The crisis of Covid-19 has exposed many of the dire realities faced by underserved communities across Malaysia. As we enter into the 5th phase of the Movement Control Order (MCO), the B40 and M40 (low and middle income) groups respectively have been severely affected. Going on 8 weeks without employment and income, many are finding it increasingly impossible to endure their deteriorating livelihood and welfare.
In order to ease the financial burden of our communities, the government introduced an economic stimulus package known as Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (BPN). The BPN initiative focuses on the B40 and M40 communities, including but not limited to PPR residents, Orang Asli and Orang Asal. Our team was overjoyed. This initiative would ease so many of our marginalized communities’ predicaments, providing them with some breathing space from financial strains caused by the pandemic.
To ensure OA villagers were aware of this initiative, we started to call village representatives from a number of villages we have been working with. Many of them confirmed our beliefs that OA villagers, particularly those who live in splinter villages, were not even aware of the aid and thus, would require help to apply. Concerned, we started to assign our officers to work with OA villagers to collate their personal and household details to begin their BPN application on their behalf.
As of 30th April, our team managed to help check a total of 1,771 OA families’ BPN statuses. However, 50% of those we checked did not have an official record in the system, implying that 906 families out of 1,771 will not receive any assistance from the BPN unless a new application is submitted. With an estimated population of 178,197 across Malaysia (Center for Orang Asli Concerns, 2012), our help of 1,771 OA families paints a grave picture of countless others who may be in dire need of government aid but are left behind due to the lack of access to information, documentation, communication sources and literacy skills.
One of the challenges in applying for the BPN aid include the ambiguity of the requirement of bank details in the application form. Despite measures from Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA) in helping OA villagers in Pahang to apply for the aid, these were limited to those with bank accounts. Although it is possible to still receive the aid via cash transfer if one does not have access to a bank account, detailed instructions on how to overcome this requirement have been obscure, leaving many OA families in the dark.
Other requirements such as having a certified marriage date also fails to account for the many OA families who marry through “perkahwinan adat” (custom wedding) rather than through more official means that are to be certified by the Tok Batin (village head), JAKOA and Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (JKM) respectively.
When OA families do not have the required information, they will either be forced to fork out hefty transportation costs to travel to agencies such as the bank or to discontinue their application altogether. As many OA families are already running out of options to generate income and have little to no savings left, they are unable to bear the cost of transportation, let alone travel to nearby towns due to added risks of Covid-19 and restrictions by the MCO.
Although we understand the need for requirements as they serve as necessary checks and balances crucial to the accountability of the initiative, different agencies such as Lembaga Hasil Dalam Negeri Malaysia (LHDN), JAKOA and Malaysia Government Call Center (MYGCC) are giving different instructions of application, adding on to existing confusion on specific technicalities of the application process. Our team only managed to find clarification on requirements such as bank details by directly calling officers at JAKOA and cross-checking with other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).
Obstacles like these are extremely problematic to many OA villagers, especially those who live in relatively remote areas with limited access to communication sources. As many of them also have low literacy skills and need to rely on one of a few villages who are literate, this causes extreme delays to the process and significantly discourages many from completing. For example, in Kampung Bukit Biru, only one villager out of 73 who live in the village is able to read and write. The lack of resources necessary to understand and to be informed of the how-to’s of the application severely hinders the aid from reaching those who are most in need.
Despite these challenges, we truly believe that the BPN stimulus package is an important step in the right direction, placing a strong emphasis on protecting the B40 and M40 communities by providing short-term relief to help them mitigate critical financial strains. However, challenges to the OA community in accessing and completing the online application only goes to show one part of a larger community of people who are in dire need of government assistance but are left behind due to lack of access to information, poor literacy rates and poor mediums of communications.
Although the BPN stimulus package is scheduled to cease after May 2020, lasting impacts of Covid-19 will continue to have grave impacts on the B40 and M40 communities in particular. Therefore, it is important that we continue to find ways to support those who are in need and to ensure that they receive all the necessary support to help them overcome challenges during the window period after MCO has been lifted.