nowhere close to eliminating poverty. Now, however, thanks to Putrajaya’s revision of the poverty threshold, the dude’s been proved right. Well, kinda …

The ex-UN envoy had previously said that about 15% of Malaysia’s population should be categorised as poor. Thing is, the government’s revision registers absolute poverty (for last year) at only 5.6%. Still, Alston admits that the new assessment is better than the previous estimate of a mere 0.4%, and despite slamming the government just last week for apparently backpedalling on a commitment to end poverty, was full of praise for the administration.

Even so, the guy and others, like the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, note that a revision of the poverty threshold is only one part of the story, and more robust changes need to be considered.

For example, Malaysia’s minimum wage is now between RM1,100 and RM1,200. However, the new standard of measuring poverty suggests that the figures need to be re-looked at.

Additionally, while RM2,028 per household per month is certainly a better benchmark than RM980 and may be enough for families outside of Malaysia’s urban areas to survive on, it’s well short of what economists and even Bank Negara Malaysia say is sufficient for folks who live and work in places like the Klang Valley.

Still, the big question is, with the economy in the shitter, and businesses shuttering left, right and centre, can the government practically look at revisions that could see it shelling out money that it doesn’t actually have? 

Yep, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz predicted last week that our GDP could see an improvement within the next 12 months. However, even so, holistically dealing with this matter at this particular moment in time may be beyond us.

Incidentally, one chap who’s vowed to do all he can to solve the issue of poverty and wealth inequality is Dr Mahathir Mohamad. On Friday, in conjunction with his 95th birthday, the ex-premier said that as long as he was able to, he’d continue to work for the country and make sure everyone gets a fair share of the pie.

Yes, ladies and gents, the guy who only months ago blamed the poor for being poor and arguably, contributed to the sorry state of affairs the country finds itself in, now claims that he’s all for the little man. Read into that what you will.

Warning: Hate and violence ahead

Malaysia’s transgender community has once again been singled out by religious authorities, and for what seems like the millionth time, activists are warning that hate and violence could ensue.

Here’s what happened: On Friday, Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, the Minister in the PM’s Department in charge of religious affairs announced that he’d given the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) “full licence” to act against the transgender community. This permission, he added, did not only encompass arrests, but a duty to return the community to “the right path” via education.

Now, it’s true that Malaysia’s religious and cultural sensitivities have often made addressing issues pertaining to the rights of trans persons extremely difficult. However, what appears to be particularly upsetting to the minister’s critics – among them trans activist Nisha AyubAmnesty International Malaysia and Sisters in Islam (SIS) – is that the reckless remarks could result in an uptick in hate. 

Their concerns are legit too.

In a 2019 study on discrimination against transgender people, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) found that trans persons were often victims of harassment, abuse and violence simply because of their gender. What’s worse, the report revealed that physical, verbal, emotional and sexual violence at the hands of the authorities and members of the public weren’t uncommon.

Now, imagine, if you will, what kind of effect a statement denoting a “full licence” to arrest and educate trans people could result in.

Zulkifli’s critics have thus, called for the immediate revocation of the order. However, the minister, who actually engaged in dialogue with the trans community and even called for a fatwa declaring transgenderism as un-Islamic to be re-looked at not too long ago, has yet to respond to the calls.

Coincidentally, at the same time as all this was going on, outside of Malaysia, Brazil-born model Valentina Sampaio became the first trans woman to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. 

In a moving post on Instagram, Valentina shared about what the opportunity meant to her, and we quote: 

“Being trans usually means facing closed doors to peoples’ hearts and minds. We face snickers, insults, fearful reactions and physical violations just for existing. Our options for growing up in a loving and accepting family, having a fruitful experience at school or finding dignified work are unimaginably limited and challenging.”

New death and cluster emerge

Despite the falling numbers of late, Malaysia’s Covid-19 fatality rate increased to 122 on Saturday, hammering home what experts have been warning for so long i.e. that we’re far from out of the woods. 

On the latest victim, Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the man – a Sarawakian in his 70s with a history of hypertension and diabetes – had sought traditional cures several times since getting sick in early July, and was admitted to hospital last Thursday. By that time, however, it was too late.

Meanwhile, in more upsetting news, a new Covid-19 cluster has emerged in Kuching. Health authorities say the cluster was detected after an employee of an engineering firm there tested positive for the disease late last week.

Yes, there’s no doubt Malaysia’s in a far better situation than we were months ago. However, the news over the weekend suggests that even as more sectors and industries get greenlit to return to normal, Malaysians should be cognisant of the risks linked to certain activities. And that’s not just us BTL uncles bleating the same ’ol tired thing, mind you, but Universiti Malaya’s leading public health medicine specialist Assoc Prof Dr Rafdzah Ahmad Zaki.

This list of activities, from the Texas Medical Association, ranked from low risk to high risk, should serve as a great reference. 

Here, anyways, are the other important coronavirus-related news highlights from the weekend:

  • There will be no more attendance cap limits for social gatherings, conferences and prayer sessions (at mosques and other places of worship) beginning July 15. Nevertheless, social distancing protocols will still need to be practised. And let’s face it – that 1m social distancing guideline is getting ignored more and more these days. So, let’s see how this goes. 
     
  • While game arcades and karaoke joints will be free to resume operations from Wednesday, July 15, discos, pubs and nightclub operators have been told that it’ll be a while more before they can open for business. We really gotta ask – does religiosity influence this decision? What’s the logic behind letting pretty much the whole country revert to normalcy, except for the booze joints?
     
  • Meanwhile, the fallout from Al Jazeera’s Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown feature continues with the Immigration Department revoking the work permit of a Bangladesh national who appeared in the documentary. Police have, however, yet to discover Md Rayhan Kabir’s whereabouts.
     
  • Elsewhere, Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob revealed that a total of 19,111 undocumented migrants have been sent home since Covid-19 first reared its head here. 

Of motions and other (assorted) matters

Monday marks the first proper Dewan Rakyat meeting since Perikatan Nasional wrestled Putrajaya away from Pakatan Harapan and you can bet your last sen, there’s gonna be fireworks!

As we noted in Friday’s newsletter, there’ll be much on the table over the 25 days the Dewan is in session, but first on the agenda will be the motions to replace Speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof and one of his deputies, Nga Kor Ming, with ex-Election Commission boss Azhar “Art” Harun and former Barisan Nasional minister Azalina Othman Said.

When the Dewan sat for a day back in May, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government was seen to have a majority of a just two. However, Perikatan and Moo’s real support will be properly gauged today, when the House votes on the motions to boot Mohamad Ariff and Nga.

By the way, a defeat of Muhyiddin’s motions would not technically mean the end of the road for the PM, though it might certainly be viewed as such by foes and even friends like Umno Youth Chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, who feels that a dissolution of Parliament would be the only course of action should Moo’s proposals fail.

Anyhoo, here’re some other non-Parliament-related things you should definitely know about heading into Monday:

  • The contempt of court charge against Malaysiakini over readers’ comments to a news report is set to be heard today. Kini could be hit with a fine or a jail term for its editor-in-chief Steven Gan if found guilty.
     
  • Police have confirmed that the seditious posting for which DAP’s Hannah Yeoh was previously probed have, in fact, nothing to do with her. Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said investigations revealed that the posts had actually been made by a portal called … wait for it … muafakatnasional.net! 
     
  • Anwar Ibrahim, for what seems like the millionth time, has denied there are personal issues between him and Dr Mahathir Mohamad. We wonder why these guys are still trying to blow sunshine up our behinds. It’s obvious even to a blind man that the issues between the two fellas are extremely personal. 
     
  • Six people have been sentenced to death for the murder of deputy public prosecutor Kevin Morais. The six were found guilty of having killed Morais on Sept 4, 2015.
     
  • Fertility problems are apparently on the rise among Malaysian men, says the National Population and Family Development Board. Over the last 20 years, such problems have gone up by 40 to 50%. Time to start thinking of your little swimmers, boys. 
     
  • Eminent zoologist and mammalogist Dr Lim Boo Liat has passed away. Lim, who received the Merdeka Award in 2013, charted many firsts in a celebrated career, including becoming the first Southeast Asian to be named an Honorary Member of the American Society of Mammalogists.

“Love conquers all things except poverty and a toothache."

- Mae West -

IN INTERNATIONAL NEWS

  • As predicted, Singapore’s ruling PAP cantered to victory in the island republic’s 13th general election since independence. However, while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s party managed to bag 83 outta the 93 seats contested, its mandate was nowhere as strong as expected. Especially too considering Deputy PM Heng Swee Keat’s slim win in his constituency and the opposition Workers’ Party’s strong showing. This piece condenses everything you need to know about Singapore’s GE.
     
  • After months of appearing to throw caution to the wind, United States President Donald Trump was finally photographed wearing a mask in public. Is this YUGE? You betcha!
     
  • BTW, on the topic of masks, a new study reveals that cool-looking cloth coverings, like the kind The Donald donned, offer zero protection against Covid-19. Still, they do prevent the wearer from spreading the disease through coughing.
     
  • Turkey Byzantine masterpiece, the Hagia Sophia, is now at the centre of controversy over a decision to convert it into a mosque. The Unesco World Heritage site was originally built as a cathedral almost 1500 years ago, and was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In its modern incarnation, the stunning building was a museum. Its conversion is raising fears that Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdogan is moving the country away from secularism to a more Islamist identity. Even the Pope has waded into the debate!
     
  • Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, his son, Abishek and daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai have all tested positive for Covid-19. Abishek and Ash’s eight-year-old daughter has also contracted the disease. Meanwhile, the coronavirus numbers in India keep going up and up. The country’s overall tally now stands at 849,553 cases and 22,674 deaths.
     
  • Jack Charlton, the England World Cup-winning footballer and Leeds United legend, passed away Saturday. Jack, the elder brother of Manchester United’s Sir Bobby, was 85. 

ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

This weekday newsletter is brought to you by Trident Media, a group of Malaysian journalists with 60 years of combined media experience in four countries across TV, print and digital media.

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Trident Media · Seksyen 35 · Shah Alam, Selangor 40470 · Malaysia

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