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Malaysia's poverty levels far higher than reported, U.N. expert says

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A U.N. human rights expert on Friday disputed Malaysia’s assertion that it has nearly eliminated poverty, saying that official figures were vastly inaccurate and do not reflect realities on the ground.

FILE PHOTO: Girls make their way home after school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Olivia Harris/File Photo

Malaysia’s official poverty rate dropped from 49% in 1970 to just 0.4% in 2016.

But Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said the official numbers relied on outdated measures, with the poverty line remaining at the same level for decades despite increasingly high costs of living.

Analyses done by independent groups suggest that Malaysia has “significant poverty” and that its true poverty rate was about 15%, Alston said.

“The government’s official figures would make it the world champion in eliminating poverty ... but I think it’s pretty obvious that that’s not the case,” Alston told a news conference at the end of an 11-day visit to Malaysia.

Minister of Economic Affairs Mohamed Azmin Ali said the government stood by its absolute poverty rate, which was last recorded at 0.4 percent, in 2016.

“The government is committed to address the remaining pockets of poverty and deprivation across regions and communities,” Azmin said in a statement.

To increase the effectiveness of poverty eradication, the government was reviewing its poverty line income methodology to better reflect the cost of living, Azmin said.

Earlier at the news conference, Alston urged Malaysia to reassess its methods for measuring poverty and take into account vulnerable groups excluded from the data such as stateless families, migrant workers, and refugees.

He said the national poverty line of 980 ringgit ($234.00) per household per month was “ridiculous”, as it would mean an urban family of four would have to survive on 8 ringgit, or less than $2, per person per day.

“It can’t be done except under really dire circumstances,” he said.

Undercounting the poverty rate has led to a lack of effective government policies targeting the problem, with too many underfunded and ineffective programmes in place, Alston said.

($1 = 4.1880 ringgit)

Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; additional reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Robert Birsel