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How happy are you?

 | July 6, 2012

The government’s plan to introduce a wellbeing index provokes some tough questions from our writer.


Happiness, as we are all aware, is subjective. The reasons for being happy or unhappy can vary widely between individuals. And so can the levels of happiness.

Even within a single individual, there can be variations in his perception or attitude towards, for example, his marriage or friendships or personal wealth. These variations can depend on any number of factors – time, environment, experience and so on.

Recently the Barisan Nasional government announced that it was planning to introduce a “wellbeing index” to measure the happiness of Malaysians. “It will be used to help the government’s planning,” said Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

The concept of a national wellbeing index can be traced back to a commission established by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. He invited Noble prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to examine the adequacy of using GDP and GDP per capita as indicators of individual and societal wellbeing and happiness.

Stiglitz was a former chief economist of the World Bank. He and other prominent economists worked together to produce a report that said using GDP as a barometer for happiness presented numerous problems.

Noting that “wellbeing” is multidimensional, they proposed a “dashboard” of indicators to be used as guides for policy-makers.

Anybody can guess that high income would be one of those indicators.

But will Malaysians be happier when the country achieves the “high-income” status that the government says it is working towards?

Will our standard of education be higher? Will our population of drug addicts be lowered? Will we have a cleaner environment? Will we be free of traffic woes? While the government can theoretically ensure house ownership for everyone, can it guarantee we will all have happy families?

More food and vitamins do not necessarily ensure a more nutritional and healthy nation. More roads and expressways do not ensure the reduction of accident rates. Skyscrapers and super shopping malls do not necessarily contribute to the happiness of consumers.

In short, the satisfaction of physical needs such as health, food, safety, housing and jobs is not a guarantee of happiness, although it should be the fundamental role of a government.

To be fair, we do not yet know the list of indicators that the BN government will eventually use for the Malaysian Index of Happiness.

The material level

However, its history of ignoring anything that does not further its political agenda does not inspire much confidence. Furthermore, its responses to social problems and institutional weaknesses thus far have proven to be woefully inadequate.

Can we, for example, trust the current crop of leaders to work towards ensuring a balance between spiritual and material wellbeing? Are they, in fact, even qualified to talk about spiritual wellbeing?

One of the most important and universal spiritual needs is the need to be free. No person can be happy if he does not feel that he is free to associate with whomever he wants to, free to express his thoughts, free to live his life the way he wants to. The list goes on, but the bottom line is that there is no happiness if there is no freedom from state control of the freedoms that are our birthright.

It does not take a rocket scientist’s intelligence to discern that a government’s proper duty is to protect these rights instead of violating them.

But let’s come down to a level that even BN politicians can understand – the material level.

Look at the statistics on suicides and suicide attempts; on diabetes, heart disease, AIDS, obesity and other diseases; on drug addiction, baby dumping and other social ills.

Scan the figures on accidents, petty crimes and major crimes. Go through the reports of police brutality, torture in prisons and extrajudicial killings.

Ponder over the environmental hazards that we are exposed to.

Most Malaysians, being more intelligent than BN likes to assume, probably realise that true happiness does not depend on what the government says or does or promises to do. That is why Muhyiddin’s announcement did not inspire much public debate or even interest.

Will Malaysians agree to the measures BN will use to ascertain our happiness level, or should we decide to usher in a new government?

Stanley Koh is a FMT columnist.


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