Poorest children in Malaysia’s capital suffer educational barriers – Unicef report

Poorest children in Malaysia's capital suffer educational barriers - Unicef report
Children in Kuala Lumpur's low-cost housing suffer long-term health problems but equal education expectations. Source: UNICEF/ Puteri Nur Syuhada Abdul Rahman

You wake to the sound of traffic outside your window. Skyscrapers line the sky and the streets buzz with the morning commute. The city is awake with the day’s potential.

But from your side of the windowpane, the scene before you tells a very different story.

The skyscrapers are towering reminders of a world that is not yours to know, as you embark on your morning commute to see if you can afford breakfast that day at the nearest food stall.

This is the reality for 99.7 percent of children living in low-cost housing in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur, in households that hover just above the absolute poverty line, according to a Unicef report released Monday.


Over half of the children in the report have not been able to afford any food at all in recent months, while 51 percent of five to six-year-olds are not attending preschool, Unicef deputy representative and senior social policy specialist Dr Amjad Rabi explained during the report’s launch event.

Yet, these vulnerable members of the community are competing for the same scholarships as children who have nutritious meals waiting for them every night, aspiring to the same grades as students who are privately tutored on the weekends and entering the same job market as classmates who have a ready-made network in the professional world.

But how can a child who is 70 percent less likely to have even one book at home compared to a wealthier family be expected to fulfill their equal potential?

Mass Communications and Media Studies student Dewi Seribayu wrote in the Unicef study:

“Poverty is unforgiving especially towards children.”

“Growing up and living in this kind of environment leaves deep scars and shape them to be people who have a pessimistic view of the world.”

“Poor people struggle with hopelessness, anxiety, shame, and inferiority. It is undeniable that this is the result of being voiceless and powerless. It gives an internalized worldview where many believe that they are of no value and have nothing significant to offer. As such, children grow up without aspiration and dreams,” she added.

Education is often considered an important social mobility tool. Source: Shutterstock

Twenty-percent of Kuala Lumpur’s poorest children have stunted growth and 12 percent are malnourished, yet these underprivileged children are maintaining grades on par with the national average, according to the study.

Education is often considered an important social mobility tool by educators as it can give children the skills to find meaningful employment and lift themselves out of poverty. 

But it isn’t always so cut and dry, according to Dr Muhammad Abdul Khalid, a lead researcher for the study and chief economist for DM Analytics.

Muhammad, who was also speaking during the launch, said using education as a social mobility tool can put unprecedented pressure on underprivileged students to excel.

Instead, he said, governments should create policies that propel rather than punish the poor, such as universal child allowance, increased information about nutrition, maternal leave, taxed on unhealthy food and safe social spaces for children to visit during the day and evenings.

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