The Less Visible Chinese Poor

Perkasa and other Malay right wing organizations are always complaining about how the Chinese have taken over the country’s economy. They use this simplistic observation to frighten Malays to unite under a “ketuanan Melayu” and “ketuanan Islam” banner against so-called Chinese domination of the economy.

But how much of truth is there in this allegation? In earlier analysis, I pointed out that owing to the NEP, the Malays have made tremendous strides since the 1970s in the economic sphere.   For example they control Bank Negara and all the major banks (except for Public Bank); all the GLCs; Petronas; as well as comprise the majority in the top professional and best paying occupations in the private sector. They, in fact, control what can be called “the commanding heights” of the economy.

What about the Chinese? Firstly, we should realize that not all Chinese are successful in business. In fact, only a tiny minority of Chinese belong to the class of super-rich of billionaires – perhaps no more than a hundred or even less throughout the country. There is a fairly large Chinese middle class though so that generally Chinese are on the average more well off compared to non-Chinese in terms of average household income.

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But let’s also not forget that income inequality is also highest among the Chinese. What this means is that much of Chinese wealth is concentrated in the hands of the Chinese super-rich and that we have a very large number of Chinese who either fall well below the urban poverty line or are only slightly above the poverty line. Unfortunately there are few recent studies on the Chinese poor. The Government’s statistical department ignores the presence of this group and the academics in the public and private universities have avoided studying them.

Although I am not an academic and have not studied the group of Chinese poor, let me share these observations accumulated through the scholarship programme that I have run for the last five years during which I have received at least one or two applications every week – mostly from the children of poor Chinese. I offer scholarships to help the poor because I was from a poor family before and I know how difficult it is to be poor.

  1. The Chinese poor mainly come from Chinese school backgrounds
  2. Many are drop outs and work as unskilled or semi-skilled labour in poorly paid agricultural or urban jobs with little potential for upward mobility.
  3. Chinese poor also come from self employed backgrounds with businesses such as hawking, food stalls, etc. unable to succeed or grow because of competition and other factors.  
  4. They are most vulnerable when they are unable to work due to ill health or old age as they do not have access to EPF savings or government pension safety net.
  5. Because they are poor, they are unable to provide the proper environment for their children to do well in their studies. This often leads to the reproduction of poverty in the family rather than socio-economic advancement for the younger generation.  
  6. One of the biggest handicaps of the Chinese poor and their children is their inability to communicate effectively in other languages than their own dialect. This can be seen in the broken English or Bahasa Malaysia letters written to me.
  7. The Chinese poor are almost completely excluded from all government schemes providing skills training, income generation or educational and housing support.     

Chinese poor suffer from exploitation in several ways. Firstly, they are exploited by their employers especially in the small and medium scale enterprises and workshops where they work in dirty jobs for little pay. Secondly they are exploited by money lenders who many have to turn to in view of their frequent need for cash advances to meet emergencies, etc. Finally they are exploited by the government which fails to provide them and their children with equal opportunities and regards them as “pendatang”.

Many of the Chinese poor have been citizens of the country for more than one generation – in some cases, several generations. They have lived and contributed their blood and sweat to the country’s development far longer than many newly arrived “pendatang” from Indonesia and other Muslim countries.  

Malaysia is the only homeland they know but the Government continues to treat them as if they are second class citizens. Is it surprising that they are not loyal to the MCA and the Barisan Nasional when they are treated worse than newly arrived immigrants! Is it surprising that the attitude of the Chinese poor towards the Government is so different from that of the Chinese super and very rich!

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