Politics Meets Poverty in Southeast Asia
Image Credit: Flickr (OKSIDOR)

Politics Meets Poverty in Southeast Asia


Populist economics is on the rise in Southeast Asia. Politicians have been actively adopting policies that aim to impress upon the poor that governments are doing something, however trivial, to improve their conditions. It is generally a positive development but is it sustainable?

Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as Prime Minister in 2006 but has remained popular among the rural poor. In fact, his younger sister is the country’s incumbent head of state. What is the reason for his enduring appeal? Maybe the great majority, especially the poor, have not forgotten his various ‘gifts’ to ordinary Thais.

Under his watch, Thaksin provided a life insurance scheme for the poor, bicycle loans for students, scholarships for indigent students, loans for low-priced TV sets and computers, loans for the purchase of taxi cabs, and cheap housing for middle income urban families. Thaksin also built fitness and day care centers in rural villages, gave educational gift packages for every newborn baby, and lowered the school fees in the country.

The targeted delivery of high-impact services to the very poor segments of the population was a component in Thaksin’s economic program which came to be known as Thaksinomics. This proved to be highly successful, at least politically, in boosting the image of Thaksin as hero of the masses.

As expected, Thaksin’s critics accused him of resorting to populism to win the political support of the poor. But Thaksin was perhaps vindicated when his political enemies adopted his approach of giving special gifts to the poor. The administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva not only provided free bus and train rides and free water allowances to poor citizens, it also unveiled what it called nine “New Year gifts” to the people which involved, among other things, loan access for informal workers, registration of motorcycle-taxi drivers, recognition of street hawkers, maintaining the price of cooking gas and free use of electricity.

Yingluck defeated Abhisit’s party in last year’s elections and following her victory she immediately signaled her intent to continue the legacy of her elder brother when it comes to social welfare programs. Aside from reviving some of Thaksin’s programs like the rice mortgage policy, Yingluck has some new gifts to offer to her constituents. Some of the more to controversial among these include the commitment to raise the minimum wage and the entry salary for university-educated civil servants. Yingluck also vowed to distribute free tablet computers to first graders. She also set-up a women’s development fund to promote the well-being of the women sector.

Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has expanded the assistance schemes, cash handouts, housing and healthcare initiatives that are conceptualized to help the needy and jobless. The Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia 2.0 program, which will begin dispensing aid in early 2013, is expected to cover 4.3 million households and 2.7 million single individuals aged 21 and older. 4.78 million households are said to have benefited from the program, BR1M, which didn’t cover single individuals.

Under the program, households with outcomes under RM 3,000 receive an allocation of RM500 (U.S. $167.48), while single individuals aged 21 or older who have a monthly income of RM 2,000 or less also receive aid.

Health care is another aspect of the program. It was already announced that 70 new clinics will be set-up next year. The facilities are expected to provide blood test services including cholesterol, glucose and urine tests. The government also plans to upgrade 350 clinics nationwide and distribute 150 dialysis machines in public hemodialysis centers nationwide.

In the states of Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan, the government also is seeking to uplift the poor by building 80,000 new houses with selling prices between RM100,000 and RM400,000 per unit.

October 14, 2012 at 23:48

How is the reasoning and approach faulty? How can you make that bold claim and fail to back it up with any facts or arguments? Nothing in the article touches on why the reasoning and approach is faulty, why would you even say it?

October 14, 2012 at 19:25

Your article does not say much. You simply (selectively) used Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines to make your argument and I think it is insufficient. For instance, do you not recognise the more 'comprehensive approaches' of the said countries to build schools, housing and healthcare facilities? Some examples:
1) Malaysia's PM announced the building of 123,000 affordable homes in key areas like Kuala Lumpur, Shah Alam, Johor Bahru etc in the 2013 budget announcement.


2) Philippines to build more public schools in municipalities. http://gulfnews.com/news/world/philippines/philippines-to-build-more-public-schools-in-municipalities-in-kalayaan-1.1041117
Note that in the second case, the schools are being built on an island as part of the dispute spratly areas. Turning your argument on it's head, isn't this an example of how domestic and international politics can create what you term as 'comprehensive approaches' that might have less than ideal outcomes and less than noble intentions?
What about Singapore? It certainly has a penchant for taking non-populist measures and yet enjoy continued albeit declining support. Countries do not always implement so called 'populist' measures for petty political reasons.

Robbing Ahmad To Pay Abdul
October 14, 2012 at 14:08

In Malaysia's case, issue need be taken with the government for raising the salaries of its bloated civil service such that its salaries are now above the private sector's.  In the face of low productivity, ingrained corruption within the civil service such that it is de facto a new Malay cultural phenomenon now, and a huge drain on public coffers, it is absolutely shocking that not a single economist or think tank comes forward to berate the government for the hyperinflation created.  What the heck are the economists in the universities doing?  What is their frigging role?
It is a sop to the poor and retired and old when the government gives a little for all that they have taken.  The mainstream medias ought to be castigated too for this glaring omission of truth regarding the economic management of Malaysia.

October 13, 2012 at 23:35

"You serve your readers more if some insights were reviewed concerning ASEAN long-term efforts."
Lol, dont bother counting on it, he rarely does insightful articles, more like skimming to whats happening in ASEAN countries all with a nice round up showing how good ole Philippines is following as well. Or rarely does articles 5 pages long or compares with other contributors. Hey thats just an opinion. :P

marie lafleu
October 13, 2012 at 05:55

Seems like some of these band-aid programs are of values while long-term solutions take time to produce results. Even more established and wealthier nations such as the US leave behind large portion of their population. You serve your readers more if some insights were reviewed concerning ASEAN long-term efforts.

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