What with all the recent news on the opposition’s “selfless” deeds in uplifting living conditions in East Malaysia, it is little wonder that the government has come under propagated fire for its exclusion of the two states from its economic policies. In actuality, much has been done despite geographical, socio-economic and political obstacles, to reduce poverty in Sabah and Sarawak. While certain quarters, motivated by political interests, would have Malaysians believe that these two states have been left out to dry, one should obtain all relevant information before jumping to conclusions, for the sake of national unity. Progress over the years Although poverty in East Malaysia is still very much an issue today, it is actually a shadow of what it used to be. Let’s look at the poverty statistics of Malaysia as a whole, with solid numbers from our department of statistics. In 1970, poverty level was at 49.3%, lessening to 8.1% in 1999. In 2000, it was further cut to 5.5%. Hard-core poverty was reduced from 1.2% in 2004 to 0.7% in 2009, and incidence of overall poverty fell from 5.7% in 2004 to 3.8% in 2009. These significant reductions were largely attributed to the joint effect of poverty eradication policies and programmes in the New Economic Plan, together with development plans and financial allocations in the Malaysia Plans that target housing, literacy, student welfare, agricultural and other aspects deemed crucial to development. Focusing on East Malaysia alone, under the Mini Estet Sejahtera (MESEJ), by the Rural Development Ministry, 30 agricultural projects are underway in areas which have pockets of poverty, targeting hard-core poor families. As of November 2012, almost 5,000 hard-core poor have been involved in programmes to improve income under the Local Economic Improvement Programme (PPES). The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry has also made much headway through federal government programmes such as the 1 Azam and Temporary Monthly Allowance Programme to enhance state welfare. RM40 million has been channelled to the state government to carry out various other projects under e-kasih, a systematic poverty eradication programme utilising a comprehensive database of the poor. Under the Bekalan Elektrik Luar Bandar project, RM961 million was allocated, providing 24-hour electricity supply to 19,811 rural houses. In terms of road access, 3,100km of roads were built in the last three years, now with 85% of East Malaysians having road access to date. Government efforts have proven largely successful, as shown by the statistics department – poverty rate in Sabah dropped 19.7%, the highest reduction nationwide. Hardly smooth sailing Despite making much progress, the road to tackling poverty only gets steeper; there exist vulnerable sections of the population that remain largely unchanged due to several circumstances. For one, East Malaysia is experiencing an influx of foreign workers. The impact of migrant labour on local economies have been shown to be negative, what with remittance and increased labour market competition versus contribution towards GDP. The natural geography of East Malaysia, mostly comprising forests and mountainous terrain, constricts access to and from rural areas. This is a major obstacle for connecting rural villages in such areas to the electricity grid. Education, or the lack of it, presents another obstacle. There exists a substantial academic gap between the rural and urban population, with obvious reasons – lack of educational facilities in rural areas. And, as more and more of the rural population settle in urban areas for access to such facilities, policies catering to the fluctuating ethnic ratios have to be extensively planned and delicately implemented, so as to avoid fragmentations and turmoil, or risk widening the perceived gap between social groups. Another issue that stem from this is that the convergence of foreign workers with migration of rural folk to urban areas somewhat alter increase poverty rates, giving off an unrealistic view of the situation, something opposition parties have taken advantage of, for political mileage. Working forward As per the latest budget, the finance ministry, in its 2013/2014 Economic Report, stated that RM4.5 billion was allocated for the development of rural infrastructure projects, of which RM1.2 billion was meant for building and upgrading rural and village-link roads. RM130 million have been allocated to subsidise rural air transport, RM331 million to continue price uniformity programmes and subsidies, RM30 million and 60 Kedai Rakyat 1Malaysia (KR1M) to reduce prices of daily necessities and high-speed broadband access for East Malaysians. The list is extensive. Other aspects being tackled by poverty eradication programmes include housing, micro credit, and rural electrification. To cater to geographical and community issues, one of the thrusts of the Tenth Malaysia plan is to focus on inclusive growth and provide equal opportunities to all Malaysians. There has been much debate on the Malaysia poverty measurement system that it is inaccurate, and that poverty in East Malaysia, or for the whole of Malaysia for that matter, would rage on. Only time will prove who’s right. Meanwhile, anyone can do their part – there’s no shortage of volunteer programmes to help out our fellow Malaysians over on the East side.