Malaysia’s performance on the MDGs: a differentiated picture

A nation’s progress should not just be measured by its economic output and growth alone. To this end, the Millennium Development Goals are a wide-ranging, holistic yardstick of development. PEM examines how Malaysia has fared over the past five years.

Dr Lin Mui Kiang

IN 2011, the United Nations (UN) and the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) published The Millennium Development Goals at 2010, the second midterm report on Malaysia’s progress towards achieving its goals in 2015. A roundtable led by Dr Lin Mui Kiang, the UN Coordination Specialist for Malaysia, was held at the Penang Institute on November 11 to discuss the report and Malaysia’s overall performance.

The first midterm review, completed in 2005, showed that Malaysia was on track, and even ahead of the target dates in achieving the MDGs. Malaysia was shown to be a model country that had made good progress, but still faced challenges in certain areas, including the proportion of women in managerial positions and in political representation. Malaysia also lagged behind in the areas of maternal mortality and the fight against HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

The 2010 report, however, has painted a more accurate story about Malaysia’s progress and achievements. It has now become possible to disaggregate the national data into more specific groups or areas, allowing more tools for future policymaking. The 2010 report has differentiated the results on sub-national levels by state, rural-urban regions, gender, ethnicity and other relevant categories. This differentiation has revealed some major issues along the road to achieving the MDGs.

Examining the goals

The objective of eradicating poverty and hunger is an example in which differentiation showed that the aggregate level does not mean the same results for all states. The goal appears to have been achieved because the aggregate number has fallen from eight percent in 2000 to 3.8% in 2009. The differentiated data by state, however, showed that Sabah (19.7%) is not on track to achieve the goal by 2015. If the poverty numbers are differentiated by ethnicity they show that the “Other Bumiputera” group has 17% living in poverty, a much larger share than Malays (three per cent), Chinese (one per cent)or Indians (two per cent). The former group makes up only 11% of the population, yet accounts for 51% of the poor in Malaysia. A further analysis on the group of households considered “poor” shows that this group has limited access to basic amenities such as schools, clinics, electricity, computers and sanitation compared to the other households.

Regarding education, Malaysia’s literacy rate has risen to more than 95% for 15 to 24-year-olds of both genders. However, some indigenous minority groups continue to lag behind. The biggest challenge now will be in improving the output of the education system, as the number of students achieving high and advanced levels has dropped at all levels compared to 1997. Figures on attained education levels in Malaysia in comparison to surrounding countries show that Malaysia has a very small share in students achieving high and advanced levels.

Malaysia has had problems progressing with its third goal, which is to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, as it was already lagging behind its own target in 2005. Very little has changed in 2010. The underrepresentation of women in Parliament and state assemblies, as well as managerial and executive positions remains a major issue, even though women outnumber men in tertiary education. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) noted that the reasons for the stagnation of women in the labour force and the significantly lower earnings needed to be investigated further.

When it comes to child mortality, there has not been much change since 2000. Malaysia aims to achieve an under-five mortality rate of six per 1,000 children. The country is currently stuck at eight per 1,000. One of the charts shown in the presentation that was not included in the report showed a strong relation between income and mortality rate. Sabah reported an unusually low mortality rate, which may suggest that there are problems with data collection in that state. According to the UN, Malaysia is facing “last-mile” issues on this objective and will need to implement more finely-tuned approaches and instruments to achieve this goal.

The maternal mortality rate is a greater issue of concern. While a reduction was made in the 1990s, Malaysia’s numbers have since plateaued at 28 per 1,000 for the past decade, far from its set target of 11 per 1,000. While this figure is still low compared to developing countries, it pales in comparison to developed countries, where the average is around six per 1,000. The Ministry of Health has recognised the problem and has set itself a target of 20 per 1,000 for 2015.

The contraceptive prevalence rate has been stagnant at around 50% and the average age of marriage is 25. The spread of HIV/ AIDS appeared to have been halted and perhaps even reversed, but the change of transmission through sexual intercourse instead of intravenous drugs raises concerns about the sustainability of this progress. The UN advises a review of sexual reproduction health education and the policies on contraception and abortion.

The sixth goal is concerned with combating HIV and other diseases. HIV screening is biased as it only focuses on certain risk groups. The disaggregated data showed that the transmission modus of HIV differs in each state. The peninsula shows more infections from intravenous drug use while in East Malaysia it was mostly sexually transmitted. Malaria is almost eliminated at the national level, although tuberculosis has increased slightly since 1990.

In Malaysia, the right framework is in place to ensure environmentally sustainable development but there are problems in implementation, coordination and evaluation. Data showed that carbon dioxide production and energy use per capita are relatively high in Malaysia compared to other developing and developed countries. The target of halving the amount of people without access to safe water and sanitation has been achieved but there are still too many people in Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak without access to either or both.

The last goal – developing global partnerships for development – is very positive as Malaysia has moved from being a net recipient of development assistance to becoming a development partner. Overall, the UN congratulated Malaysia on its progress so far and hoped that outstanding issues would be addressed by more targeted and “custom-made” policies. Persistent issues need to be solved before Malaysia can achieve its MDGs and become an inclusive, high income nation.

Inge Witte is currently conducting her Masters research in Penang to complete her Msc in Economic Geography at Utrecht University.

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