Poor as you see it

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EI SUN OH

I’VE recently come across some useful comments by a variety of experts on poverty. They explored mostly the “structural” aspects of poverty, such as how perhaps well-intended but sometimes wrong-headed public policies, entrenched social stratifications, and of course the ever expanding wealth gap and such, affected the poverty phenomenon.

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I use the term “phenomenon” here to describe poverty partly because the experts above cautioned about regarding poverty as a “problem” which often carries a negative connotation and thus stigmatizes the poorer segment of any population (some suggest regarding poverty as a neutral “issue” to be dealt with), but also because my observations on poverty over the years also do give rise to its characterization as being a problem in many circumstances, but perhaps not along the same line of reasoning as those experts.

I am referring mainly to rural poverty as opposed to the urban one, and the observations and lessons are mainly derived from my home state of Sabah. Sabah is endowed with a vast expanse of arable land and a relatively small population of around three million. For many years Sabah carried the ambivalent reputation of having one of the highest poverty incidence rates among the various Malaysian states. Many poverty eradication measures later, the situation was supposedly ameliorated in recent years, at least in statistics.

Most of these poverty “incidences” occur, not surprisingly, in the interior (read “rural”) regions of Sabah, where access in terms of roads, clean water and electricity and other amenities most of us urban folks take for granted are at best intermittent, and often outright absent. Some children have to walk for hours to get to school, and agricultural produce are difficult to commercialize in the more urbanized marketplaces.

Nevertheless, according to many elected Sabah politicians whose constituencies are in such interior regions, it would appear that many of their constituents who are supposed to be classified as “poor” and to be assisted do not actually regard themselves as poor! Rather, they mostly see themselves as being self-sufficient and living according to the traditions of their revered forebears. They could plant food staples such as rice or maize or sweet potatoes, rear some chicken or pigs or cattle, and can even pluck fresh fruits for dessert in their daily lives.

Of course these remote villagers do make occasional trips to the towns to replenish their more modern supplies or to handle their civic affairs, but what they see there is not positively promising, with severe traffic jams, petty and not so petty crime as well as the stress caused by the pressures that are ever present in typical city life. Instead, these villagers, low on materialistic well-being they might be, are nevertheless “rich” in their relatively carefree and more contented lifestyle.

Poverty is thus not necessarily a “problem” to be “combated” or “tackled”, at least in the rural sense. It is perhaps not even an “issue” to be dealt with. It is perhaps a “phenomenon”. But more likely a state of mind, or a point of view. But the key here is there are many different perspectives out there as far poverty is concerned.

Many of these villagers frankly don’t see a need for themselves to be “helped” by (often urbanized) outsiders. They see resettlement schemes (most likely to urban areas or suburbs) as either ill-advised means to uproot their traditional way of life and thus deprive them of their ancestral links which they hold sacred, or worse, collusive attempts between greedy businessmen and governments to expropriate their heritage land for commercial plantation or residential development. They thus fiercely oppose such “help”, to the point that sometimes confrontations take place between the villagers and the “well-intentioned” social workers.

More broadly speaking, these so-called poor interiors actually provides some sort of a “vent” for urban folks with rural roots. For example, housing is increasingly unaffordable in the urban areas. Some people actually choose to live further from city centers in their parental homes and commute to work everyday. Some others decide to quit their city jobs altogether, go back to their original village, and set up relatively less stressful businesses (such as home-stay programs) there to support themselves and their extended families. The point here is that people have different perspectives when it comes to defining what constitutes a rewarding lifestyle versus a supposedly “poor” livelihood.

I am the first to admit that the urban poor does not enjoy such “luxury” as compared to their rural counterparts. Either you leave town and go back to your ancestral village as described above, where in a sense you actually “break out” of poverty, or you are stuck in a low-paying job with no job at all, living in crammed and squalid conditions or even without a roof. And urban areas are perhaps where the well-intentioned poverty eradication programs could be more effectively deployed, with for example skills-training to enable the urban poor to better their livelihoods.

There is no simple or single answer to the poverty “question”; it is an ever-present “condition” that we all have to live with.

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