THE government has made tremendous efforts through the New Economic Policy and the National Plan to close the income inequality gap among Malaysians, but orang asli poverty is still higher than other ethnic groups. According to a study in 2019, the absolute poverty rate of indigenous people is 7.2%, higher than the Chinese (1.4%) and Indians (4.8%).
Such news has not only draw people’s attention to the racial income gap but also bring about great challenges to achieve the national aspirations of high-income nation and economic equality.
Having said that, such aspirations of becoming an equal and ideal society is not only Malaysians’ dream but a mutual dream pursued by all nations. Raj Chetty, a professor of public economics at Harvard University, pointed out that the “American Dream” is at stake because of unequal opportunities among states. Studies have shown that different states in the United States have different overall environment such as education and work opportunities. Thus, the growing inequality among different states makes Americans spin the wheel away from their “American dream”.
I believe that financial assistance and economic stimulus packages are not the solution for the income inequality among different ethnic groups, but creating a more equal urban-rural environment and an inclusive education system will help the underprivileged groups achieve “upward mobility”.
Data from the Ministry of Education shows that in 2011 alone, 20,000 students dropped out of secondary school even before completing their SPM exams, and the students who dropped out were mostly came from the B40 low income group. In addition, a report by the Orang Asli Development Department shows that the dropout rate of indigenous people is alarming. A 2014 data showed that 42.12% of indigenous students dropped out of school at Form One. The main causes of dropout among indigenous people are poverty, parents who were neglectful, learning difficulties and underage marriage.
In view of this, the vicious circle caused by lack of education, such as losing out on job opportunities, committing crime due to poverty or underage marriage, will make it difficult for the vulnerable class to be upwardly mobile.
The Covid-19 pandemic has completely changed the global education and workplace environment. This will exacerbate an already unequal environment and will directly lead to an increase in school dropout rate, unemployment rate and crime rate. The Covid-19 pandemic will make the poor poorer, and results in higher dropout rate among disadvantaged children. The example of Veveonah Mosibin, a Sabah girl who climbed to a tree to get internet connection to take her exams shows the inequality of educational opportunities between regions and classes in our country.
In today’s globalised, extremely competitive and rapidly changing environment, competitiveness and productivity comes from high-quality and well-rounded education. Finland’s success is derived from its inclusive education system, which provides equal opportunities for all citizens across regions and social classes to receive the best education.
Therefore, the fundamental problem of income inequality is the inequality of education. Causes of educational inequality include poor infrastructure and quality of teachers in rural and remote schools, lack of opportunity for students with weak academic performance, and lack of educational opportunities for children from poor families.
I truly believe inequality in education is the root cause of inequality of opportunity. Inequality of opportunity is the biggest obstacle to upward mobility. Instead of paying attention to economic policies, why not focus on the root of the problem – education – and do something about it?
Foundation, Study and Language Institute
University of Reading Malaysia