There are poor Chinese too
By Rita Sim
Community suffers from misconception that it is succeeding economically because of hard work and discipline
A padi farmer in Sekinchan, Selangor. Chinese working in the agricultural workers are not covered by social safety nets like insurance or social security.
IT is a popular but mistaken perception that the Chinese-Malaysian community has always been affluent. It may not be an offensive pigeonhole, but it is a misleading idea nonetheless, one that fails to acknowledge the struggles of the poor Chinese and their need for assistance.
Even the Chinese themselves have been known to say: “Even the chicken rice seller is rich-lah, can drive Mercedes.”
It is true that the hawker stall operator should be given credit for his determination and hard work — traits also generally attributed to the Chinese community — but this unfortunately, gives rise to another perception: that the Chinese do not require assistance from the government because they have done well for themselves.
There is no denying that the Chinese community value financial security and wealth. Even today, the young Chinese in Malaysia remember the stories of hardship, passed down through generations, of how their forebears came to eke out a living in Malaya.
Parents bear these cautionary tales in mind, working harder to provide a better life for their families and always reminding their children that diligence and discipline lead to a good and rewarding job.
But it would be grossly simplistic to think that these admirable principles alone can enable the Chinese to achieve immense wealth.
Many Chinese families, even the urban, middle-class ones, struggle to make ends meet and are equally affected by economic issues that plague others in Malaysia, including the high costs of living, lack of affordable housing and doing business in a financially unstable environment.
The incidence of poverty among the Chinese has stubbornly remained at 0.6 per cent since 2004, but what is more worrying is the widening income gap between the Chinese rich and poor, a trend that is repeated across all ethnic groups in the country.
Poverty among the Chinese tends to be entrenched and invisible. Many live in new villages, rural and remote areas or urban poor areas.
A recent Sin Chew Daily article highlighted the plight of a family of eight living in a two-bedroom low-cost flat in Cheras. With a monthly household income below RM3,000, the family said that they could only wear old, donated clothes for Chinese New Year.
Many of the low-income Chinese work in the agricultural and informal labour sector, and are not covered by social safety nets like insurance or social security. This makes them vulnerable to problems like being unable to afford medical care, having no provisions for old age or being abandoned in old folks’ homes.
This situation drives many less-educated Chinese to Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China in search of better-paying jobs in the service and manufacturing sectors, as they feel that they are better able to make a decent living there.
The vicious cycle of poverty is also partly perpetuated by the Chinese education system. Although it is much touted as being academically superior, it can also prove to be a handicap as the students’ lack of proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia and English is a barrier to learning when they enter national secondary schools, causing some to drop out of school without any qualifications.
Yet the problems of the working-class Chinese remain hidden and people still believe that the community has done well by pulling itself up by its bootstraps.
This assumption is damaging. It implies that it is acceptable for socioeconomic initiatives to exclude certain races, which goes against the idea of 1Malaysia.
It also polarises our society, because some groups believe that the Chinese have it all and that they are taking more than their fair share of the pie by asking for equitable social services.
Clearly, it is fallacy and fantasy to think that any one ethnic group can claim to own all the wealth in the country. Look beyond the ultra-rich (who are present in all ethnic groups) and we can see for ourselves those who are living hand-to-mouth and struggling to support their families.
We need socioeconomic and educational policies that turn a blind eye to colour and aim to lift up the country as a whole. We need a system that is fair and provides equal opportunities.
More importantly, we need to have a national conversation about poverty without letting myths and misconceptions distract us.