The toxic birth of Malaysia’s B50

When his name was called, prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin took confident and slow steps up the stage to present his speech. The Dewan Bankuasi at Sabah’s State Administrative Centre was undoubtedly the grandest in the building, that was also the tallest in the entire Borneo, overtaking every humanity for the best view. 

The mahogany wood behind the prime minister became a suitable backdrop for photographers, racing to capture the prime minister dressed in a tailor-made dark blue blazer,complemented with an even-toned crimson tie and a luxury silk pocket square. 

Muhyiddin’s fine taste becomes more apparent by the day. 

His speechwriters have written enough to appreciate the importance of context. When in Sabah, speak of inclusive development. 

Muhyiddin said that his government is “focused on addressing poverty and strengthening inclusive development in Sabah.”He called the Sabah Pan Borneo highway a “gamechanger”,besides other projects like the Sapangar Bay Container Port expansion project, the upgrading of 50 dilapidated schools,  and the Sabah Rural Road project. 

But he stopped for emphasis. Drawing from his fatherly empathy, he said he recognised the pandemic has worsened the livelihoods of many. Then came his punchline. 

He sensed that the country’s poorest group have expanded: No longer B40, we now have B50. 

The expansion of the lowest rung in Malaysia is not merely a statistical finding, it has devastating consequences to the affected group and beyond. 

Most discussions about poverty are one-dimensional, making simple assumptions about the country’s poor, leading to unsound decisions. It is either “we ought to give them more money” (sometimes driven to create electoral dependency on its political giver) or to “ask them to work harder”. None of this has a proper appreciation of the experiences of being poor – policy without a realistic account of human nature is bound to be bad policy. 

I will share findings in an under-researched area of neuroscience and poverty. First by looking into the cognitive effects of being poor (the expansion into B50), then the effects of slipping down the ranks (from M40 into B40), and lastly on the effects of an expanding B50 to the rest of the country (including T20). 

Expanding B40 into B50: Easy decisions now seem hard

“If you want to see an example of chronic stress, study poverty,” says Robert Sapolsky, a renowned Stanford neuroscientist. Sapolsky has spent his entire adult life trying to understand the relationship between poverty and the brain. He has written widely-acclaimed books and he was certified a genius when he was only 30 (recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant). 

To Sapolsky, there is a neurological difference between a “rich brain” and a “poor brain”. When a person – any person – is put into poverty, they are likely to engage in a range of self-defeating behaviour like taking more risks (not using seat belts), poorer financial management (buying things they cannot afford, using credit card excessively), and failing to follow their medication. 

The reason behind this is that poverty puts the most fanciest part of the brain, the frontal cortex, into enormous harm. Decision-making, emotional regulation, and long-term planning suddenly becomes nearly impossible to do. 

This is not surprising since the future is less important when I have to worry about having enough money to buy groceries tomorrow. 

Economist Anandi Mani and several researchers from Harvard, Princeton, and British Columbia ran two experiments to prove this point. 

The first test is about car repair. They asked a group of poor and rich people about a car repair they would have: “Your car is having some trouble and requires $X to be fixed You can pay in full, take a loan, or take a chance and forego the service… What would you do?” 

Mani and friends would improvise with two sets of repair cost, either a simple $150 fix and a large $1,500 fix. The question was designed to incite the worst economic anxiety of the subjects and to see the different effects on the rich and poor brains. 

After the question, all subjects are asked to take a simple IQ test. 

When the question was about the simple $150 fix, both poor and rich subjects did equally well in the IQ test. But when the question was about $1,500 fix, the poor subjects did substantially worse than the rich. 

What does this mean? This shows that having to contemplate and worry about tight finances create a cognitive load on poor people, resulting in them being unable to make high-quality choices (represented by the IQ test) anymore. 

The second test is about farmers. Mani and friends measured the farmers’ cognitive function before harvest (money is tight, more financial worries) and after the harvest (money paid, less worries). Farmers before harvest scored far worse than farmers after the harvest. 

The irresistible conclusion is that being put in poverty creates cognitive load that produces counterproductive and low-quality decisions. Being poor is literally damaging to your body. 

Slipping from M40 to B40: Shock to the system

Second, slipping down an economic rank is also bad. Theexpansion of B40 into B50 is due to 10% of the middle-class slipping to the lowest. Muhyiddin calls this “turun pangkat”. “M40 is now the poor”, he says. 

A shock of this nature is represented by an invasion of something called glucocorticoids, which does a slew of lousythings to your body. It creates a tendency to fall into depression and addiction. 

It is no wonder that people on a downward poverty spiral would also gain more weight, smoke more often, and concede to heavy alcohol even though it is bad for them. The brain could not choose long-term health over immediate relief because the prefrontal cortex is shut down. 

Indian farmers who got their payment after harvest have improved (more active) prefrontal cortex performance. 

Even if you make a person feel poor temporarily, the brain would already be affected. If you give one person in a game more money than the other, the “poor” subjects would be more likely to borrow, even though he may not earn it back in the future. He will also not respond to any helpful clues. 

The negative effects of poverty extends beyond a permanent and long-term state of poverty. Any “new entrant” into poverty would already have felt it, before they could even catch it. 

Effects of B50 to T20

Lastly, the most surprising finding is that poverty affects not only the poor, but the rich as well. An expansion of B50 implies a growing inequality in society, and any society that is highly unequal has consistently shown a worse quality of life. 

In the book The Spirit Level, epidemiologists showed that as the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% widened, the combined index of life expectancy, infant mortality, mental health issues, obesity and other problems got worse. 

This makes sense because in an unequal society, there is lesser trust and social support. The rich would find new ways of segregate themselves from the poor when crime rates start to soar. 

According to Sapolsky, the rich would spend more on “gated communities, private schools, bottled water, and expensive organic food”, as well as lobbying politicians to help them maintain their status and not fall below. Economist Robert Evans calls this “secession of the wealthy”. 

A country with more people getting poorer makes everyone unhappy, even the very rich of society. 

What these findings show us is not that poverty and “poor brain” is inherent in some people and not in others. In fact, it proves the opposite: The conditions of poverty can alter the brains and lives of anyone.

And we really mean “anyone” – because in this scary world where the middle class is shrinking and the poorest are expanding, our margin of safety is lower than ever before. Suddenly, anyone can be poor.


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