By Lim Teck Ghee

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Participants in the coming Bumiputera Economic Congress are likely to forget about or ignore the plight of the Malaysian poor and underclass class.
Whatever is the national poverty situation - the dispute over poverty definition and numbers will continue indefinitely - the reality is that the country’s underclass (and this includes more than just households living below the official poverty line) is a sizable part of our population, is growing, and has remained intractable despite the billions of ringgit poured into this grouping since the beginning of the New Economic Policy in which poverty eradication was made the very first prong.
Why have so many poverty alleviation projects failed to make a significant dent in the plight of the underclass should be an important part of the discourse in the Congress.
Here are some suggestions the Congress should consider on the fresh start needed in development planning which can make a difference in tackling the obstacles that stand in the way of improving the lives of the underclass.
Establish a Social Inclusion Commission answerable directly to Parliament. This Commission would be mandated to have oversight over all matters of poverty reduction, affirmative action and social inclusiveness by reference to, amongst other considerations, Article 153 of the Federal Constitution
Minimise strategies which reinforce rather than reduce dependency. Malaysia is not yet at the same development stage that it can afford the social safety nets found in developed nations. Subsidy and social welfare programmes of any kind should be targeted at the vulnerable such as the disabled poor, and elderly or female headed households
Review costly agricultural and rural development projects to assess their impact and real benefits. In view of continuing rural to urban migration, it is in urban and semi-rural areas where an increasing number of the underclass is clustered and where public expenditure will have greater impact on the poor and vulnerable. At the same time hard core poverty found in remote rural and isolated areas mainly in Sabah and Sarawak require a mix of infrastructure and social investment to address 
Fragile families are a significant contributor to current poverty numbers as well play a role in the intergenerational reproduction of poverty. It should be a subject of concern. It is also likely to be a contributor to racial and class disparities since the tendency towards family fragility is more pronounced in the Malay community.
Together with a focus on fragile families, there is a need to give greater priority and resources to the national family planning programme. It is clear that given the relationship between very large or even just large families and underclass status, early family planning interventions can help many large-sized poor families improve their socio-economic position immediately and in later life  
A community’s socio-cultural and religious practices can stand in the way or can assist in the stability and upward mobility of its poorer members. There needs to be an openness and readiness for politicians and policy-makers to discuss these issues even if they may appear to touch on sensitive concerns
A top down approach to development has resulted in a stream of opportunities and rewards especially for the elite and support group in the civil service and professional class.  This top down approach needs to be replaced with one where resources and opportunities are directly channelled to and managed by groups at the community and grassroots level
Experience has shown that the technical and human resources brought to bear on anti-poverty work - especially in terms of the administrative apparatus used for implementation – has often turned out to be a liability by diverting resources from the poor and redirecting assistance access to themselves and intermediaries.  This problem is often compounded by leakages through inefficient or corrupt practice
A combination of strong and sustained political will and technical competence is required to produce good results but the command and control approach and massive leakage and corruption in Malaysia have basically yielded poor outcomes and elite capture of returns
In view of the large proportion of the underclass comprising members of the Malay community, successful members of the community should step in to help the less fortunate members. This has to begin with a critical and candid appraisal of the causative factors found within the community which accounts for why the Malay underclass continues to grow despite the government’s best efforts in the last fifty years
The growing importance of Islamic religious organisations means that they can be a positive or negative force for socio-economic change. These organisations are being supported by huge resources from the government and private individuals. The engagement of these organisations in social development and poverty alleviation needs to be encouraged but it also needs to be monitored to ensure positive outcomes
The massive influx of foreign migrant labour has adversely affected employment opportunities and returns for the local underclass as well as enlarged the overall underclass number in the country. The impact of continuing foreign labour inflows on the situation of the underclass in the country needs to be fully appraised in any economic planning exercise so as to minimise its adverse consequences.    
What is proposed here are possible changes - and paradigm shifts - needed to the conventional strategies and current wisdom.
What is important is that the Congress will need to think out of the box to challenge long held orthodoxy which has not been effective in bringing about a resilient society with a diminishing underclass.