• Poon Wei Ying

The Urban Poor and My Experience doing Welfare Month

By Poon Wei Ying (P.104 Kelana Jaya Intern, 2016)


I remember my first time taking the NPE highway: my eldest sister drove the entire family out to celebrate my sixteenth birthday and she chose to use NPE to avoid the jam on Federal highway. I have probably taken NPE highway multiple times before but on that birthday night, I had the peculiar impression that it was my first time taking NPE highway. I remember seeing several blocks of tall buildings on the left and right of the highway.


‘What buildings are those?’ I asked.

‘No idea.’ My eldest sister answered.


I remember being fascinated by the night view that was stretched out in front of me and I didn’t probe further into what buildings they were.


This was 5 years ago. I only learnt about the buildings lining up by the sides of NPE highway after I joined YB Wong Chen’s office for an internship in the summer of 2016.


In YB Wong Chen’s office, June is known as the Welfare Month. The welfare month program has been running at YB Wong Chen’s office for 3 years now. The state government allocates a small sum of money to the office yearly and YB Wong Chen decided to use it primarily to support the hardcore poor. We were put in in charge of interviewing poor residents on whether they are eligible for welfare money. Due to the small budget that we were given, only residents from urban poor centres of Desa Mentari, Desa Ria, Kampung Lindungan, Angsana USJ 1 and Glenmarie were entitled to this aid. In the whole of June 2016, the team which consisted of 2 staff (Abigail and Nadirah) and an intern interviewed more than 700 applicants, with the majority of them from Desa Mentari. I hopped onto the welfare month bandwagon at the tail end of the month, and I was asked to interview some residents on my first day of internship.


I started by observing the way another intern, Seng Zhao, interviewed a resident from Desa Mentari. I learned that we should always start an interview with a smile, and then proceed to request to see their identity cards. In an interview, we would ask questions such as their marital status, number of children of applicant (if any), status of employment, their monthly cost of living, whether they receive any aids from the government (such as monthly welfare payment, SOSCO or BRIM vouchers), whether they are sick and whether they have any loans to pay off. It took me a while to get used to asking these questions as initially it felt awkward to ask these questions to a complete stranger; I felt like I was intruding into their lives. An interview usually lasts around 5-10 minutes. I have interviewed around 20 residents in the span of a week.


This was also how I found out what the tall buildings lining up by the sides of NPE highway: low cost flats which make up the area of Desa Mentari. Suddenly, I was no longer fascinated by the city view that stretched out along the NPE highway. Instead, I felt waves of shame and injustice bubbling inside of me. The distance between the well-developed and rich Sunway area and Desa Mentari is no more than a 10 minutes’ car journey, but here are the residents from Desa Mentari, being trapped in urban poverty.


Have you ever catch a glimpse of the inside of someone’s house and wonder what kind of lives they lead?

I have.


And these interviews that we conducted allowed me to peek into the lives of these residents. Although I was told to note down the answers indifferently, welfare month has definitely changed the way I view the city that is lighted up at night: I am no longer in awe of the view. Instead, I see the widow that has difficulty paying for her monthly rental as her children has moved away without giving her monthly aid. I see the lady who is heavily pregnant while her husband laid in the ICU due to an accident. I see the family with 7 children and the parents who are struggling to make ends meet with their minimum wages. I see the man who has retired from his job as a lorry driver but sheepishly admitted that he still continued the habit of smoking. I see the man who is currently undergoing dialysis at home while struggling to pay off his outstanding medical bills.


All these stories, the stress and heart breaking moments that they went through, are now reduced down into an interview to qualify the resident to get that small sum of money that is distributed once a year. At this point, it is noteworthy that the residents, being the urban poor population, mostly rely on public transportation, motorbike or hitching a ride from their cousin or friends. Given the difficult transportation, the interview process that they need to go through, and the hassle of photocopying their bank account book or bank statement as required, one might think that this small sum of money that is given out two months after the program ended (due to backlog of work at the state govt) is nearly not worth the hassle.


But that is not how the residents from Desa Mentari think.


They waited in front of the office before our operating hour at 10am. They brought the photocopied bank account book or bank statement as per requested although they had to make a second trip to the office. They made phone calls thereafter to check on the status of their application. They came to the office personally to enquire further on the progress of their application.


I was dumbfounded at the residents’ determination and effort. I remember sharing my thoughts with the team and we had a discussion on the possible ways the residents will spend the money allocated to them. We debated about the practicality of using the money given to pay off their respective loans and the probability of the residents spending the money on something frivolous.


YB Wong Chen then recommended me a book, Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo as it touches on how the poor really think and make decisions on such matters as education, healthcare, savings, entrepreneurship, and a variety of other issues. It was an insightful read for me and I was able to relate to the book when the office held a medical camp at Desa Mentari on a Sunday (7th of August) and I was there to facilitate the event.


For example, at page 37, Banerjee and Duflo stated that “Generally, it is clear that things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor…[which] may be a television, or a little bit of something special to eat-or just a cup of sugary tea.” While facilitating the medical camp, I remember looking up the flats from the ground. I was surprised to see many Astro satellite dishes sticking out of the flats, some looking really rustic while some looked brand new.

This goes in line with Banerjee and Duflo’s statement that the poor prioritises things that make life less boring. While one may say that the poor has their priorities sorted out wrongly, it is noteworthy that Banerjee and Duflo also stated that “We are often inclined to see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and to wonder why they don’t put these purchases on hold and invest in what would really make their lives better. The poor, on the other hand, may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives.” This is also the reason why “they often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible.”


In that light, the discussion that I had with the team on how would the applicants spend the money given appears to be redundant. It did not matter whether the applicant spend the money treating his/her family to a nice meal or paying the tip of the ice berg of their loans. Every individual, be he/she rich or poor, shares the common vision of leading a comfortable and pleasant life. On the same sentiment, the applicants have the right to exercise their spending power and in the words of YB Wong Chen, ‘who are we to stop the applicants from treating themselves to something nice?’*


All in all, I have learned so many lessons from the welfare month program despite the fact that I got involved at the end of the program. From the earnest way the team interacted with all the applicants, I learned that one must always be nice to the other, regardless of their financial status, prestige or what the other has to offer us. I learned to be grateful for what I have; and I strive to work even harder, so that I can do more for my country upon graduation. Welfare month was an eye-opening experience for me as it allowed me to see beyond the twinkly view of the city at night and listened to the stories that were stored within the buildings.