poverty reduction in MalaysiaEstablished in 1963, Malaysia is a small country located in Southeast Asia. Since earning its independence, Malaysia has made considerable strides in working to reduce the national poverty rate, to the point where the country is expected to gain high-income status between 2024 and 2028. With the help of the United Nations and other organizations, poverty reduction in Malaysia is slowly reaching rural areas, which still remain disproportionally plagued by poverty.

A Flailing Poverty Line

Malaysia’s economic success cannot be explained without first noting the shift in an economic system previously dependent on agriculture to one built around commodity exportation. With about 40% of its labor force working in export activities, the country’s positive attitude toward trade and investment is responsible for the upwards trajectory in job growth and income expansion. Poverty reduction in Malaysia is apparent in its revision of the poverty line, increasing from $231.27 to $521.06 in 2019. That same year, however, rural households reported earning less than $2 per day.

Reports from government officials, which detail poverty reduction in Malaysia, ignore risks that many people face every day. The most impoverished 40% consist of rural villagers, migrant workers and refugees. These people are often left out of official poverty figures and lack a social safety net. Moreover, the dramatic economic growth seen in recent years is not accurately reflected in the poverty line, which is largely inconsistent with the current income levels of Malaysians. In his report, Professor Philip Alston explains that the impoverished have benefitted in gaining universal access to basic utilities. However, things like medical care and education are widely unattainable.

In areas such as Pulau Indah, an island not far from the capital Kuala Lumpur, many citizens live alongside heaps of garbage consisting of discarded plastic waste from Western countries. Here, sanitary living conditions are hard to come by. Education levels and medical needs prohibit people from building a life elsewhere. Most are even employed at illegal factories working to burn the waste that surrounds them. This leaves them in an inescapable cycle of poverty.

Villages Struggling to Stay Afloat

Problems are exacerbated in rural areas where the distance from hospitals, schools and jobs prevents residents from obtaining help. In water villages, which are clusters of homes sitting atop the water’s surface, the communities are subject to pollution and dangerous living conditions. While poverty reduction in Malaysia targets floating villages, providing them with basic necessities is still a hurdle. Access to clean water is a major problem as towns have no way of installing sewer systems. Even safe methods of electricity for heat or cooking are unaffordable. Thus, people resort to illegally extending power lines, risking engulfing entire villages into flames.

Casting a Safety Net

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is using an innovative strategy to aid poverty reduction in Malaysia. True to its mission of caring for the environment by improving people’s quality of life, UNEP sponsored a pilot project aimed at providing sewage treatment tanks to homes and schools in floating villages. This is major for a region like Sabah, which has 10,185 floating homes. These efforts are helping nearly 50,000 people gain access to sanitary living conditions. As part of a 36-month-long project, UNEP hopes to install 200 more treatment tanks in another village. Additionally, UNEP is encouraging the establishment of a facility where local people can work to produce the tanks themselves.

A business known as Hive Bulk Foods has also made considerable efforts at drawing attention to the waste issues in Malaysia and the impact of waste on impoverished communities. Founded by Claire Sancelot, The Hive encourages sustainable living and works with local farmers to source its ingredients. It operates as one of the only no-waste stores in Kuala Lumpur.

This push toward empowering rural communities to help eliminate poverty is apparent in the Malaysian government’s work as well. Legislation such as the 12th Malaysian Plan is based around promoting economic growth and poverty reform. Key policy measures that include providing help for undocumented citizens and re-evaluating the poverty line would ensure that poverty levels continue their downward trend for good.

– Nicole Yaroslavsky
Photo: Flickr

Tackling Poverty in Malaysia
Poverty reduction in Malaysia was steadily progressing until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The poverty rate decreased from 7.6% in 2016 to 5.6% in 2019, according to Free Malaysia Today. However, due to COVID-19, the poverty rate rose to 8.4% in 2020. Many argue that the strikingly low poverty rate is an inaccurate reflection of the true state of poverty in Malaysia as it does not account for costs of living and overlooks vulnerable populations. According to U.N. human rights specialist, Philip Alston, “Despite near-universal healthcare and high school enrolment rates for citizens and a growing economy, large parts of the population are being left behind and many people living above the official poverty line are in fact in poverty.” Due to these circumstances, several NGOs are tackling poverty in Malaysia.

Poverty in Malaysia

Alston explains that “Undercounting has also led to underinvestment in poverty reduction and an inadequate social safety net that does not meet people’s needs.” As a consequence, people’s rights to food, shelter and education are in jeopardy. Under the current circumstances, more than 2.7 million Malaysian children come from households that cannot afford the costs of school, and according to the World Bank, 15% of Malaysians experienced moderate-to-severe food insecurity in 2018. However, NGOs are rising to the challenge, attempting to close the poverty gap and end the consequences that go along with it. MyKasih and SOLS 24/7 are leaders in tackling poverty in Malaysia by providing inclusive aid to the B40 (bottom 40% household income range) community through education and food security.

MyKasih

The MyKasih Foundation was founded by Tan Sri Dr Ngau Boon Keat and his wife, Puan Sri Jean Ngau, in 2009. The organization is committed to the long-term goal of empowering the Malaysian community by providing more than just short-term relief. Its efforts in tackling poverty in Malaysia are directed into its two main programs, the Love My Neighborhood food aid program and the Love My School education bursary initiative. MyKasih’s food aid program provides impoverished households with at least RM 80 per month for only a year. This ensures people do not become aid-reliant and are empowered to become self-sufficient while being able to meet their basic needs.

By 2019, MyKasih had provided roughly 280,000 families with RM 260 million worth of cashless aid. In 2018, its contributions were recognized. MyKasih received the 2018 U.N. Malaysia Award for the “Leaving No One Behind” category, honoring its effective distribution of aid “through public-private partnerships.”

SOLS 24/7

In 2000, teacher Raj Ridvan Singh along with his father and brother began SOLS 24/7 in Cambodia to provide informal education to impoverished populations. In 2005, Singh replicated the initiative in Timor Leste. Seeing the success of the endeavor, in 2007 he continued the initiative in Malacca, Malaysia. Singh moved the SOLS 24/7 headquarters to Kuala Lumpur five years later.

Through its diverse educational programs, the organization aims to empower the B40 community in Malaysia. Since its establishment, SOLS 24/7 has provided quality education to more than 500,000 people. The organization as provided more than 800 scholarships to the SOLS Solar Academy, equipping students with skills to thrive in the renewable energy sector. SOLS Community Centers provide training to marginalized and impoverished people, helping them improve on English skills, digital knowledge and personal development.

SOLS 24/7’s efforts are vast, showing its commitment to education and empowerment. Through these efforts, the organization helps Malaysians rise out of poverty by providing them with the skills and knowledge to secure jobs and establish businesses.

Looking Forward

Efforts by SOLS 24/7 and MyKasih in tackling poverty in Malaysia have provided aid and educational services for the socio-economic advancement of B40 families. These two NGOs continue to offer benefits that empower Malaysia’s impoverished communities, providing hope for all Malaysians in need.

– Julia Fadanelli
Photo: Flickr

Mental Health in Malaysia
Populations of people who suffer from mental illness exist in every country in the world. Some countries, like Malaysia, have a more prominent number of mental illness cases than others, having an equal ratio of one in five cases in comparison to the United States. Malaysian Medics International (MMI) pointed out that Malaysia has a national average of 1.27 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, a stark contrast to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation for a ratio of one psychiatrist per 10,000 people. Here is some information about mental health in Malaysia and efforts to treat it.

About Mental Illness in Malaysia

Mental illness can have a large variety of causes. Moreover, pre-existing circumstances such as poverty can make cases of mental illness worse. Such cases tend to make it difficult for patients to maintain a steady lifestyle due to mental health symptoms that make full functionality difficult. The poverty that is already prominent often means that a support system is not present to give the patients the time they need to recover. In 2020, the police reported that 25% of recent suicides related to pressures of debt.

Stigma exists in Malaysia regarding mental health. Some Malaysians perceive mental illness as a natural phenomenon or a kind of divine punishment; this viewpoint often exists within families who have more religious inclinations. Many cases see these families attempting to ‘purge’ such conditions through spiritual means that have not always received medical approval and may not have positive effects.

Mental Health Among Youth

Prior to 2014-2015, few investigations into the statistics of mental health of the youth of Malaysia occurred. With the inclusion of mental health in the National Health Morbidity survey, the country is now taking the numbers more seriously and believes it should observe mental health numbers in order to preserve future generations.

In 2015, the National Health Morbidity Survey stated that mental health illnesses and conditions were likely to become the second most prominent illness after heart disease in Malaysia by 2020. In 2017, the National Health Morbidity Survey showed that one in five adolescents has depression while two in five have anxiety. At that time, 11.2% reported suicidal tendencies or intentions, and 10.1% reported that they have attempted suicide. Now in 2021, that statistic has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused an increasing report of cases of mental health problems. Worldwide, the increase of those who suffer from mental illness has risen by an estimated 10 million.

Treatment for Mental Health Issues

Not everyone has access to treatment. Some are unable to afford it and certain areas lack proper clinics. Even in cases where there are professionals who can help, it can be difficult to make a consistent appointment. The WHO revealed statistics that showed that the ratio of psychiatrists to patients is 1:200,000 in Malaysia. On the chance that a person would be able to get a consultation, the aid they need may not always be available or open to them.

The Mental Illness and Support Association (MIASA)

There are organizations that are already working to offer as much support as possible for those who may not have access to resources like therapy or medication. Beginning in 2017, the Mental Illness And Support Association (MIASA) made it its mission to promote awareness on the importance of mental health in Malaysia. Its charities and services seek to provide aid for patients and caregivers alike. It offers a holistic solution by also encouraging spirituality alongside medical treatment, which is to give patients empowerment and autonomy.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC)

Certain companies are also working to make it easier for those with mental illnesses to reach out if there are no professionals available to them. In August 2019, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) worked with eight phone operation companies in order to waive call charges for people making calls to the Befrienders helpline, which is a mental health helpline that provides services such as counseling and emotional support over the phone. With the right aid, it is working to ensure that anyone can get the support they need for a healthy, functioning lifestyle.

It is the hope of the Malaysian government that with greater advocacy, the rise of mental illness in the growing youth will level out. The medical studies that have made this rise clear have helped to erase doubts about the prominence of mental illness and prove the need for treatment for mental health in Malaysia. In order to preserve future generations, the country will continue to take measures in order to give patients the support they need to live functioning and healthy lifestyles.

– Seren Dere
Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Malaysia
Malaysia currently has over 212,000 people trapped in human trafficking. The government has vowed to do something about it, but as of 2020, efforts to control trafficking were not tremendously successful. According to Reuters, only 140 convictions concerning human trafficking in Malaysia have occurred out of 1,600 investigations between 2014 to 2018. People come from Indonesia and Bangladesh in hopes of a promising future but end up experiencing exploitation in unpaid labor or sex trafficking. Often, traffickers tell victims that they will receive decent-paying jobs such as a maid and then the traffickers force them into sex trafficking.

Prosecution of Traffickers

Malaysia launched its separate trafficking court in 2018 to help reduce this crime. However, as of March 2018, it cleared only 26 cases within the first 15 months. However, a 2017 court addressing sex trafficking cases with children saw a total of over 300 cases in one year.

In 2020, a significant increase in efforts to stop human trafficking in Malaysia occurred. These efforts included numerous changes, including finding two volunteer victim assistance specialists that helped work with over 100 victims. The Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, even hosted the first-ever national conference on anti-trafficking in 2019. There was also a higher effort on identifying more victims than previous years, increasing the level of traffic specialist prosecutors and the creation of a victim processing standard. Overall, in 2020, Malaysia saw an increase in identifying victims, with 2,229 potential victims and 82 confirmed victims—55 of whom were adult women.

Malaysia and TVPA Recommendations

Even with the significant improvement, the government’s efforts are still lacking, resulting in the conviction of fewer traffickers in 2020. The number of investigations that authorities in Malaysia pursue is significantly low in comparison to the scale of the problem. The government has failed to prosecute those complicit with human trafficking and instead, chose to allow for release due to corruption in the government. Malaysia did not make it public that it was investigating this problem. Additionally, inadequate victim services resulted in victims not staying in Malaysia for court proceedings, causing authorities to drop their cases.

 Through the Trafficking in Persons Report, Malaysia received a ranking on the Tier 2 Watchlist. This means that while it has not successfully eliminated human trafficking, it is making significant strides to do so. If a country shows that it is making significant efforts to meet a minimum standard for TVPA (Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of The 2000s), it will be allowed to stay at the tier it is currently at. These tiers indicate how much effort a country puts toward stopping human trafficking.

Tier one countries are countries with governments that fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards. Tier one countries are ones that make a continuous effort to prevent human trafficking. Meanwhile, in Tier two countries, governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance. Finally, Tier three are countries that do not comply with TVPA’s standards and are not making an effort to do so.

Tiers can negatively affect countries. For example, Tier 3 countries often do not receive aid and other support that can better the country. Instead, they do not receive any help until they can achieve a better tier. As a result, it is important for countries to strive to a better tier.

Malaysia’s Standing

Malaysia is currently on the Tier 2 Watchlist on TVPA’s scales because it is continuing to prove that it is willing to work on the issue. According to TVPA standards and the U.S. State Department, the Malaysian government should take various steps to help reduce human trafficking in Malaysia.

The Malaysian government needs to provide the funding and training necessary to have more government-sanctioned officials available. If Malaysia has more government officials, it should be able to lower victim counts. More work is necessary regarding victim identification and Malaysia should better emphasize the need to locate potential traffickers.

It is also important for victims to be able to leave special housing promptly. Malaysia implemented the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (ATISOM) Act which allows victims court-ordered protection where they end up receiving a placement for 21 to 90 days depending on their situation. Malaysia is working on allowing victims to leave shelters unchaperoned and contact others outside shelters through telephone. This should allow victims the opportunity to slowly integrate back into their normal lives.

Several steps are occurring to stop human trafficking in Malaysia. Crackdowns on corrupt officials will allow Malaysia to help protect victims. Hopefully, it will also help find more potential victims and bring them to safety.

– Claire Olmstead
Photo: Flickr

The Tug-of-War Between Women’s Rights in MalaysiaThe issue of women’s rights in Malaysia is one that has people divided throughout the peninsula. Women in Malaysia are increasingly engaging in the workforce as well as the government. This does not, however, diminish the gender inequality that still exists. Women in this country have further struggles that inhibit them from gaining equality.

Gender Inequality in Malaysia

As 61.3% of the population are Muslims, there are groups that hold either traditional or progressive views regarding women’s place in society. Despite the various views exhibited toward this issue, women are continually moving forward to gain their rightful equality.

Although increased positions of leadership within the workforce are being partaken, gender inequality is still being experienced. According to UNDP, women earn $0.23 less for each dollar that men make. One in three women has been physically or sexually abused, and nearly 750,000,000 women have been involved in child marriages, while only 13% are agricultural landholders. Furthermore, women only constitute 24% of the national parliamentarians as of November 2018.

Sisters In Islam (SIS)

As a majority of Malaysians are Muslims, there is an NGO that focuses on protecting the rights of Muslim women. Sisters in Islam (SIS) is an NGO that works toward fighting for Muslim women’s rights in Malaysia. In 1988, a group of Muslim women created SIS to tackle the issue of unjust treatment of women under Islamic law. SIS believes that since men had the major control of interpreting the Qur’an in history, they have misinterpreted some aspects in order to justify their cultural actions. As a result, women are put in a lower position than men. Thus, SIS focuses on researching hermeneutical interpretations of the Qur’an in which women could be treated with equality within the Islamic framework.

The main focus of SIS is to reform the laws and policies that oppress women’s rights. It also raises awareness of issues such as child marriages, female genital mutilation and polygamy. Additionally, the NGO advocates for women to gain equal rights to their children, as well as freedom of expression and religion. The organization also operates a free helpline called Telenisa, providing Muslim families with free legal advice on basic rights and Shariah law.

Pushback on Progressive Women’s Rights

Although NGOs like SIS promote more progressive views on advocating for women’s rights, there are groups that push back against ideals. SIS has been under scrutiny for its attempts to reinterpret the Qur’an. The established principles of Islam state that only those who have had traditional religious education can have the authority to interpret and discuss this doctrine. Thus, the women at SIS do not have any right to interpret the Qur’an as they have been doing in the traditional sense.

The Selangor Fatwa Committee and the Selangor Islamic Religious Council issued a fatwa on the SIS in 2014. The fatwa stated that the group was deviant as it promoted liberalism. In addition, the religious pluralism that SIS promoted did not follow Islamic teachings. Moreover, an attempt in 2019 to challenge the fatwa was dismissed in court. The civil court decided that the fatwa was linked to Shariah state law and not the federal court. Fortunately, the High Court has temporarily suspended the fatwa in 2020 as the SIS continues to appeal for its case.

With groups such as SIS fighting for women’s rights in Malaysia, the country is moving toward achieving gender equality. Furthermore, if more women come into leadership then a greater possibility of reform exists. Humanitarian organizations and Malaysia’s government needs to address the gender inequality in Malaysia in order to open the country to new economic opportunities, progressive growth and equality. By furthering Malaysia’s approach to gender equality, the global community will take one more step toward global justice and equity.

Hakyung Kim
Photo: Flickr

East Coast Rail Link
Malaysia has developed steadily over the last 60 years, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now classifies it as an “upper-middle-income” country. However, this development has been uneven as it has favored the western half of the peninsula while leaving the east struggling to keep up. Part of the reason for this uneven development is the lack of high-tech transportation infrastructure to connect the underdeveloped east with the developed west efficiently. The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is a high-speed railway that the Malaysian government proposed to satisfy this need.

Malaysian Development

The peninsular Southeast Asian nation, Malaysia, was a British colony until it gained independence in 1957. Naturally, as a newly independent nation, it lacked development. In 1961, its GDP per capita was a measly $235 with a -3.83% growth and its debt as a percentage of GDP was 79.54%.

Nonetheless, since achieving its independence, Malaysia has developed steadily. Between 1970 and 2010, the GDP per capita grew by an average of 2.8% per year. Likewise, on the human development index, Malaysia jumped from 0.643 in 1990 to 0.802 in 2017 and its poverty rate decreased from 32.2% in 1984 to 2.7% in 2015.

Malaysia has achieved these astounding numbers through diversifying its economy beyond commodities and agriculture towards a manufacturing and service-based economy. Malaysia is now a leading exporter in electrical appliances, electronic parts and components and one of the world’s most open economies. As a result, Malaysia is now an upper-middle-income country.

Uneven Development: West V.S. East

Nevertheless, with all of its developmental success, it has been geographically uneven with the western portion of the peninsula receiving the lion’s share of economic development. On the other hand, the eastern region lacks development.

The data illustrates the discrepancies between the west and the east. For instance, the eastern states of peninsular Malaysia, namely Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu, contribute a combined total of 8.4% to Malaysian economic growth. In contrast, Malaysia’s western financial hub, Kuala Lumpur, contributes 16.1% by itself. Meanwhile, Kuala Lumpur has a GDP per capita of 121,293 RM, which is in stark contrast to Terengganu, Kelantan and Pahang, 30,216 RM, 13,668 RM and 35,554 RM, respectively.

This spatial inequality has its roots in Malaysia’s colonial past and its topographical distinctions. The British first exploited areas on the west coast for raw resources. However, over time, the West Coast developed into trading centers with key regional ports leaving the east without the benefits of British industrial experience.

What further complicated righting this historical discrepancy is an extensive mountain range running through the middle of the nation, preventing connectivity between the developed states in the west and the underdeveloped states in the east. Therefore, economic centers and the opportunities they present, such as the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, have experienced a disconnect from the economically embryonic areas of Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu.

The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL)

To the credit of the government, it has embarked on an ambitious initiative to correct these iniquities: The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project. The ECRL is an $11 billion Chinese-backed High-Speed-Rail project that sets out to connect the East Coast and the West Coast by connecting Kuala Lumpur to the three eastern states Terengganu, Kelantan and Pahang. The ECRL project will have 20 stations (14 of those passengers, five combined freight and passenger and one with a dedication to freight trains only) and will have 40 tunnels from Kota Bahura to Port Klang. The government expects the ECRL to reach completion by 2026, assuming that neither the COVID-19 pandemic nor Malaysia’s tumultuous politics delay it too much.

The Benefits of ECRL

The ECRL is critical for eastern development because it gives inhabitants access to better economic opportunities like jobs or services such as healthcare and education by connecting it with the more developed Kuala Lumpur region. This connectedness will give workers the flexibility to pursue economic and socioeconomic opportunities outside their home region and create growth centers closer to home.

However, what is innovative about the project is that it will connect the two regions very efficiently. It will achieve this efficiency mainly by reducing the time and cost of travel significantly. For example, Prime Minister Najib promised that the journey from the important ITT in Gombak, Selangor, to Kota Baru, Kelantan, will reduce from its current eight to 12 hours down to around four.

In effect, this more efficient transportation network reduces the cost of traveling and gives rural area inhabitants better flexibility in working outside of their home towns and more significant economic opportunities previously reserved for those nearer to the western financial centers. The economic benefits of this are illustrated by the government’s prediction that in Terengganu, Kelantan and Pahang, the GDP would grow by 1.5% the current growth rate.

Granted, the ECRL does little to effect change in the states off of the peninsula, namely Sarawak and Sabah, which desperately need it. Yet, for the severely underdeveloped East Coast, the ECRL project will reduce both poverty and economic cost through the influx of jobs that come with these projects, the newfound flexibility of workers to maneuver outside their rural areas and the reduction of travel costs, both financially and regarding time. As Lingzi writes, for the “less developed states on the east coast…the ECRL looks like an economic lifeline.”

– Vincenzo Caporale
Photo: Flickr

Period Poverty in Malaysia
Period poverty in Malaysia has caused a wide health gap for its lower-income families, but recent action by local organizations and legislation has sought to bring change.

Period poverty describes the inaccessibility of menstruation products and washing facilities to those who menstruate, often resulting in missing school days and job opportunities. Over 500 million women and girls face period poverty across the globe each month. While there are no exact statistics on how many people experience period poverty in Malaysia, organizations such as the NGO MyCorps Alumni and All Women’s Action Society have stepped up to tackle the problem and help those in need.

Accessibility to Supplies

For those who cannot afford the cost of menstruation products every month, many turn to using alternate methods that can pose harm. Malaysia’s National Population and Development Board reported that lower-income women may use coconut husks or newspapers for their periods. Local organizations have stepped up to tackle period poverty in Malaysia in order to supply sanitary products to all who need them.

The Malaysian NGO MyCorps Alumni created the Bunga Pads initiative in July 2019, creating a program to provide sanitary pads to lower-income female students. Fitriyati Bakri, the creator of the initiative, received inspiration from a trip to Bangladesh where she spoke with a few school girls and learned of their struggles attending school while they had their periods. Bakri created a program for Bangladeshi women by teaching them how to make reusable pads and brought it back to Malaysia when she realized how prominent the issue was in lower-income communities. The pads comprise of environmentally friendly bamboo material and can last a person 3-5 years of use.

Movement Restrictions

Malaysia’s Movement Control Order to help contain the COVID-19 outbreak has increased the difficulty of women and girls attaining the products that they need. Restrictions consist of limited travel and only leaving for essential items, of which sanitary pads are not included.

The All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) of Malaysia set out to provide much needed sanitary products to women who were unable to obtain them due to restricted movement. AWAM emerged as a women’s rights organization, educating and providing resources for women’s health, domestic violence and sexual harassment.

Kotex Malaysia donated over 500 pads to AWAM for its 35-year anniversary dinner. Though the dinner was canceled due to COVID-19, AWAM was able to distribute the pads in the Dun Kampung Tunku. These pads will allow increased mobility to those unable to acquire them as essential items.

Legislation

An additional obstacle to period justice in Malaysia is the taxation on menstruation products. The added cost makes it more difficult for lower-income women to buy them.

The Malaysian government removed the tax on menstrual products such as tampons and sanitary napkins on June 1, 2018. The tax on period products in Malaysia came into effect in 2015 but met with some online backlash from girls and women across the country insisting the tax would reduce accessibility to low-income households.

Malaysia joins multiple countries that have recently repealed their taxes on menstruation products, including Australia, along with India and Canada. Scotland recently became the first country in the world to provide free period products for the country. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill passed on Nov. 24, 2020, ensuring that schools, universities and local authorities must provide period products to those who need them.

Although Malaysia has not passed a similar bill, lawmakers in the country are calling on their government to provide research into period poverty within the nation. Hannah Yeoh, Deputy of the Women, Family and Community Ministry, called on the Education Ministry to research how period poverty affects women and girls’ education and health in November 2019.

While Malaysia still has some ways to go regarding period poverty, it has made strides towards period justice at both the local and legislative levels.

– June Noyes
Photo: Flickr

education in malaysiaMillions of individuals struggle to get an education in Malaysia. This is due to systemic repercussions of poverty, stigma and lack of resources. However, the Malaysian government and the U.N. have released conflicting numbers regarding the poverty rate in Malaysia. Malaysia reports that the poverty rate is less than 1%. But the U.N. contends that the poverty line should be adjusted for accuracy to 15% to 20%. When statistics ignore the reality of those living in extreme poverty, the consequences go beyond understanding household income and financial security. Poverty deprives individuals of job opportunities and education in Malaysia, as well as exposes them to discrimination.

Poverty and Education in Malaysia

Lori Niehaus is a 2019 Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia and founder of the Change Makers program. Niehaus told The Borgen Project about the significant role that poverty plays in Kelantan, the Malaysian state with the lowest GDP. Poverty impacts the daily lives of students and their ability to get an education in Malaysia. For starters, many students are driven for financial reasons to work all night to support their families. As a result, they have less time to study, which puts them at a disadvantage in school.

Through the stratification process in public schools in Kelantan, students with low scores in any subject are designated to lower-level classes. These classes receive very little attention and resources from their schools. In some cases, students often arrive at school and sit in a classroom without a teacher the entire day. As such, this stratification further stalls their education and deprives them of opportunities to advance.

Additionally, social stigmas that result from poverty and Kelantan’s low GDP rate also deprive students and adults of professional opportunities. Kelantan is unique in that its population speaks its own language, a mix of standard Malay and Thai. However, wealthier populations within Malaysia speak standard Malay. Niehaus told The Borgen Project that standard Malay speakers “automatically discount Kelantanese as less educated, and that creates a mental and cyclical effect on what they feel capable of accomplishing.”

Gender Disparities in Education in Malaysia

Along with poverty, gender disparities in the classroom prove to be another obstacle to education in Malaysia. Social and cultural gender disparities produce a stifling, hyper-gendered environment for girls. In that environment, academic insecurities and shyness prevent female students in school from reaching their full potential. To combat gender disparities in Kelantan, Niehaus and a colleague created the Change Makers program in their community.

Change Makers

Through a two-day, one-night camp, the Change Makers program worked with 80 female students from four different high schools. The camp fostered an academic environment in which girls have the chance to engage in problem-solving workshops. Moreover, the camp curriculum included three major issues. These are mass displacement (in the context of the Rohingya crisis), environmental issues and the relationship between racism and identity.

However, because Niehaus and colleagues facilitated this particular program, it will not continue in the future. But schools support similar events every few years. Without initiatives like these, female students around the world will continue face challenges while pursuing their education in Malaysia or chasing professional opportunities.

“The purpose of Change Makers was to encourage our [students] to think critically about the problems that their community—both in Kota Bharu, their city, and in Malaysia at large—face and how we might bring about change,” said Niehaus. Niehaus believes that by creating conversations about change for marginalized groups within Kota Bharu and Malaysia as a whole, students will find ways to think critically and effect real change in their communities. They may then be able to work on solving problems with education in Malaysia within their own communities.

Nye Day
Photo: Flickr

Malaysian RefugeesAlthough the majority of Malaysian refugees reside in or near the country’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, thousands live outside this area and struggle to access urban centers for crucial services. As a result, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has opened its first outreach and community center outside Kuala Lumpur.

Refugees In Malaysia

Nearly 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with the UNHCR across Malaysia. Currently, refugee community groups estimate that tens of thousands more reside in the country undocumented. Rohingya Muslims make up the majority of Malaysia’s refugee population. Malaysia currently hosts the largest number of Rohingya refugees in Southeast Asia. Other refugee populations originate from countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

Rising Hostility

Although initially supportive of refugees and asylum seekers, Malaysia has become increasingly hostile towards these vulnerable populations. For example, the country is not a signatory to the 1953 UN Refugee Convention. This means it does not recognize the legal status of refugees and asylum seekers. Classified as illegal immigrants, refugees in Malaysia risk arrest, detention, and deportation. Xenophobia towards foreigners has risen in recent years. Many now view Rohingya refugees as a threat to the nation’s social, economic, and security systems.

Malaysia’s refugee populations are especially vulnerable to aggressive crackdowns on immigration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysian authorities have increased immigration arrests in refugee and migrant neighborhoods and turned away nearly 30 boats of displaced Rohingyas since the virus began. Human rights groups warn that the virus could spread through the country’s overloaded immigration detention centers, and reduce the likelihood of refugees seeking coronavirus treatment. The Malaysian government’s COVID-19 relief package excludes refugees despite their need for food and essential services.

The Johor Outreach and Community Centre

As there are no refugee camps in Malaysia, most settle into urban areas of the greater Klang Valley Region including Kuala Lumpur. However, thousands of refugees live outside this region and struggle to access urban UNHCR centers. These refugees have to travel long distances just to access crucial services. UNHCR is working to make essential services accessible to refugee communities living outside Kuala Lumpur through the establishment of outreach and community care centers. The refugee agency has recently opened a model outreach center in Johor, a southern state near Kuala Lumpur, and plans to develop more centers across Malaysia in the coming years.

The Johor Outreach and Community Centre (JOCC) will make essential services accessible to over 16,000 refugees in Southern Malaysia. This will save these vulnerable communities over three and a half hours of travel time and excessive bus fare costs. Moreover, the outreach center is life-changing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it will bring vital services to Johor’s refugee population while preventing the movement of people and gathering of crowds in urban areas.

The JOCC will be managed by Cahaya Surya Bakti (CSB), a partner of the UNHCR. Since 2013, the Malaysian-based NGO has provided community-based support to Johor’s refugee community. CSB works to ensure the education of refugee children in Johor and develop resilient communities through the establishment of schools, refugee empowerment programs, health services and outreach initiatives like food distributions. The JOCC will help CSB strengthen its existing community-led initiatives and provide a safe space for refugees throughout the state.

The Importance of UNHCR Documentation Services

Outreach and community centers provide critical UNHCR registration and renewal services to Malaysia’s refugee populations. Registering with the UNHCR provides refugees claims of asylum and identification as “Persons of Concern”. UNHCR cards demonstrate official identity and refugee status and are usually respected by Malaysian authorities, protecting refugees from illegal immigration arrests. In addition, UNHCR cards incentivize businesses to employ refugees in the informal economic sector and reduce the foreigner’s fare at public hospitals. Refugees are deemed illegal immigrants with no rights if their UNHCR card is not updated every five years. The JOCC will make UNHCR registration and renewal services more accessible and prevent card expirations from upheaving the lives of Johor’s refugee community. The center will also provide accurate, up to date information on refugee protection in Malaysia, as well as available services.

Looking Ahead

The JOCC is a symbol of hope for refugee populations outside Malaysia’s urban areas. Expanding UNHCR outreach and community centers across the country will give refugees greater access to documentation and essential services. Therefore, this is a vital step in enabling them to contribute to society and rebuild their lives.

Claire Brenner

Photo: Flickr

PFAS Contamination
Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) are a class of human-made chemicals that manufacturers have used in consumer products since 1950. There are more than 4,500 PFAS, which go into making fluoropolymer coatings and other heat-resistant products. PFAS can be in products such as clothing, furniture, food packaging, cooking materials, electrical insulation and firefighting foam. PFAS contamination has become a significant concern for environmentalists around the world, as many of these chemicals are not biodegradable. As a result, PFAS has contaminated soils and water sources across the globe.

How Do PFAS Impact Health?

The effect of PFAS on humans is uncertain; however, studies on animals indicate that PFAS can have serious health effects. Studies have repeatedly shown that exposure to PFAS can stunt growth and development, alter reproductive and thyroid function and damage the immune system and the liver. PFAS can also reduce vaccine effectiveness and increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

Exposure to this potentially dangerous group of chemicals is widespread. People are most likely exposed to PFAS by consuming contaminated water or food or by breathing in PFAS-contaminated air particles. Those who work in the production of PFAS or PFAS-containing products are most at risk of PFAS exposure. In these jobs, workers can inhale PFAS or absorb the chemicals through their skin.

How Do PFAS Harm Developing Countries?

In the developed world, PFAS contamination has received significant scientific and political attention. However, in less wealthy countries, people have done very little to address the issue or even gather data on PFAS. In 2019, a study occurred in 12 Middle Eastern and Asian countries to understand better how PFAS impact the developing world. Unsurprisingly, the study found that PFAS water pollution in these countries is abundant. In Malaysia, for example, the greatest source of drinking water, which supplies water to 6 million people, tested significantly over the PFAS regulatory limits in the United States. Moreover, in Indonesia, PFAS levels in the Jakarta Bay were 10 times as high as the highest-level record in San Francisco Bay.

Widespread PFAS water contamination has led to the contamination of food products in these countries. Studies have shown that PFAS has contaminated seafood and some terrestrial animals in Bangladesh, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Other consumer products, such as textiles, also contain alarming amounts of PFAS. For example, a Greenpeace investigation found that waterproof coats made in Bangladesh contain 557 µg/m² ionic PFAS. The E.U. limits PFAS to 1 µg/m² in textiles.

In developing countries, the abundance of PFAS has resulted in high PFAS levels in both children and adults. In Jordan, the average level of PFAS in breastmilk is seven times higher than standard drinking water advisory levels in the United States. Similar levels exist in India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam. Experiencing exposure to high levels of PFAS from birth, it is no surprise that people in these countries also experience high levels of PFAS in their blood.

Solutions for PFAS Contamination

While the impacts of PFAS on human health are not certain, studies on animals suggest that people should implement measures to reduce PFAS contamination on a global level. To protect people in developing countries, PFAS must receive more scientific and political attention in these regions. Members of the international community, such as the United States and E.U. countries, should assist developing nations to gather data on PFAS in their countries. The data could help developing regions implement regulations regarding PFAS production and use. With cooperation from the international community, it is possible that global PFAS contamination could experience better management in the future.

– Mary Kate Langan
Photo: Flickr